The Culture of Childbirth

Childbirth brings a change in the state of consciousness akin, . . . . to that achieved by shamans and mystics. It is a time when a woman reaches beyond normal perceptions and may involve a vision of the universe which transcends ordinary reality.

--fromBirth Traditions & Modern Pregnancy, by Jacqueline Vincent-Priya

 

It seems as if the experience of childbirth should be the same the world over. After all, giving birth is perhaps the most essentially human of all activities. And yet, as with everything else people do, we alter this biological event to fit our widely dissimilar cultural constructs. Thus, pregnancy and childbirth have their own associated rituals, beliefs, practices, and psychological ramifications. With little more in common than the eventual outcome: a tiny new person, women around the globe move through this inarguably significant life-passage in their own uniquely fascinating ways.

 

THE AMISH

Sarah* is a direct-entry midwife in New York state. She practices in rural dairy country near the Canadian border among the many Amish and Mennonite families living there. Currently, Sarah attends more than three-fourths of the births that take place within these close-knit, insular groups of highly-religious families. In Sarah's own words, here is what is like to attend an Amish or Mennonite childbirth at the beginning of the new millenium:

"The women I work with give birth at home, almost exclusively. This is a matter of finances, for these folks mostly milk cows, which isn't a big money maker if you have a small herd and milk without machines, as they do. They do not carry health insurance because of their religious beliefs. Additionally, they feel very suspicious of the medical establishment not honoring their beliefs and treating them with respect. They prefer to remain at home, where they have control over such things as allowing nature to take its course rather than, for instance, trying to save a very premature baby.

When the time comes time for an Amish woman to give birth, there is always an older woman from the church community with [the birthing mother]. The mothers have their husbands present as well, but the whole thing is a big secret to their other kids. The Mennonites usually do tell their other kids. Many of the Mennonites prefer to birth with only their husband present. When a young woman in either of these communities gives birth for the first time, she has never really heard much about what the birth experience is going to be like. I usually tell first-time mothers what to expect and that's all the education they get, except for what their mothers tell them. The pregnancy is absolutely hidden until the baby is born.

I have never seen one of these women ask for medication for the pain of childbirth, but they sure do want Tylenol for the afterpains! I don't know why they don't use pain relief. The one time I asked, the woman acted as if she had never heard of the idea. They just don't seem to have terrible pain.

These women have between ten and twenty children each. They give birth well into their forties. The Amish seem to have as many babies as a human can, spaced according to how long they can go without having another child, usually one per year or year and a half. I have personally delivered the sixteenth baby of a forty-six-year-old. The Mennonites--some of them--use birth control.

The women almost always give birth in a semi-sitting position. . . . They wait until the baby is about to crown to even lie down. They stay clothed the entire time, but the women have special dresses that they wear at birth where the belly can be exposed so that the baby can be immediately placed on the mother's belly after birth.

The Amish women in the community who attend births are called "catchers," but since Amish religion prevents anyone from getting an education past the eighth grade, the catchers are not formally educated, carry no equipment or drugs, and generally do not know how to treat most serious complications, although they are very well-versed in herbal medicines and I have learned a lot from them. Their main role when I am there is taking the baby immediately after birth and wiping it from head to toe with baby oil, binding its belly, and dressing it in a special dress and bonnet. The young brides seem to take great pleasure in sewing the dark blue baby dresses and caps and quilting a baby blanket. They like to get the baby dressed as soon as possible, with his belly bound and feet wrapped, and covered with many blankets.

One thing the Amish believe is that there is no breastmilk at first, and some don't feed the baby until the next day. Some give the baby things like jello water or watermelon seed tea, which is supposed to be good for preventing jaundice.

For postpartum women, they use sheperd's purse tea for bleeding. For a month after birth, the new mother has a 'hired girl': an Amish neighbor who, for $15 per week, lives there and does all the household chores including cooking, child care, canning, and quilting. Occasionally another one will stop by to help with laundry.

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