Babies are conceived and born each day all over the world. While most of us are familiar with childbirth norms and traditions in ourown country, we often know very little about customs and practices in other countries. Within every culture, each individual woman has her own unique birth story. From prenatal health and nutrition to labor, delivery and infant care, there are countless ways to explore the common bonds of motherhood. The following stories from women in South Korea, Zambia, India, Guatemala and the Philippines provide an intimate glimpse into the lives of ordinary women who, like you, have experienced the extraordinary miracle of birth.
Yun-Geong (41 years) and Yeon-Su (11 months)
LOCATION: AJU-DONG, GYEONGNAM
I have been married for 16 years and have two older daughters (ages 13 and 15). My husband and I were both open to having another child but were not actively trying to conceive. When a home pregnancy test revealed I was pregnant again, I was both nervous and happy. My girls are so much older! What will people say? What will my husband think? When I called my husband at work 30 minutes later to tell him the news, he immediately came home with a cake to celebrate. His joy made me forget all my nervousness.
With my first two pregnancies, my husband seemed indifferent as I grew in size. He did not attend prenatal appointments with me and expected me to carry on with daily life as usual. Throughout this third pregnancy, my husband went to every checkup with me, helped out with household chores, and went out of his way to make me comfortable and happy. With my older children in school, I had more time to relax during this pregnancy and did yoga at home. I also spent time on the internet, looking to see if there were any new natural techniques to ease labor pains since the birth of my last daughter 13 years ago. (There weren’t!)
My labor pains started around 3 a.m. After laboring at home for a while, my husband and I went to the hospital at 9 a.m. I wanted an all natural birth, but the nurse was nervous about my age and gave me Pitocin to speed up my labor—though she did not give me anything for pain. With the help of Lamaze breathing, two nurses, my doctor (who arrived at the very end just for the delivery), and my husband at my side, our third daughter, Yeon-Su, made her entrance into the world at 2:30 p.m.
At my hospital, it is fairly standard for women who have natural childbirth to stay for three days. Women who have Caesarean sections stay for six days. After their hospital stay, most women (like me) choose to transfer to a san hu jo li won, or postnatal care facility, for one or two weeks. The purpose is to help the mother’s body recover as quickly as possible as well as to prepare the mom for taking her new baby home. Usually moms stay in a private room while the babies stay in the nursery. This is to decrease the risk of infection to the newborn, since the mother has many outside visitors. Mothers and babies reunite several times a day in a special room just for feedings. This time, my stay at the san hu jo li won was different from my previous stays because my newborn had a stomach virus. The nurses did not want her in the nursery with the other babies, so she stayed in my room with me, which I enjoyed very much.
Activities at my postnatal care facility include daily massage (including breast massage), yoga, craft classes (making baby mobiles, photo books and baby soap), use of heat to encourage health (lying on a heated bed to open pores and release toxins and daily use of a heated bidet to decrease vaginal swelling), and educational videos on baby care. They feed us several meals a day, but the staple food is hot miyuk-kuk, or seaweed soup. My OB/GYN says that the soup is beneficial for restoring much needed iron to the body. While the mom is busy with her activities, the baby is cared for by the nurses and receives daily checkups by the pediatrician. The cost for our two weeks in the san hu jo li won was approximately $1,100.
Because South Korea has one of the lowest birthrates in the world, our government has started offering financial incentives for families to have more than one child, such as discounts on utility bills, discounts when buying a car, and even cash rewards. With your third child, the government also provides subsidies to cover the cost of childbirth and childcare.
Tol is the biggest baby celebration in Korea and takes place when the baby completes her first year. We throw a big party for our family and friends, similar to a wedding banquet. The parents usually wear hanboks, or traditional Korean dress, and guests enjoy dining and writing special notes for the baby that encourage her welfare. A table is piled high with foods symbolizing longevity. Toljabee is the main activity of the evening, during which the baby is placed in front of a table adorned with symbolic items. The guests have great fun predicting and betting on which item the baby will pick up first, as this may predict the child’s future. Traditional toljabee items include a large spool of thread (longevity), money (wealth), a pen or pencil (scholar), a needle (industrious), and a bow and arrow (a strong warrior). These days, parents choose to include other fun items, such as a stethoscope (doctor), a microphone (entertainer) and the like. Yeon-Su’s tol is fast approaching and we shall see what her future holds!
Grace (36 years) and Rodney (15 days)
In previous generations, a mom was cautioned against eating kapel, or twin bananas, because they might cause her to give birth to twins. Today, people don’t believe this anymore, saying, “What is the connection of the child to the banana?” When our first baby is born, we celebrate hafit. We give rice cakes to our family and neighbors. In return, they give us a chicken, a bead or money. This is only done with the first child in the family. When the baby’s umbilical cord completely falls off, we butcher a chicken that same night so that the child will be healthy and not get sick.
The old women always tell the younger ladies, “When you get married and give birth for the first time, you must be exceedingly careful that you do not cry out in labor. When it is very painful, just bite your lips and see to it that you don’t cry.” The belief is that if you cry during your first labor, you will cry out in pain in all your subsequent labors, and that is very shameful and sets a bad example for other women. Prior to her passing, Forsan, an elderly spirit medium in the village of Balangao, was famous for saying: “They didn’t scream when it was put there, so why would they scream when it came out?”
Namasiku (“Lilianne,” 16 years) and Mwane (“Mary,” 16 months)
LOCATION: SESHEKE, WESTERN PROVINCE
I realized I was pregnant when I missed my period and was terrified to tell my boyfriend. We met in high school. He was a year older than me and had been giving me money to help me finish school. When I finally told him the news, he was very angry and beat me, saying that I had wasted his money because now I had to quit school. After I dropped out of school, I saw him one more time during my pregnancy and then never again.
While pregnant, I continued to live at home with my mother and father, aunt and uncle, brothers and sisters, and some of their kids. While I was at home, I learned about several of the rules I should follow during pregnancy. Many people say a pregnant woman should not eat pumpkin leaves, fresh maize or eggs because they bring bad luck and can hurt the baby. But the most important thing is to not have sex while pregnant because you can get an infectious disease.
I went to the local hospital for my first checkup when I was about six months along. I went back to this same hospital with my mother when it was time to deliver my baby. My labor lasted about four hours, and I was crying in pain the whole time. My mother tried to comfort me by saying the pain had been the same for her.
My daughter, Mwane (who we call Mary), was born four weeks early but was a healthy weight. The doctor gave her an IV for 24 hours due to low energy at first, but after that she was fine and we were able to go home.
When we arrived home, everyone was so excited to meet the baby that it felt like a party at my house. Yet because she was a girl, no one gave her the official greeting that we give to boys: “Welcome home, soldier!” There is no greeting for a girl.
When we are born, we are all given Lozi names, but we also get English nicknames, which is what everyone uses to refer to us. I named my baby Mary, after my mother, because it is always good for a child to have a strong family name.
Mary’s father has never met her and has no interest in seeing his daughter. This makes me sad; it is hard work to raise a baby without a father. I try to find daily work in someone’s fields or washing clothes so I can earn enough money to buy food for me and my daughter, but sometimes there is no work and we go hungry for the day. I nursed Mary until she was 14 months old, but now she is eating solid foods. It is much harder with two mouths to feed.
Felipa (22 years) and Estrella (7 months)
I ended up in the hospital after receiving a bad beating from my boyfriend. The doctor at the hospital is the one who told me I was pregnant. After sharing the news with my boyfriend, he left me to go back to his wife, and I never saw him again. While pregnant, I ate only hot foods since cold foods can hurt the baby. Certain meats are cold, some vegetables and fruits like avocados are considered cold, and I avoided all cold drinks (even water!). I gave birth by myself at the national hospital. I have been homeless for a long period of time and try to find day jobs, such as washing clothes by hand, so I can afford to feed my baby but there is no work right now.
Margarita (26 years) and Miguel (8 months)
We do not acknowledge our babies exist until the birth. When my first baby turned out to be a girl, my husband rejected me and treated me harshly because the baby was not a boy. Our second child was a boy, but something happened during the birth, and our son died. After our third child was born, my husband was very happy because we had a son. In our culture, we wait 10 days to name our babies, just in case they do not survive past the first week. Our son is named Miguel, after his father.
Shankari (29 years) and
Advaita (12 months)
LOCATION: BANGALORE (KARAIKUDDI), KARNATAKA
Three weeks after finding out I was pregnant, I quit my job as a physical therapist and stayed home. I spent a lot of my free time looking up information about pregnancy and delivery online since I am the youngest child in my family and had never really been around any other pregnant women.
In my culture, there are many rules that govern what you should and should not do while pregnant. For example, I tried to drink milk and eat fruit daily to maintain good health, but I avoided papaya because it’s believed to cause early contractions. I also avoided eating dark foods, such as eggplant, because they might make the baby’s skin dark. A pregnant woman should only bathe in the morning to avoid catching a cold, she should not sit cross-legged or stand for a long time, and she should avoid turning on her side too much when sleeping.
After 6:00 p.m., a pregnant woman should not come out of her house, as there are bad vibes that might harm the baby. Finally, the most important rule to follow is that a pregnant woman should not see another pregnant woman. It is believed that if one woman’s pregnancy is more difficult than the other’s, then those bad vibes will be passed on to the other pregnant woman and affect both babies.
At the end of my second trimester, I returned to my mother’s house to have my baby there. It is our custom to return to our parents’ home for delivery, but this caused a bit of a problem because my sister-in-law (who lives with my brother in my parents’ house) was also pregnant! My mother rented a separate apartment, so that we would not have to live in the same house and see each other. I don’t know what my mother would have done if she had known that on our street back home there were three other pregnant women!
My community celebrates several ceremonies that take place during pregnancy. They should all be performed at the mother’s native place and be paid for by her family. The rituals are reserved for only the firstborn child. During the Theertha ceremony, guests present the pregnant mother with sips of coconut water collected from five different coconuts found at five different Hindu temples. They then anoint her head with kumkum, a yellow and red-colored powder, which symbolizes all the gods giving their blessing.
The second ceremony, Valaikappu, is an event that usually happens during the seventh month of pregnancy on the night of an auspicious full moon. It is a ritual performed to please the deity Raka, who bestows good health on mother and child. I wore my wedding sari adorned with flowers and garlands. Guests covered me with yellow turmeric paste to cool my body, fed me bites of Indian sweets, and placed glass bangles on my wrists. By the end of the ceremony, these bracelets went all the way up to my elbows! I was supposed to keep these on until the day of delivery (the clinking sound is believed to be pleasing to the baby in the womb), but the bangles were irritating me so much that I removed them by the third day.
My mother went with me to the hospital when I began having contractions because my husband was out of town on a business trip. After having a relatively easy pregnancy, I was shocked at how painful labor was! The pain continued to worsen and toward the end, I was begging the doctor for a Caesarean section, but he refused. Ultimately, I spent 48 hours in intense pain with no medication for pain relief. During the last 10 minutes of labor, they administered Pitocin to increase contractions. A midwife climbed up on my bed, got on her hands and knees over me, gave one big push and my baby was finally out! Afterward, the midwife gave me seven stitches without any local anesthesia. I screamed louder for that than the actual delivery!
I begged the nurse to tell me if I had delivered a boy or girl, but she refused, saying that the afterbirth would not come out if she told me. Girl babies are often unwanted in India, so everyone at the hospital was scared how I would react. But while they were weighing the baby, I sneaked a peek and was so happy to learn that she was a girl!
Because we are not allowed to bathe ourselves or our baby for several months after delivery, my mother hired an elderly woman who specializes in giving baths. Bath time for the baby must be given before 9:00 a.m. and starts out with a vigorous oil massage.Then she bathes the baby using a cup and bucket full of water that is so hot, even I could not take a bath in it. The entire time she treated my daughter like a rag doll and my baby was screaming. I did not like this at all and told her to forget the oil massage and that I would check the temperature of the water before she gave her any baths in the future.
When the postpartum mom stops bleeding after delivery, a purification ritual is done. A Hindu priest came to my mother’s house and sprinkled a mixture of rice, turmeric, and cow’s urine (considered sacred) around the house. He then said a special prayer using smoke and camphor. Some relatives will not come to visit until after this purification ritual is complete.
The new baby is allowed to leave the house on the 31st day to go directly to the Hindu temple for Namakarma Sanskar, the naming ceremony. At the temple, we placed our baby on the floor in front of the idol Murugan. My husband wrote a few different names on slips of paper and then he, my mom, the baby and I all took turns choosing a slip of paper with a name on it. All four times we chose the same name: Advaita. Afterward, we said a prayer with incense and smoke, broke a coconut, and offered this to the idol along with bananas. Then we all walked around the temple three times to close the ceremony.
If I can find suitable childcare, my goal is to go back to work when Advaita is 18 months old. Perhaps if my mother comes to live with us before then, I can return even earlier.