Culture within Culture
Editor’s note: This article first appeared in Midwifery Today, Issue 97, Spring 2011.
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Photos from author’s book, The Power of Women
Every mother has a culture. Every mother is a culture. She is born into an ocean of language, traditions and rituals around how she eats, sleeps, poops, makes love or births a baby. If the acceptable way to do something comes into direct conflict with a woman’s instinctual nature, she may internalize the conflict rather than confront it. Cultural traditions can be so long-standing that change from one generation to another is barely noticeable. Some women are ethnically displaced and are trying to live out their culture in the culture of another. Some have a strong instinctual nature and know exactly what parts of their culture they will keep and what parts they will not pass to the next generation. Some were given such a conflicting message by parents or society that they feel lost, exploring every possible way in the world and never finding the feeling of belonging. A woman who does not feel she belongs can have a very hard time passing on the feeling of belonging to her newborn. The entire human family is a culture of its own and that global culture is adding a sense of stability and belonging on the one hand and threatening the diversity so cherished by many individuals on the other. Ideally a woman’s culture and instinct work together at the time of birth, creating a sense of belonging to those who came before, those who will come through and live beyond, and, most importantly, a greater sense of belonging to the woman herself.
Birth is a moment in a woman’s life where the tribal evil and wisdom of her people will have the greatest opportunity to either serve her or to be challenged and rooted out. Because a story is more powerful than a fact, the privilege and innate purpose of a midwife is to discover, along with the mother, what stories, traditions, rituals, fears, beliefs and experiences have shaped her knowing about birth. Birth is an intensely focused life event where the beliefs of the mother will either work with or work against her biology. Her culture gave her those beliefs. It is as important a consideration for the well-being and outcome of her birth as her blood pressure.
It is easier to see how a woman’s culture affects her than to face how our culture affects us in relating to her. What if our cultures have moral differences? What if we identify with a birth culture that saves mothers and babies? These factors become potent factors in the overall outcome of the birth. The mother’s story of her birth affects the developing birth culture of her people. If the doctors saved the baby or mother, if the machines or drugs saved the baby or mother, if the midwife saved the baby or the mother, if anyone or anything “saves” the baby or mother, discounting the efforts, wisdom and instinct of the mother, then the power of birth has been eroded from this mother and her people. In nature, that error would be dangerous. The mother’s ability to grow her baby, birth her baby, feed her baby is simultaneously a deeply personal and collective miracle. No one thing can save a baby or mother without the aid of the mystery of life and the will to live. As midwives we have the opportunity with every mother to increase her personal and collective sense of power and belonging.
Something as simple as making sure we know what every mother believes about birth is one of the most profound and important knowings we can achieve during a woman’s pregnancy. She may embrace a religious culture and need certain prayers, clothing, foods, etc. She may embrace a modern birth culture and need photos, videos or certain calls made to certain people. Reviewing her cultural beliefs and needs at the time of birth is equally as important as knowing her baseline blood pressure and may be more important to her. Community midwives know the way to tie a belly band, which herb to place on the cord, when to raise the baby to the moonlight, what first food to serve the mother, what can be said and to whom. As the Bolivian midwives have said to me many times, “We know we must take our mothers to the hospital, Little Star, but where are the prayers?”
Some cultures have elaborate rituals and ceremonies to prepare the mother for birth. Our Cherokee culture has a birth blessing-way. The holy mother is bathed with special herbs and oils in a moon/womb-like environment and attended by sisters offering her song, sips of tea and nibbles of fruit. The scene is very similar to a labor or birth scene. Other women set up altars with the four elements of earth, air, fire and water and make four directional prayers while smudging with sage or lavender to make sacred the space for the entrance of the Holy Mother who has been adorned with flowers. Drumming, chanting, singing and birth stories fill the mother’s ears and heart and brain. The only women invited are those who have birthed in power. They recount parts of the power story that they wish to gift to the wide-eyed expectant mother, the living icon of mystery. She is blessed for carrying the future of the people right under her heart. Blessings pour forth as a feather touches water with crystals, glistening in the bottom of the sacred water bowl, and then her head or heart or hand or belly. The blessings dispel fears, light dark corners, drive out demons, invite transformation, power, instinct and joy, and invoke the bliss known alone to “she who births according to her own nature.” The prayers of her people are meant to resonate in her ears on that day when she alone must do what is hers to do. It is not for weak wishing. The baby’s position is drawn on her belly with body art. Her face is marked, her hands, her heart. More blessings pour forth. Handmade gifts are placed on the altar cloth at her feet with more blessings for the baby. A howl rises from the throats of the sacred circle. Full-throated, the baby is welcomed and the mother is infused with power to make her journey. A feast of yummy, fresh vegetarian Earth foods made with prayers and great love follows. When my eldest daughter was in her third day of labor with her first daughter, wet with sweat in a deep squat, she said to her sisters, “Tell me the stories again of the women who didn’t give up…” Now she sits in the circle with her power story.
Many Latino women wear a stringed cloth bearing the image of their patron saint around their neck during labor for strength. I have seen women in a full flow postpartum hemorrhage stop bleeding when a traditional midwife started saying the prayer that was specific to the patron saint whose image the mother was wearing around her neck. That simple prayer worked a magic that we often attribute to Pitocin. If you feel you don’t have enough faith to align with the faith of the woman you serve, you may not realize that the modern birth culture has its faith tools, drugs and interventions, and they do not always work either. I’ve seen obstetricians crumple in prayer when all they have tried isn’t working. When the resuscitation efforts work or drugs work or prayers work, we don’t need to affirm one and discount the other. The mother’s body, mind and soul are at work to integrate, assimilate and accept or reject the efforts being offered from without. She is within and that within is a focal point of Herstory, a merging of biology, environment, condition and culture that will become a new story for her people. There is a mystery at work. We need all the tools we can find. A woman’s culture is one of those tools.
What a privilege we have as midwives to enter into the culture of every woman, show our respect, remember what’s important at the very moment she can’t speak it, and add to the story of her people, the global story of a one world family.