“EI-OH mama ti mbi, ti mbi aso mbi”(Oh mother of mine, my belly hurts me.) “Kanda be ti MO!” (Tie up your heart, i.e., Tough it out.)
– A call and response song used during birth in the Central African Republic.
Baby on Board
Women give birth and a baby is born. The anticipated outcome is the same whether they are 15 or 50, live in Ethiopia or Switzerland, whether it is their first child or their fifteenth, and yet birth, wherever it occurs, has a long list of complex traditions. From culture to culture, and species to species, these rituals are elaborate, meaningful and poles apart.
In the West, historically childbirth was a women-only activity. Midwives, women who had never gone to medical school, organized the birthing process, and childbirth most often took place in the home with female relatives as nurses. Birth was viewed as a natural process rather than a medical condition.
Baby bearing rituals in America today are quite a bit different. One of the biggest changes in birthing rituals is that the birth process has ceased to be a female only arena. In fact, the gender bias has swung in the other direction; the American Medical Association (AMA) is today predominately staffed by males.
Different cultures have different ways of birthing children. For example, in Nepal, expectant mothers who live in the countryside are transported to the nearest district hospital by male relatives who carry them on a doli, a reclining seat fixed to a pole, which is the same device used to carry a bride to her husband’s home. In Guatemala, a purple onion chopped into a cup of beer is fed to the mother during difficult labors. In India, pregnant women are believed to have a direct link with their babies, so much so, that the entire community is expected to help them live peacefully through their pregnancy. In many cultures the umbilical cord is buried with a sapling, such as a coconut or avocado tree, so that the child and tree can grow together.
Many of the rituals from other cultures may appear superstitious to an outsider, but in fact, many rituals in Western societies are extremely uncommon around the rest of the world. For instance, natural birth, without the use of epidural or other pain relievers is the most common way to give birth in most countries. Also in many places, women give birth standing up, with gravity aiding the labor.
Birthing rituals change drastically as societal values change with time. For instance, in 1700 France, babies born of royalty were immediately bathed in red wine and rose-petals. While this tradition made good sense in 18th century France, with its focus on nobility and its reverence of decadence, it is hard to imagine anyone in Europe today dipping their newborn baby in red wine.
No Boys Allowed
Having a man around during birth, or not, has been a hotly contested debate. In the U.S. it has been common to have the father present at the birth, and even in colonial time midwives believed that it was helpful to place the fathers cap upon the laboring mothers head, so that his strength would help her. For the Inuit, an indigenous tribe from northern Canada and Alaska, the father was also intimately involved in the birthing process. When pain began, the woman would rest, while her husband would lean behind her and gently press down on her abdomen to stimulate the baby and encourage it to be born. In Niger, out of respect for their Muslim beliefs, a woman’s genitals were not to be touched by anyone other than the husband and the father was the only one who could deliver the baby.
For many other cultures, it is considered disrespectful and bizarre to have males present for childbirth. Because the woman is the carrier and bearer of life, many societies feel most comfortable keeping birth a women-only activity. For example, the Berbers, an indigenous people from Northern Africa, consider it disgraceful to have a man present for birth. As one Berber midwife put it to an American midwifery publication – “You, who think yourselves to be so liberated in Europe, did it have to come this? That you have to prove to men that life emanates from you and that you are the mothers of their sons?”
While it is genetically true that a baby is half its mother and half its father, it is also true that the woman physically carries, bears, and sustains the infant. Allowing males to be present during birth often depends on a society’s beliefs concerning gender roles and the division of labor within that culture.
The Evolution of Cuteness
Humans aren’t the only species that ritualized the birth of their babies. Many species return to a special place every year, many against great odds, in order to give birth in a particular location. Several mammals share the ritual of placentophagy, which is the act of eating the placenta of their young after birth. Elephants in Africa will self-medicate by chewing on the leaves of a tree from the Boraginaceae family, which induces labor. Kenyans use this tree for the same purpose.
All mammalian babies share certain attributes that might explain why mammalian parents create rituals to welcome their young. All baby mammals share a similar proportion of features – big heads, big eyes, and goofy, uncoordinated little limbs. This is not a coincidence. Mammalian youngsters actually look this funny for a very specific evolutionary reason. In mammalian parents, there is a hormone that is triggered by the infant’s vulnerability, ensuring that the parent will feel tenderness and protectiveness towards their offspring. The fact that babies are so cute and vulnerable helps to explain the mammalian attachment to ritualized birth.
Why is it important for humans to ritualize the birth of a new person so extensively, when it is the expected and natural outcome of procreation, and is something that has been occurring every day, for every species, since the beginning of time? People from every corner of the earth share the habit of ritualizing important life transitions. Part of the point of a ritual is to help a society maintain control over natural processes, such as birth, which can otherwise feel overwhelming, chaotic, and mysterious. Regardless if the outcome is always the same, live birth still has the power to enrapture, transform and spellbind.
It doesn’t really matter how simplistic or complicated the rituals are that accompany it, birth has never been, and will never be, an unfettered or unimportant activity for humans.