W4: Childbirth Is Not as Universal as It Is Portrayed

During this week’s lecture, I encountered many different approaches to childbirth, something that is often portrayed as a “universal experience” but in reality is quite different around the world depending on respective cultural norms.

For example, in Inuit society “regular life” childbirth was a community event that consisted of many significant rituals that included mothers being separated from their babies and isolated from society for a duration of time and the placing of an ivory whale into the baby’s mouth to pray for good hunting fortune (Lecture 4.2). Babies were also given namesakes, or named after deceased relatives, because it was believed that their souls come from their recently deceased ancestors and the traits of the ancestor will become present in the newborn (Pauktuutit Inuit Women of Canada, 2006). What’s interesting about this concept is that the newborn baby is essentially the reincarnation of the named “soul” and is deserving of the same treatment and respect that person had in life (Pauktuutit Inuit Women of Canada, 2006). When childbirth became medicalized in Inuit society by Western practitioners and politicians, it is easy to imagine that these same rituals were not always performed, and might have even been looked down on as outdated or unsafe. In fact, many of the mothers were actually forced to fly out of their village and into a more modern birthing setting (Lecture 4.2). While these settings had better medical equipment than back in the village, they often caused a great deal of stress for not only the mother, but the baby and social group as well. Not only that, these “trips” would often cost excessive amounts of money (upwards of $10,000 not including medical costs) and caused the women to be away from their homes, and potentially other children, for up to 6 weeks at a time (Lecture 4.2).

People from Hmong culture also encountered difficulties adjusting to the “medicalized” lifestyle here in the States. In “The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down”, Lia Lee’s mother had given birth to twelve children in the comfort of their family home without the help of anyone else, except for her husband occasionally giving her water (Fadiman, 1997: 11*). Like the Inuit people, there are many ritualized aspects of childbirth in Hmong culture, such as keeping and burying the newborn’s placenta, that may be hard, if not impossible, to perform at a hospital here in the United States (Fadiman, 1997: 14*).

Even mainstream American women have their own fair share of decisions to make when it comes to childbirth. Some women prefer to have “natural” births while others believe that “medical” births provide the best outcomes. Their choices are usually reflective of their approach to and understanding of the process itself. Those who want to have “natural” births may use midwives and follow the “Midwifery Model of Care” (Henson, 2002: 8). In this model, childbirth is seen as a normal life event and the expecting mothers maintain full autonomy (Henson, 2002: 8). In many cases, midwives offer psychological or emotional support to the mothers (Henson, 2002: 8). While this method of childbirth is generally safe, there are risks involved, which is why many women elect a “medical” birth (Henson, 2002: 8). In a “medical” birth, many risks are drastically reduced or eliminated altogether, however, every decision has a trade-off; In this approach, physicians generally have control of the birthing process rather than the mothers, and the process is treated as a mechanical, potentially life-threatening medical procedure (Henson, 2002: 9). During these encounters, the psychological and emotional states of the mothers are often neglected, because they are perceived as having little to do with the physical extraction of a baby (Henson, 2002: 9).

What this week’s exercise has taught me, at least from my perspective, is that no single approach to childbirth is better or worse than the other. What works for people in one culture may not work for people in another. Because health outcomes appear to increase as mutual understanding increases, each case should be assessed individually and decisions should be reached mutually. There can be a middle ground between traditional (natural) and modern (medical).

*Note: The page numbers for Fadiman are the page numbers of the PDF*

Henson, Martelia L., “Medicalized Childbirth in the United States: Origins, Outcomes, and Opposition” (2002). Theses, Dissertations and Capstones. Paper 637. http://mds.marshall.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1639&context=etd

2 thoughts on “W4: Childbirth Is Not as Universal as It Is Portrayed

  1. Hey Cory,
    You mention in your post that Inuit children are named after their deceased relatives. When watching the lecture I found the idea that they received the same respect as an elder would so fascinating. I can imagine that my life growing up would be a lot different if that were the norm for our American culture. I imagine, at first, it was unbelievable for foreigners who viewed how differently the the Inuit treated their children.
    Reading The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, I found it absolutely wild that the father avoids even looking at his wife during child birth. These Hmong women would have no anesthesia, no epidural, and essentially deliver the baby themselves! I can imagine their women are strong physically and emotionally because of this amazing feat.
    Very interesting point you brought up about the mother’s emotions being neglected during birth. When you involve a person who’s job (literally getting paid) it is to deliver a baby, I assume as long as the mom and baby are alive at the end, your job is a success. Who knows what sort of long term effects forcing a Hmong or Inuit mother to give birth outside of their comfort zone might have. The need for a middle ground, as you say, is necessary. Each culture needs to be open to possibly learning something from someone else’s viewpoint.

  2. Your use of the phrase “universal experience” also fits the way that I perceived childbirth before this week’s lectures and readings. When I think of childbirth I picture what I’ve seen in the movies, a hospital room with a lot of shouting and crying. This is far from what mother’s experience in different countries and cultures around the world. From the Inuit, to Hmong, to mothers in the United States, every experience is different whether it is medicalized or not. Much of the medicalized process is prenatal where pregnant women visit the doctor for regular exams to check the progress of the baby. For first time mothers this can be a nerve-racking experience filled with anxiety and a lot of questions. As you give birth to your third or fourth child that experience changes and you tend to feel more comfortable. You say that no single approach to childbirth is better or worse than the other, which has some truth to it. I think each individual experience determines which approach may be better or worse. Some mothers may be more comfortable with a natural birth, while some need that physician that has delivered thousands of babies to make her feel at ease. It is ultimately up to the mother which approach she wishes to take.

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