In present day America we have been conditioned to associate giving birth with danger and stress, often viewing it as a medical procedure. Today, most people would not even consider giving birth anywhere other than a hospital. It is viewed as dangerous to both mother and child to not be under the observation of a licensed physician. For those outliers whom opt for at home births, society often makes harsh judgments of their sanity. In other cultures giving birth is a time of private spiritual awakening. Hospitals are often viewed as a place where people go to die, not a place that should be welcoming a new life. The idea of relocating a pregnant woman to a hospital, away from her family, does more harm than good. One of the few universal truths in this world is completely shaped by our cultural understanding of its significance.
In the Inuit culture, giving birth is considered a time for celebration and for the formation of family bonds. In American society, often immediately following delivery, the baby is taken away in order for the mother to rest. This practice is very foreign to the Inuit people. From the time immediately after birth, the baby is in constant contact with the mother, whether in her hood or in the front feeding (Pauktuutit Inuit Women of Canada, 2006). For a time, Inuit women were forced to travel by plane down to southern Canada to give birth. The Canadian government believed that they were doing what was best for the mother and child by sending pregnant women to hospitals to give birth. What was not considered were the social and emotional consequences. Often pregnant women were forced to leave 4 weeks prior to their expected delivery date. During this time they were alone in a foreign land where they might not speak the language or be accustomed to the diet. Family members were not allowed to accompany the women down south. This lack of social connection goes completely against their cultural norms of giving birth.
The Hmong from Laos have their own unique cultural norms when it comes to childbirth. Like the Inuit, they were accustomed to home births in the presence of their mother or mother-in-law for the birth of their first child. Mothers usually would deliver their following children alone (Levine, 2004). These at home births were done in silence, as to not awaken other members of the family. After the birth the father would dig a pit and bury the placenta under their home (Fadiman, 1997, 11 – 20). When Hmong women gave birth in hospitals, their experience was very different. Similar to American women, the Hmong women were offered ice chips and labor was artificially expedited. To Hmong women, cold drinks and food cause blood to congeal (Fadiman, 1997, 11-20). The placenta was thrown away. While to Americans the idea of keeping the placenta is odd and even unsanitary, to the Hmong it is culturally and spiritually significant. This forced westernization causes significant cultural consequences. The burial of the placenta is of extreme importance. When a person dies in their culture their soul must travel back to the placenta and wear it as a jacket in order to make the journey to be reunited with their ancestors (Fadiman, 1997, 11-20).
Fadiman, Anne. 1997. The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down. New York
Pauktuutit Inuit Women of Canada. 2006. “The Inuit Way: A Guide to Inuit Culture”
Levine M, Anderson L, and McCullough N. 2004. Hmong Birthing Bridging the Cultural Gap in a Rural Community in Northern California. AWHONN Lifelines, 8(2): 147–150. Accessed 7/29/16. doi: 10.1177/1091592304265563