We were chatting the other day in Facebook about birth (big surprise) and my dear friend Colleen (Nelson) Scarlett, LM, CPM gave us a small look into birth in Jamaica. I begged her to write a Guest Post for me and she did! How lucky are we?!
Birth in Jamaica….my Birth Story and Some Kultcha
I had my first baby in 1982… in a rural public hospital in Savannah-La-Mar, Westmoreland, Jamaica. I was 16 years old. I had been seeing the community midwives for my prenatal care, but I was too young to birth at home, so I was given my prenatal book at 36 weeks and was told to go to the hospital when labour started. I prepared for the baby by acquiring flour bags from my local grocery store, washing and bleaching them and sewing cute little gingham ruffles around the edges. I bought bird’s eye by the yard, cut them by hand, and hand-stitched the edges to make nappies. I packed my bag for the hospital with sheets, one for the birth, and a set for after, night gowns for the birth and after, my pillow, my pads, and my home made chux pads, made by sewing layers of newspapers into more flour bags. When I “took in”, or went into labour, I took public transportation to the hospital, a nearly 3 hour drive back then. My partner took me to the maternity ward, paid the fee (I think it was $20 JMD, or about $10 US back then, almost a week’s pay), donated blood (it was required of all fathers to donate a pint of blood before we could get admitted) and left me there. I followed the Matron to the labour room, which was 8 beds facing each other. 4 beds were occupied with women, 3 in active labour, and one who had just delivered. A doctor was up to his elbow in her, while she screamed and the two midwives held her down. I panicked, and asked the matron if that was what happened. She said no, the lady had a retained placenta and it didn’t happen often.
I was told to make my bed with the sheets I brought from home, and to take off my panties (yes, right there on front of everyone!) and was shaved. I was given an exam, my baby was listened to (“Live baby!" the midwife declared to the nurse, who noted it in a book) and that was the last time they checked for a heart tone. Then I was sent to take a shower, and given the infamous Jamaican enema (high, hot, and a hell of a lot). I shitted and puked for about an hour, it was horrible. When I went back to the ward, I was told to get into bed, and call for the midwife when I felt like I had to have a bowel movement.
Another young mother was admitted shortly after I was, but she was much further along in her labour. She cried and moaned and bothered the nurses. “Lord Jesus!” she cried, “Lord Jesus, help me!” the midwife asked her crossly if “Lord Jesus breed yuh? No? Den stop yuh noise! Yuh waking up the man dem!” The poor girl continued to cry and moan, and the midwife gave her a healthy slap across her face.
I decided to be as quiet as possible!
I saw four babies born that night, in fact, I had my first “catch” that night! We were pretty much left on our own….the midwife only came in to deliver or to admit another woman. I spent most of the night walking, laying in bed was too painful. The woman across from me, having her third baby, asked me if I was feeling a lot of pain. I said no (complaining, clearly, was NOT acceptable! We did it as silently as possible so to not piss off the midwives and the matron) She got up off the bed and said she felt like she needed to have a poop. She asked me to get her a bed pan from the shelf, so I did. I put it on the floor in front of her, she lifted her nightie, squatted, grunted a little, and I saw what I thought was the biggest poop ever. Turned out it was the baby‘s head! I took off running for the midwife, calling “Nurse! Nurse!” but no one was around. I went back to the woman, just in time to catch her baby boy before he fell hit the floor.
The midwife came running in, chastising us for letting the baby be born on the floor.
Around 3 am, I was very, very hungry….I asked one of the cleaning ladies if I could get something to eat (you know I wasn’t about to ask the nurse or midwife!) and she brought me a cup of chocolate tea, some bread, and some tinned mackerel. Yum!
At 5 am, I was in very active labour, but the midwives were changing shift, thank God! And the new midwife, who was the sweetest little thing, came on. I had the baby, with a lot of yelling, but the midwife was kind to me and didn’t curse me or slap me, just encouraging me and saying nice things to keep me going. I got a huge episiotomy….
After the birth, I needed to be stitched, but the theatre was on the second floor and the lift was out of service. I walked upstairs, and was sutured without anesthetic because I didn’t have money to buy any. Then to the post natal floor, where I was put to bed with my new baby and fell asleep. I went home later that day.
That was, and still is, a typical hospital birth in Jamaica.
Now for the Kultcha (culture).
Most Jamaicans are of Yoruban descent, so a lot of the customs and traditions can probably be traced back to West Africa. Obeah is also a Yoruban practice, and a lot of the culture of birth can be traced to Obeah.
Pregnant women are not allowed to look at anything dead, or ugly. They are encouraged to not feel sorry for anyone or anything because sympathizing will cause the baby to suffer the same affliction.
When pregnant women go into the sea, it will get rough and the fishermen will not be able to go fishing.
If a pregnant woman hears a sea cow (manatee) crying, she will die.
If she wants anything to eat, she must have it, or the baby will be marked. I wanted animal crackers with my first, and couldn’t find any, and she has a birth mark in the shape of an animal cracker on her belly. The bear, to be exact, lol!
If a pregnant woman asks for food, you are obligated to give it to her or you will have bad luck (and be responsible for the baby’s birth mark)
If a pregnant woman walks through a pumpkin patch, the vines will bear abundantly.
Men are typically nowhere near a birthing woman. Jamaicans have a phobia about blood, placentas, umbilical cords and all that. In fact, our most offensive curse words are about menstrual blood. Men also do not want to see anything close to a baby coming out of their woman’s vagina, because, they say, they “wouldn’t be able to visit down there again” if they saw it. They definitely prefer to think about their woman’s vaginas as unscathed.
Eating and drinking is neither encouraged nor discouraged, if she wants food or drink, it’s fine, but no one is offering it either.
When a woman has a baby, she is typically secluded for 8 days after the birth. Her only job is to eat, sleep, and nurse. It is believed she is unclean after having a baby (and during her period) so men who come in close contact with her will become weak and unable to work, basically, they will turn good for nothings who can’t even get an erection (a good, strong erection is verrrrrry important to Jamaican men, and they will do anything in their power to keep one!), much less earn a living. Women can make men weak and “tied down” (unable to leave her) by mixing some menstrual blood into his food and giving it to him to eat, so men don’t eat from women who are bleeding.
Some Rastafarian sects build a separate house for the woman when she is on her period or recovering from childbirth so she doesn’t contaminate the house.
Also, new babies are very susceptible to duppies, or evil spirits, who may be sent to harm the baby by the father’s “outside woman,” jealous people, or even deceased relatives who want to care for the baby and inadvertently harm him. New babies are dressed in red to ward off evil; a bible is placed above the baby’s head, usually open to the 23rd psalm. Grated nutmeg is used on the cord stump, and asafetida gum is knotted into a lock of the baby’s hair above the anterior fontanel. Rose water is used to mark a cross on the baby’s forehead and soles of the feet to help keep away evil. Babies are often bathed with a little blue in the bath water.
The placenta is usually buried without ceremony, but the cord stump has special meaning. When the cord stump dries, it has to be protected from hitting the floor. Babies typically wear belly bands to protect it. The cord stump is typically buried with a tree, typically coconut or breadfruit, which is the baby’s “navel tree.” It keeps the baby close to home and ties the child to its roots. If the land is sold, a sucker from the tree is taken to plant on the new property.
If the baby is born in the caul, a bit of it will be dried out and made into tea and given to the baby to drink. My second was born in the caul. This allows the baby to see duppies, while protecting him from being harmed by them.
My second birth was a home birth, with an old “nana” (traditional) midwife. She was also a trained nurse, but she kept a lot of the old traditions. After the birth, she washed her face with white rum, and drank a shot, to protect her eyesight as witnessing births causes blindness. To help ease the pains, she had me blow into an empty bottle. She also slipped an open pair of scissors under the mattress to help “cut” the pain.
Labouring women are massaged with castor oil, and given thyme tea to drink to hasten the birth and expel the placenta.
Baths and showers are prohibited after the birth, because a woman’s pores are open and she is susceptible to “baby cold” which can kill her. She is kept warm, flannel is often applied to her abdomen, her chest and head must be covered at all times, and she is to avoid water. She must not walk barefoot because it can cause uterine prolapse. Any cracks or draughts in the room are plugged up.
(Yes, it is hot and miserable! After my birth, as soon as I was able, I took a bath and washed my hair while my mother- and sisters- in-law had a freak out, screaming that I was going to die from baby cold!) Pants are forbidden, the new mother can only wear skirts or dresses. I don’t know why.
About a week after the birth, the mother is given a drink made of raw oats, raw eggs, Guinness stout, nutmeg and condensed milk, (TASTY! YUM!) to be drunk while sitting over a bucket of hot, hot water with sea salt, draped with a blanket to not let steam escape, to get rid of any clots and old blood that could cause sickness. It’s similar to the Haitian practice of “le bain“, but WE don’t get beat up with plantain leaves.
Women do not cook for their men after birth for three months. We can cook for ourselves after a month, but not for men. The family takes care of the house hold chores for 6 weeks or so, after which the mother is expected to take over everything but cooking.
Every woman breastfeeds for at least 6 weeks, but babies are often given “bush teas” during the night or first thing in the morning to prevent “bad stomach”. It’s believed breast milk is not good during the night or first thing in the morning, or when a mother is on her period. Stress can also cause breast milk to “curdle” and go bad, so if a mother is stressed she is discouraged from breastfeeding. (I saw a lot of babies being given formula diluted with water and condensed milk, or bush tea with sugar because it was believed the mother’s milk had gone sour).
There you have it… if I remember more I will add to the comments.
Thank you, Colleen! You know how much I adore you... thank you so very much for writing this out. We're all the better for it.
Do you have a cultural birth story to share? I'd love to have you write your birth story so I can share it here.
Thanks again, Colleen!
Colleen & I during our too short visit a couple of years ago. We laughed lots about the colors we both wore; neither surprised we look like sisters.