(Cute Muslim baby! Don’t research images with the word Palestine in them btw, it’s most upsetting)
A friend of mine who doesn’t plan on having children has often described me as ‘taking one for the team’. She doesn’t want kids and nor do most of our shared friends so she’s glad I have done my bit. In Palestine this is taken to another level entirely. Having children isn’t just a matter of personal choice but a duty to the whole community. This is both part of a longer tradition of emphasising community over individualism but also it has a great deal to do with politics in the region. Palestinians feel it is their duty to have as many (ideally male) children as possible as a way of asserting themselves in the region and protecting their future.
Getting asked ‘Is there anything on the way?’ therefore, is part of the newly weds daily conversation almost straight after marriage and most women get pregnant within the first year of marriage. In the research I read the women described it as a way of stopping the constant questioning almost more than anything else!
(Slightly condescending image of pregnant Japanese women; it was this or stock shots, sorry)
Do Japanese women eat sushi? The quick answer to that is yes, they do. The longer answer is that as a developed nation with modern medicine and the kind of modern economically privileged lifestyle we are familiar with the fact that pregnant women are not told to avoid raw fish is one of a number of recommendations that makes it clear how medicine along with all human endeavour is culturally mediated and some recommendations have more to do with culture and tradition than medical science. And that medical science is inextricably tied up with culture so it’s hard to separate the two anyway.
For example, here in the UK and across much of the West pregnant women are advised not to overheat. When I was pregnant with my first child we decided to go on a big holiday before all the fun was extinguished from our lives (as we feared). We went to California, hired a camper van and went on an amazing road trip. When we stumbled across some natural hot springs my excitement was ruined by the recommendation that pregnant women were not allowed. Signs around the springs stated: Continue reading
No raw egg yolks, no unpasteurised cheese, no sushi etc etc. Are women everywhere given restrictive diets? Basically the answer is yes but what is restricted varies hugely. In parts of Thailand papaya salad, pickled food, spicy hot food, coffee, tea and shellfish are all to be avoided. In parts of Madagascar peanuts, bananas and milk are taboo. Masaii women have traditionally followed a near starvation diet for the last months of pregnancy with very little meat intake and induced vomiting. The intention is to reduce the size of the baby and allow for a safer birth. Unfortunately, as you can imagine, the neonatal mortality rate is particularly high.
Amongst the Huoarani in Ecuador, pregnant mothers don’t eat fish or most types of meat towards the end of their pregnancy too but what is really interesting is that expectant dads don’t either. Expectant couples see themselves as ‘one flesh’ so it’s vital that fathers participate to ensure their child’s good health. Laura Rival writes about how she observed one occasion when a pregnant mother was prescribed vitamins by a visiting doctor and she shared these with her partner too. It’s interesting to see how both parents are encouraged to take care of themselves, not just the mother, and that the father’s body is part of pregnancy too.
I really wanted to eat poached eggs so took the salmonella risk seeing as it seemed extremely unlikely and also drank small amounts of alcohol as the NHS at the time said that was permitted and did the same with my second even though they’d changed their advice by then. I would think that most mothers don’t always stick to all the rules however, it’s well documented that French women do avoid unpasteurised cheese even if Japanese women do eat sushi, so I would err on the side of caution and follow NHS guidelines as much as possible.
Laura Rival article on the Huoarani
Madagascar Health research (not anthropology)
Madagascar pregnancy and gender article – Rita Astuti
Fun article in the Guardian with loads of anecdotal stories in the comments
Husbands or partners getting involved during labour and at the moment of birth is a relatively new phenomenon in the West (although there are exceptions, aristocratic men in Britain for example, notably Prince Albert, attended their children’s births). Traditionally midwives or later on doctors would attend births with fathers pretty much entirely excluded from the process until the 1960’s. However, it seems like it’s not just modern Western men that get involved. Huoarani fathers to be are also their wive’s midwives (midhusbands?!)
Expectant fathers are the main or only support during their wife’s labour, massaging their backs and applying pain relieving leaves to their stomachs, back and temples. They may even reach inside if for instance the umbilical chord has wrapped around the baby’s neck and once the baby is born they will also cut the umbilical chord. After the birth they will restrict their diets in the same way their wives do and stay close by.
This mirrors their attitude to their community as a whole. If a member of the long house (even if they don’t actually live in long houses anymore) gets ill then the whole community may follow a particular diet until the patient is better. Long houses but couples especially may consider themselves ‘one flesh’ in this regard.
So if your partner complains about attending ante-natal classes, or is out drinking as much as they can ‘while I still can’ point out that some people view pregnancy and birth as a team and how about giving you a massage instead.
With thanks to Laura Rival for this article.