Much of the fear and consequent difficulties American women experience during pregnancy, childbirth and the postpartum period are directly related to the isolation so inherent in their culture. The spirit of community among women—intact in many other cultures today—has been largely missing from mainstream American culture in the past several decades. A year ago, at the Victoria Jubilee Hospital in Kingston, Jamaica, I discovered that childbirth can be a joyously shared community event.
During my nine days at Victoria Jubilee, I learned that birth among Jamaican women is characterized by the same warmth, care, and good humor that is so apparent in everyday Jamaican life and culture. Because there are more than 1000 births a month at this crowded, busy hospital, one could have assumed that the maternity care would be fast-paced and impersonal—with technology replacing human touch—but that simply was not the case.
After a laboring woman is admitted to Victoria Jubilee, she is never left to do her work alone. In the two labor rooms women labor together, encourage one another, and in the case of the younger, first-time mothers, get their first “childbirth education classes” right there. There are no additional support people present, and none are required. The moms are there for each other in an unspoken sisterhood.
When the birth of the baby is imminent, the laboring woman crosses the hall to the delivery room, climbs onto one of the five beds and is attended by the nurse or midwife who is to catch the baby. It is not unusual for several births to take place simultaneously in the same room. Curtains can be drawn around each bed to give the moms a measure of privacy, but the feeling of togetherness remains. The midwives and the nurses all work together and assist one another with each birth, tending each newborn, catching the placenta and meeting each mom’s individual needs. There is always something to do, and a pair of willing hands is always there to help.
Once the new mother is cleaned up and dressed and the baby examined and wrapped in a blanket, both mom and baby are escorted down the hall to the immediate postpartum room. Along the way, women with whom the mom has so recently shared labor poke their heads out of their rooms and call out their congratulations, asking if the baby is a girl or a boy. The proud mother beams, reminding them it won’t be long before their babies will be in their arms as well.
The immediate postpartum room, with six beds and six baby cots, serves as a temporary recovery room until the mothers and babies are moved to a different ward. There the women rest, chat and nurse their babies, happy to be together. Day after day I saw young mothers learn how to breastfeed, hold and soothe their babies by following the example of the gentle, experienced Jamaican moms. Though their time together is brief, the lessons the young mothers learn reap a lifetime of good mothering.
One evening I escorted a mom and baby to the postpartum room right after a group of women had been moved upstairs to the larger postpartum ward. When she entered the empty room, the new mother looked around and then said to me with dismay, “I’m in here all alone!” I assured her the other moms and babies would be joining her very soon. As I left the room I thought about our American love for privacy and how it contrasts with the Jamaican love for community, expressed so clearly in this new mother’s reaction.
The women continue to nurture their bond of affection and support once they are upstairs in spacious postpartum wards. The rows of beds and cots are filled with happy mothers and their newborns as they rest, nurse, talk and eat together. It was one of my favorite places to be; I soaked up the atmosphere of sisterhood and motherhood and observed the wisdom of a system of care that is so different from our own. Western societies can learn many things from our Jamaican sisters, including the value of birthing as a community experience.
Lois Wilson is a Bradley educator, doula, and homebirth midwife who practices in the Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, area. She plans to practice midwifery in the southern Philippines within one to two years.