Father Birthkeepers

Editor’s note: This article first appeared in Midwifery Today, Issue 127, Autumn 2018.
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Twenty-five years ago in a small village in Bali, by the dim light of a 10-watt bulb, my youngest son, Hanoman, was received by his father, Wil. Our children were sleeping all around us. We did not own beds, only floor futons. My moans were waking them up. There are family jokes about Wil dropping our baby on his head at birth. I was standing, the baby was slippery, but we’re pretty sure the baby did not fall all the way to the floor below. Thank heaven, and good nutrition, that he grew a long umbilical cord and we had a clean towel to catch him with.

More than 8000 births later, what I have come to believe about the essential role of fathers at birth is that this was a blessing. I thank the midwives/friends, Aile and Cherie, who stayed off to the side, making space for Wil and me to have this eternal moment. I believe this shared intimacy at the fulcrum of birth saved our marriage more than once. Perhaps the convergence of love made manifest, in the most primal way possible, could hold a secret for the future success and survival of our species. Therefore, I wish to share here some of the miracles of enfolding fathers-to-be in the pregnancy, birth, and forever process of parenting.

Recently I saw firsthand the difference between two fathers in labor. One had participated in Te Kaha’s Maori couples classes, and he also took the Bumi Sehat childbirth education course. He felt empowered to share the experience of birth with his wife. Their baby’s breech delivery was smooth and blissful.

The other father, an overworked farmer, had not had time to join the classes. He felt unprepared. Distressed to sobbing at the sight of his wife having contractions, he could not bear to be in the labor room. Having him in the room stressed his wife. I think that is why she never properly reached the flowing, high hormonal state of a functional labor.

Ayu and Thomas welcomed Yui, gently breech, into the world with trust, having
prepared their hearts, minds, bodies, and souls.

One first-time mother never felt alone and, gently, on her hands and knees, pushed a 3700 gm (8 lb 2 oz) breech baby out, with three easy contractions, into her husband’s hands.

The other mother, despite having knowledgeable midwives and a devoted doula, felt a profound disconnect between herself, her partner, and her process. Her labor became long, painful, and stuck at 9 cm for seven hours, as baby switched from LOA to malpresentation. Despite the mother’s effort and courage, fetal distress led to transport for a repeat cesarean.

I learned that strength, courage, skilled support, and determination may not be enough. The connection between mother and father forging a trust in birth is essential.—Lauren Danella, CNM, doula

Traditionally in Aotearoa (“land of the long white cloud,” the Maori name for what is called New Zealand by moderns) the men were very involved in pregnancy and childbirth.

Twice, Bumi Sehat Community Health and Childbirth Center in Bali has been blessed by visits from Te Kaha, a father, husband, and Maori birthkeeper. Beginning with his own family, he is reviving the original childbearing ways of the Maori people.

Te Kaha teaches couples the old way of massaging and relating to the expectant mother so that their babies feel the safety and connection that is their birthright.

He says, “Mother Earth and Father Sky are our parents. The connection is the in-between. Some call that oxygen. Our people call it life.” His eyes twinkle, as we translate for the Indonesian-speaking expectant couples. His gentle words melt away the differences between cultures: Balinese, Dutch, Russian, American, Japanese, Javanese, Ukrainian, Australian, Sumbanese—mixed couples all listen. The couples begin not to focus on the impressive face tattoos he wears as they open to receive his ancient heart teachings.

“Everything in-between Earth Mother and Sky Father, yes … oxygen, rain, wind, sunshine, trees, the food growing up in the in-between, all nourish the developing baby. The baby feels all of this directly through the relationship between mother and father. This is what we call support.”—Te Kaha

When first I met Te Kaha, he arrived on a typically busy day at Bumi Sehat. Acupuncture clinicians, allopathic nurses, and doctors were working together to give optimal free care to many dozens of sick and injured people. Two pairs of mothers and fathers were laboring, and three newborn mothers/babies/families were resting in the postpartum rooms, breastfeeding and bonding. Midwife Ibu Dewa Rutini and I had just finished teaching a class of over 40 young midwives from Kalimantan about gentle birth. The entryway of Bumi Sehat was chock-a-block full of slippers and shoes when this complete stranger appeared, looking completely strange!

I tried not to stare too much at the face and head tattoos of this humble Maori man. As is my habit and tradition at Bumi Sehat when greeting people, I hugged him. As is his tradition, he touched his nose to my nose and softly said, “Kia ora” (with life).

“I’ve come to offer my services, if you’ll have me,” he said. “I help the men take care of their pregnant and birthing wives.”

How do I respond to that? Whenever I am caught off-guard, and confusion floods my mind, my heart always takes over. I asked myself, “What do we need?”

Left to Right: Wayan Mowgli, Sochi (2-day-old), Te Kaha, Nenek (Grandmother),
and Ni Wayan Olivia (1-year-old)

The midwives’ biggest concern that day was six pregnant, first-time mothers, all 10 to 16 days past their calendar “due dates.” All six had arrived that morning, having been bullied the previous evening by Ob/Gyns, who told them they were endangering their babies by not having cesareans immediately. Carefully, the midwives checked fetal heart rates—all perfect. Maternal vitals—all perfect. All had an abundance of amniotic fluid and all were healthy, with babies in optimal or near optimal positions. All had arrived with their husbands in tow. All were full of fear from being subjected to what I call “prenatal scare.”

I dove right in, “I need you to take care of these couples; they are all afraid that their babies are coming too late. We midwives are trying to calm everyone down and mitigate their anxiety. The stars must be crazy. Just see what you can do.”

I ushered Te Kaha to a bright, sunny room with two beds. “Will this do?” I asked, not waiting for an answer. Quickly I herded the six couples toward this stranger and organized extra pillows, chairs, and a fan—it was a hot day. Some of us Bumi Sehat midwives stood in the corners of the room, translating, listening, learning.

He began with a loving introduction to Maori Pregnancy 101, which really starts before conception. He apologized for teaching them only now, at the end of pregnancy. Te Kaha instructed the couples about the power of their words. “I flinch when I hear a man say, ‘My wife is pregnant.’” His eyes cast around the room, and sparkle, “The whole family is pregnant. Please remember that and build it into your language.”

Next, Te Kaha took each couple under his wings. He helped the promised fathers arrange their partners comfortably on beds, with pillows for support. Once a couple was ready, he would talk softly to the father, teaching him the gentle touch, massage, comforting the body of mother, reassuring the spirit of baby, “I’m near; we are safe; I am making a way for you. Between Mother Earth and Father Sky, your family awaits you.”

Within 24 hours, five of these couples, tutored in the Maori opening way, had birthed. Within 40 hours, all six babies had arrived, gently, at Bumi Sehat. We midwives were in awe. Te Kaha came around to congratulate the fathers for their ability to make space for their babies.

Wayan Mowgli, a devoted Balinese father, was expecting his second baby but was worried because the estimated date of birth was confused. His wife, Brittany, had not had her moon between her first birth and her second pregnancy. They joked about their “Irish Balinese twins!” Their “due date” had been changed from February 10th to 14th, to February 22nd, by different doctors, after different ultrasound scans. The Bumi Sehat midwives reminded Brittany and Wayan that only a year ago on Valentine’s Day, their first baby, Putu Olivia, had arrived gently at Bumi Sehat—two weeks and two days after her calendar due date.

Balinese families are close; several generations of uncles, aunties, grandparents, new parents, and grandchildren all live in the traditional family compound, or rumah adat, as we call it. Ibu Brittany was appearing considerably big at the end of her second pregnancy. She wondered if it was the coconut-based gelato sold by the family business, or the second trimester visit to see her family in the US, where she ate plenty of her favorite American foods. (Let your mind run wild on that.) The Bumi Sehat midwives reminded her that her body was healthy and wise and that her weight gain was not at all something she should worry about. Bidan (midwife) Nevi would say, “Your belly is big, because you need that stored energy, because you are pregnant and still breastfeeding your first kid. Your baby is not too big, she is just right.”

While Brittany did trust her body, her baby, and her ability to birth, she was bombarded by the loving advice of her husband’s extended family saying; “Just go to hospital and get induced.”

Te Kaha arrived just in time to hold expectant and concerned father Wayan in the light of his own inner knowing. Te Kaha grew close to this young father, from another original Earth culture. He got to know that in Balinese culture, being a father is so important. A Balinese man pre-fatherhood if asked “Do you have children?” will never say, “No.” He will say, “Not yet.” This is because having children is that important and anticipated.

A man’s name even changes after his first child is born. He may be Nyoman before his child arrives, but after he becomes a father and the baby has survived and thrived to reach his 42-day naming ceremony, this man will become known as Bapaknya Putu, Father of Putu (or whatever the given name of the baby is). For example, my husband was simply Wil, until our son Wayan Hanoman was born; then the villagers began to call him Bapaknya Hanoman.

Along with the great value Balinese people put on children and the privilege of parenting come responsibility and the fear that something could go wrong. Remember, it was only in 1963 that our volcano, Gunung Agung, erupted violently. In the subsequent year, historians say that over 50,000 people starved to death. Loss was everywhere in Bali, and the elders and wee children suffered and died most frequently. Driven by malnutrition, a shocking number of mothers and babies died. This, along with current medical corruption and the colonization and commercialization of birth, has driven the rate of cesarean in most hospitals in Bali to over 90%. You can imagine that with all the cesareans, and the corrupt promotion of infant formula within many hospitals, breastfeeding is also endangered. Meanwhile, the midwives of Bumi Sehat boast a 2.4% transport-for-cesarean-birth rate. The breastfeeding rate, upon discharge from Bumi Sehat, is 100% of babies who are well-on the breasts, with mothers who feel confident and families on board with support.(1)

Wayan Mowgli was quite beside himself with worry, until he met Te Kaha and allowed the gentle teachings of this elder Maori man to reinforce his Balinese grandfather’s way—his own inner knowing. Wayan easily embraced the notion that he too was pregnant with this baby. He believed that his relationship with his wife was essential to easing any fear that the baby may have adopted from all the “input” surrounding them. Wayan and Brittany met often with Te Kaha and the Bumi Sehat midwives in the last days of their pregnancy. They grew confident that Mother Earth and Father Sky were preparing for this baby’s arrival, right along with them and their first daughter.

Labor would seem to begin and then fade, and Brittany would fall asleep. Wayan would walk 1-year-old Olivia and get little or no rest. This pattern repeated itself. Classes with Te Kaha, in which Wayan mastered the Maori way of massage and touch to ease Brittany and Baby’s way, were fun and greatly eased their torment. Finally, Ayu Sochi, all 4.5 kilos (10 lb) of her, arrived after a two-and-a-half hour labor!

Just a couple of hours later, Te Kaha arrived at the birth center. I took his hand, said nothing, and led him to where Brittany and Wayan were bonding with and breastfeeding their newborn. Olivia was being rocked in the arms of her Balinese grandmother. Te Kaha smiled, “Now this feels like home.”

Tomo and Aska, long-time Bali residents, environmentalists, activists in human rights and social programs for change, awaited their third baby. After spending time learning from Te Kaha, Tomo had this to say about his experience as a conscious, emerging father:

Most of us men have neither been shown nor trained to be good fathers, let alone carers of pregnant wives. As a father of two kids (both born naturally), I thought I knew how to take care of my pregnant wife and welcome our third baby to this world. But after meeting and learning from Te Kaha, I realized I didn’t know much. Guided by ancient Maori wisdom, he not only teaches us men about the crucial role of husbands/fathers before and during birth, but also gently shows us how to step up to fill that role.—Tomo Hamakawa

“I feel that the lack of awareness among expectant fathers of their importance within the bringing into this world the emerging spirits/babies is a worldwide problem. (The so-called ‘developed’ world, that is.)”—Te Kaha

While Te Kaha showed up at the very end of our pregnancy, he brought us knowledge that we could implement immediately and that changed our vision and intentions for our next pregnancy—preconception to birth. He opened up a line of communication between my husband and [me] and set a verbal foundation of relationship between unborn Sochi and her father. The final days leading up to Sochi’s birth were filled with deep connection between our baby and us and a deepened connection in our marriage and what bringing another life into our world really meant for us. We are both so grateful for the visits with Te Kaha, and I can’t help but think that the later-than-expected arrival of Sochi might have been so that this unexpected visit from Te Kaha could happen.—Mother Brittany

Birthkeepers, I have shared here some firsthand accounts of the miracle of connection between promised mothers and fathers. With the understanding that it is via mother and father’s connection that arriving babies learn about Earth Mother, Sky Father, and all of life in-between, which awaits them upon their Earthly arrivals. Just maybe this is a precious piece of peace on Earth. We know peace begins with birth. … We have research to prove what the grandmothers like Jeannine Parvati have always known: that healing birth heals Mother Earth. Let us weave the pregnant fathers into the care and love of mothers/babies/families. Our planet has no more time to waste.

Notes:

    1. The data and story of Bumi Sehat will appear in Birth Models That Work, Volume II: Birth on the Global Frontier, edited by Betty-Anne Daviss and Robbie Davis-Floyd. Berkeley University of California Press, 2018, Chapter 3, “Bumi Sehat Bali: Birth on the Checkered Cloth,” by Robin Lim, CPM.

An Empowered Soul

by Thomas William Vos, husband of Ayu and father of Yui

“Carrying a breech baby for a long time, we saw our plans for natural birth slowly getting smaller and smaller. Still, we came from Europe to Bumi Sehat for our birth because we knew it from the support they gave us during our miscarriage two years ago and felt at home and loved under the care of Ibu Robin and her team. In Bumi Sehat there is floating a welcoming love to her visitors who are from all sorts and places.

Coming here this time led us from one positive thing to another, calming our minds so we happily found our hearts again. The daily acupuncture, the checkups with a smile, the birth classes by Lauren and Nevi, the prenatal yoga, and, above all, the best thing was being invited to Wharenui (a big ancestral storehouse of knowledge that looks after us) with Te Kaha. This is in his language a meeting between people to exchange knowledge and, in this case, ancient Haputanga (pregnancy) knowledge.

We were received with a Maori kiss, nose to nose, and he started talking about his culture’s lost wisdom concerning the role of men in birthing. He said [the class] was more for the men … but I remember Ayu telling me that she was impressed how much he knew about pregnant women’s feelings. Te Kaha speaks from his heart and by his words he calmed our minds so we could feel again what we wished for the birth of our daughter. Empowered by this ancient knowledge, we started his daily massage routine and it felt great to have some feeling that I was knowing what to do. It brought us closer together and slowly our worries surfaced to be calmed and slowly rested.

Before we met Te Kaha we decided a cesarean would be better as it was recommended by multiple doctors, but slowly Ayu felt stronger that she wanted to wait with making the conclusive appointment and date. All these people being here for us made us trust life again, following her ways instead of resisting and holding on to fears and ideas.

Yui’s birth was as we wished for and, guided by Ibu Robin, I could receive her legs first to our world with my own hands. Te Kaha told me it would be scary and it was, but as he says, it’s time to “suck it up and do your job.” Being there as a man for your family, which needs us especially in this time of our life, made me feel great and created, in my opinion, a much needed connection, until now sadly forgotten by the medical world.”

About Author: Robin Lim

Ibu Robin Lim, CPM, had been a midwife for over 20 years when she studied with Debra Pascali-Bonaro to become a DONA Doula. Ibu Robin is the mother of eight and the grandmother of Zhouie, Bodhi, Tashi, Rimba, and Bear. Ibu Robin splits her time between Bumi Sehat Community Health and Birth Center in Bali; the Philippines, where the Bahai Arugaan ni Maria Birth Center Palawan will open in 2019; and Lombok, Indonesia, where Bumi Sehat is operating a disaster relief clinic in tents since the north half of the island was destroyed by earthquakes. “Birth in the Era of Climate Change,” a MEAC-accredited course, is offered by Ibu Robin and Jacquelyn Aurora upon request. Along with The Farm midwife Deborah Flowers, Ibu has developed a website for families called Awakening Birth (awakeningbirth.org). Also, visit bumisehat.org.

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