Being pregnant brought lots of joy and excitement to my life. Living in Sumatra with my Indonesian husband while pregnant brought some worry and fear as well. Fear of a serious medical complication in a developing country, fear of being far from my own mom and loving family members, fear of not being able to stick to my guns about what I wanted and knew was best for my pregnancy and son’s birth in a completely different culture and environment. In spite of the fear and the unknown, I tried to focus on the positive and the potential for amazing things to happen.
My mom shipped What to Expect When You’re Expecting and Ina May Gaskin’s Guide to Breastfeeding halfway across the world and I scoured the internet for what American mommies were doing so that I could try and blend as best as I could the two distinct cultures that my baby would be born into.
I loved the way many Indonesian moms practice attachment parenting simply because there is no alternative. Who would leave their infant in another room of the house to sleep? A centipede or snake could bite it! Or a tiger could attack! (Just kidding….mostly). Also, most houses simply don’t have another room in the house to make into a nursery nor do they have money to buy a crib. So we bought a baby hammock instead of a crib. Car seat? More babies are used to riding on motor bikes. Diapers? The hot, humid weather plus the cost mean that these are usually a luxury item that not all babies wear but that are becoming more common now especially in cities. Slings and baby carriers? Indonesian moms have been strapping their babies to ‘em in Batik sarongs and going about their day since forever. Breastfeeding? Again, a lot of women in villages usually do not work outside of the house nor are they able to spend money on formula so nursing is the best option for them. Natural childbirth? My mother-in-law delivered six children in her house with a midwife. No pitocin or epidurals available! Cry it out? I am not exaggerating when I say that the entire Indonesian family will do anything – anything – to comfort a baby at the first whimper or sign of discontent. While times are also changing here and all mother and baby stories are different, these were the impressions of labor and infant care that I witnessed and saw as common.
Thankfully, I had an incredibly easy and manageable nine months with just one bout of morning sickness. My baby boy grew and kicked while I practiced yoga, deep breathing, Kegels, everything I could think of to stay calm, relaxed and prepared in order to envision a healthy, natural birth. My mantra was “I am a flower, I am a fountain.” I would say it every time I worried that my body would not open to push the baby out or that my breasts would not produce milk to nurture him.
Throughout my pregnancy, I had deep concerns about being pressured into a C-section here as the modern hospital where I received prenatal care seemed to have so many. I received an ultrasound at every monthly visit, which seemed so unusual and unnecessary. I was told I had low amniotic fluid and should take strange medicine not approved by the FDA along with placental extract thought to prevent miscarriage. All the medicine my OB-GYN tried to get me to take was discarded and I trusted my gut and stuck with my prenatal vitamin. I asked if I could try different labor positions and he was totally against it saying that I needed to stay attached to a monitor. While I stayed with this doctor, part of me wished I was in the middle of our house in the village with a bidan (trained midwife) so that I could avoid all of the interventions. But I knew that my family in America and my husband here trusted the hospital and wanted the security and safety assumed to be had there.
My due date was March 19th, 2015. The doctor wanted to induce the very night of my due date without waiting at all (this after being told earlier in my pregnancy inexplicably that my due date was 4 days earlier than the one previously given). I refused and went home resolved to wait a week before going back to the doctor. I walked around the neighborhood endlessly, ate all kinds of spicy food like curries and sambal (chili sauce - unavoidable in Indonesia!), and did squats and meditation. I began doubting myself and of course just wanted what was best for the baby. I knew that his movement could slow down as the time approached but I went to the doctor on the night of March 25th to check that everything was ok. They admitted me, hooked me up to the monitor and it felt like there was no going back. I wanted to move and walk like I read about. I wanted to get on all fours and stretch. I wanted to go in the water and take a bath. I was repeatedly told in a language not my own that I could not. I was scared and if not for my husband’s presence and support, I would have felt hopeless and entirely alone. I had brought prayer cards and a rosary and listened to Christian music on my phone while praying that he was safe and all would be well. They started me on a pitocin drip after an invasive internal examination from the doctor. I experienced mild pressure but no contractions all night and tried to rest.
The morning of the 26th, they increased the pitocin and the contractions came fast and strong. They felt erratic and unstoppable with no rhythm. I had been offered no pain medicine and was forced to stay in bed with no ability to change positions. I was even ridiculously told to keep my legs closed! At one point during the four hours of endless contractions with absolutely no progress or relief, a complete stranger, the mom of another laboring woman from the room across the hall, came into my room to stare at me as a strange foreign woman and talk to my mother-in-law. I wanted to scream “Get out!” but settled on telling my husband that I was in no way comfortable with random people in my room.
In the end, at noon after not even dilating one centimeter on the pitocin, the doctor suggested that I go for a C-section, which I firmly believe was his desired route all along. But by that time, I could not handle the rigid rules, the pain or the hopelessness of the situation anymore and just sought relief and the certainty that I would meet my baby boy soon. The five minutes in the Operating Room leading up to the procedure was the sweetest and most meaningful time of the whole labor. My husband bravely came into the room with me (something that I think not many Indonesian husbands do!) and we talked about seeing our son. He smoothed my hair, held my hand, kissed my cheek and I could not believe how calm and reassured I felt after the trauma of the night and morning before.
Upon waking from a nap after the procedure, I had found my voice and my conviction that baby was not allowed to be far from me or receive any unnecessary treatment. I found it difficult to speak up for myself but had absolutely no qualms about speaking up for my son. My postpartum experience was extraordinary and even better than I could have anticipated. As soon as he was brought to me, he nursed and we were skin-to-skin. I breathed and soaked in every moment. We shared a surprisingly spacious and luxurious family room; he did not go to the nursery except for his bath and hospital photos. When I felt he had been gone too long, I immediately called for him to be brought back. The nurses and my experienced mother-in-law helped him latch and brought him to my bed every time they thought he was hungry. He received no supplementary sugar water, formula or pacifier as per my express instructions. When I had slightly high blood pressure and seemed tired, the nurses suggested he stay in the nursery but I refused to let them take him away and he slept by me instead. The second day in the hospital during my recovery, they brought a complimentary massage therapist to give me an hour massage. Absolutely heavenly! I was fed such nutritious fish, veggies, rice, broth, porridge and fruit. By the time we were released from the hospital, I was confidently nursing him.
We brought him home and I had the whole “it takes a village” experience with my in-laws staying with us to cook and clean. Our sweet baby boy slept between my husband and I, and I nursed and changed wet diapers in bed throughout the night – as we still do! And he takes his naps in his hammock. The all-in-one changing table, bassinet and play pen is still collecting dust in storage.
Baby in a Hammock
Although the birth experience was incredibly different than expected and I did not have a doula with me, Jessica’s constant support and advice via messages and care packages kept me sane, grounded and feeling more in control and knowledgeable. I can’t even imagine how helpful she would have been if she were actually by my side!
Indonesian-style Baby Wearing
By: Kristin Abt