4 Australian Women Share How Culture Influenced Their Birthing Experiences

Birthing stories, like the bubs that pop out of them, are endlessly unique. Maybe you’ve been through it yourself or watched a dear friend navigate the highs and lows of pregnancy. Even if you’re far away (or never want to) enter the world of parenthood, you, by merit of being here today, are part of life’s fascinating cycle. 
There’s a lot of uncertainty and secrecy surrounding the birthing process (wait, your body does what and you have to sew up where?) but sharing real stories from real people who have gone through labour can help demystify the experience. 
It’s what drove Sophie Walker to create and host the podcast Australian Birth Stories. As someone who holds a Master of Public Health and has reared three children of her own, she’s well aware of the misconceptions and lack of awareness that surround birth. 
“I think it’s fair to say that many women start their pregnancy journey with very little knowledge of birth and the knowledge they do have is often fear-based. It doesn’t surprise me because it’s a reflection of our culture, where there aren't a lot of social conversations about women’s health, conception, labour and birth. It’s slowly changing but I think we’ve still got a long way to go,” she tells Refinery29 Australia.
“Research says that a positive birth experience — regardless of where or how a woman is birthing — is dependent on two things: the birthing mother’s ability to make informed choices and those choices being respected and supported by her care provider.”
Many of our conversations around pregnancy and labour omit the nuances that come with culture and race. Whether that be around cultural traditions and practices that inform labour and postpartum activity, or the prejudices that come up against women of colour — there can be a whole other range of hurdles that underscore a birthing experience. 
Here, we share snippets of four stories from Australian Birth Stories, from women who’ve experienced the varied traditions and perspectives different cultures have of childbirth. 

Natalia Baechtold birthed on Country

"Natalia’s story encapsulates her connection with her Indigenous family, the Ngarrindjeri people of South Australia. During her first visit to Country, she learnt to weave with her elders, a traditional ritual to welcome a woman into motherhood and only three months later, she was pregnant. She embraced Indigenous rituals for her births and later buried the placentas on Country in the same place her ancestors had buried theirs. Natalia tells a rich, beautiful story of birth and culture and speaks so eloquently about the mind-body connection during labour that it’s honestly hard to capture it in words." — Sophie
Photographed by Jane McCrae.
“My mother has always been driven to reconnect to her culture and her cultural heritage. We call her Mamalu, which means grandmother in Ngarrindjeri, and she now lives and breathes this belonging, this connection to her culture. That’s rolled over onto me and my children and it’s played an impactful role in the way I birthed and the ceremonies I connected to my births.
"Weaving with the old girls in the dirt is a right of passage into motherhood and less than three months after my first trip back to Country, I fell pregnant with Estelle… I knew I wanted to weave and connect with different family members and really feel the place and put my feet in the dirt and sit where my ancestors had lived and died. Things that I can’t explain happened: I felt embraced by the family but I also felt the disconnect that happens when you’re part of the family that’s been removed.
"I knew what I wanted in the [birthing] space, I was hoping for it to be nighttime and dark. I had Ochre and Sacred Earth playing, I remember getting down on my hands and knees and I was so full of pain, I really wondered if I could do it. And then Lisa [my midwife] arrived and she calmed the whole space. Her knowing, her wisdom and all her experience came into play [and] calmed me down. She guided me into the pool and told me that everything was going to be fine. I used those deep, deep sounds, breathing down, connecting to ground and Country, breathing down to keep myself low and in control.
“I could feel [Estelle] transition down and start to crown and then she’d slip back in, it was so uncomfortable, such an intense feeling, her spine against mine. I got into that female wolf position and when Lisa whispered, 'let go', I just dropped all my tension. In the next contraction, I told Lisa that I was just going to hold the baby there and not let her slip back in but then she literally shot out into the water and we were all so shocked!
"I remember that flush of joy and relief that I’d made it through and this beautiful baby was completely ok. It was a miraculous, overpowering moment. I held her and nestled her in for her first feed and her deep, dark eyes of wisdom looked up at me. It was incredible. I must say that I remember the overflow of oxytocin and I knew then why women do this more than once, it is the most powerful experience.
"As I stood up, the drawing of the water helped me birth the placenta. I rested and fed Estelle for an hour, surrounded by women and then my mother picked her up and placed her on a traditional woven mat that Auntie Ellen had woven. It has been passed through different members of the family, to lay the baby on, it’s the first thing they get to touch when they’re born, so they touch Country. My mum then dipped her feet in a bowl of ruwe, which is earth/dirt that my uncle had collected for me from where Ngurunderi had created the Dreaming stories. So Estelle was connected to Country through earth, connected to Country through the mat, tradition and we also had pelican feathers that had been made into flowers.”

Theresa followed postpartum Chinese confinement

"For all three of her pregnancies, [Theresa's] Chinese mother flew in from Singapore to care for her during postpartum and guide her gently into new motherhood. During this time, Theresa wasn’t allowed to do anything but rest with her baby, an opportunity she regards as a very precious gift." — Sophie
Photographed by Olive Juice Lifestyle Photography.
"We practise confinement in Chinese culture, some people refer to it as the golden month or the first forty days. For a full moon cycle, I do nothing but rest. My only job is to lie down and feed the baby. You have to be horizontal for as much as you can during those thirty days so your uterus and pelvic floor can heal. I attribute my good recovery to that. Mum does everything around the house; all the cooking, cleaning, washing — everything.
"I have a very strict diet of really nourishing and healing foods, warming foods and tea that I drink three times a day. A lot of that has to do with the recommended way of Traditional Chinese Medicine. That one-month post-birth is so crucial in [dictating] a woman's health for the rest of their life. So my Mum takes it really seriously — it's the only time that it's taken really seriously. I don't have a sip of cold water [or eat] cold foods at all. Just lots of broth and steamed food and fish.
"Culturally, I feel a shift is happening in Australia. I did worry that my postpartum experience would be considered a weird Chinese superstition but it’s since been embraced by many birth and postpartum workers dedicated to educating pregnant women about its importance and relevance. My mother gets giggles when I explain to her how often people want to know what she’s done for me in my postpartum days. She’s both embarrassed (that anyone even thinks it’s worth mentioning) and excited to know that more women will be held in their vulnerable time. We are both in awe of how much women actually want this. It feels like the reception has been so accepting."

Alicia Lucas birthed in Tokyo, Japan during a COVID outbreak

"Olympic athlete Alicia Lucas gave birth in Tokyo during COVID-19. Despite every effort, Alicia accepted that no amount of spinning was going to turn her breech baby, so she booked in for a planned caesarean with her private obstetrician. COVID rules dictated a lot of the experience — her husband watched the birth over FaceTime and was only allowed at the hospital for 30 minutes afterwards. Despite the cultural differences, Alicia relished the way the Japanese care for mothers post-birth but as she says, there’s no place like home when you’re a new mum." — Sophie
Image via: alicia_quirk/Instagram.
"Matt wasn’t allowed in the theatre at all [in Tokyo, Japan]. He was devastated and worried about me… and just sad that he couldn’t be there to support me. We tried everything to wrought the system and put our case forward to change the rules but the hospital couldn’t budge because the COVID cases were high. Even if I had a vaginal birth, he wouldn’t have been able to be there to support me during labour, which would have been even more challenging.
"We were together for 15 minutes before the birth and it was so strange, thinking that we were about to get our baby. He was on FaceTime and I had an English-speaking midwife next to my head explaining what was happening. I held the phone over the cover so he could watch the surgery and relay it to me later on. Overall, it was such a bizarre experience — my first ever surgery and the COVID protocols — it was quite overwhelming.
"But then the next minute, Matilda [my baby] is smooshed into my face and I had the oxygen mask on, my COVID mask and hairnet, and she was basically on my throat and I could hardly see her. It really wasn’t as great as I envisioned. They [typically] don’t do skin-to-skin straight away so we had requested that and we’d also requested delayed cord clamping which they honoured.
"Matt had skin-to-skin time with Matilda while I was being stitched up. Within half an hour, we were all back together and she did the breast crawl and latched straight away. Matt was originally only allowed to have 30 minutes with us but we FaceTimed our families in Australia and the midwives were too polite to interrupt so he ended up staying with me for three hours.
"In Japan, you stay for seven nights with a caesarean birth (four-to-five nights with a natural birth). They really prioritise the mother recovering and her care, and they’ll take the baby to the nursery if you need sleep. They didn’t let me get out of bed for the first 24 hours and I wasn’t allowed to eat till the next day. Matt wasn’t allowed to visit the hospital again after the birth, so I was discharged three days after birth. I couldn’t leave till 7:30pm on the Friday night because I had to have a celebration dinner; a cloth table with a three-course meal and beautiful crockery. There was steak, pasta, soup, grape juice in a red wine glass and it was delicious.
"As soon as Matilda was born, I wanted to be back in Australia. We had a plan — we had a flight booked for eight weeks after birth but we didn’t realise how long it would take to get her citizenship certificate. I was struggling without my family and support crew. Matt and I just didn’t know so many things — we were first-time parents in a foreign country… I just wanted to be home.”

Sasha navigated Melbourne's healthcare system as a Black woman

"Sasha articulates the challenge of navigating the healthcare system as a woman of colour. The prejudices she has experienced in life and her knowledge of the disparities in maternal outcomes for Black women informed her decision to choose continuity of care with a private obstetrician alongside the gentle, maternal support of a doula. She speaks so beautifully about her pregnancy journey, her birth preparation and her informed choice to seek a second opinion when her obstetrician suggested an induction at 40 weeks." — Sophie
"I’m a woman of colour and there have been prejudices in my education, in my experience growing up here, that are both overt and covert. In reading about the sphere of pregnancy and birth, there’s a disparity in the outcomes for women of colour, for Indigenous women, and Black women and infants. Growing up, I’ve had to navigate racism and prejudice and systemic bias. If we could build our own team around us in our own home, that was appealing to me. Jem [my partner] and I talked at length about our options and his fear would be appeased in a hospital system, whereas my emotional fear and needs could be looked after in the hospital system with continuity of care.
"When you’re growing up, you see yourself represented in particular spaces, you feel welcome — but when you don’t see yourself, you don’t feel welcomed or considered in those spaces. A lot of the content I was consuming in my 20s… there wasn’t much representation of Black women. When I was studying, the anatomical examples never showed Black people. That experience really informed this new chapter of my life.
"Friends and family had spoken so highly about Frances Perry House and they had a lot of focus on postpartum care as well, which was important to me as I have a history of anxiety. I switched obstetricians at about 17 weeks and I immediately felt relaxed and seen; it was a wonderful choice for us. I hired a doula because I wanted that maternal care in the birth space and she really provided us with a very safe space to take stock and talk about our pregnancy, talk about where we were in our relationship and she provided beautiful, gentle energy to be able to do that.
“I was about 30 weeks [pregnant] when the conflict in Ukraine started and, emotionally, it just felt like a dark cloud sitting in the back of my mind. We have many loved ones who live there and information was scarce, which made it a lot harder. It was around that time I linked in with my psychologist who has been amazing with my anxiety journey since my dad passed away three years ago. Around that time we’d just bought a house and moving while pregnant was so challenging. Jem and I really intended to go inwards in the final weeks of pregnancy, to slow down and really focus on ourselves before Silvester arrived.
"I did everything in my power to help move my baby along. I’d been antenatally expressing since 37 weeks, I was gutter walking, I was eating dates, I was doing laps at the swimming pool, we were having lots of uncomfortable sex, I was getting in all the positions to encourage him to engage. To an extent, it worked because when I went back in to see my obstetrician I was 3cm [dilated], so things were going in the right direction. Every night I had cramps but nothing eventuated.
"On the Wednesday morning, I went in for an induction and we were so welcomed by the most amazing midwife. It really helped us let go of our hesitation and we felt really safe and informed.
"After 12 hours of labour, I had another vaginal examination and my OB noticed that [my baby] was presenting in quite a strange position. We had a conversation around that time and she gave me all my options; I felt really emotionally supported and safe. We decided that a caesarean would be best so they got me into a robe and Jem got in his scrubs and I was wheeled into the theatre.
"I asked if we could have delayed cord clamping and skin-to-skin. The OB was really open to embracing all my preferences and she talked me through everything that was happening. The whole team, from the nurses to paediatricians, introduced themselves and it was such a wonderful atmosphere."
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