Sunday, July 25, 2010

Rites of Passage: Birth

In most societies, the individual’s experience of pregnancy and childbirth is placed in a larger context which reflects the society’s perspective on the creation of life. Rites of passage through these crucial times are subject to community celebrations ritual acknowledgment and dramatizations.  In western society, for instance, the life crisis of birth is turned over to the doctor, who can be viewed as a sort of cultural hero delivering the baby.
 Elsewhere, childbirth may be seen as polluting. Among the Kaulong of New Britain it is considered dangerous for a pregnant woman to be near adult males, gardens, dwellings and water sources, and she is physically separated from residential areas. The pregnant woman is not necessarily the only focus of attention; often the husband assumes the symptoms and behavior of his wife during the pregnancy, delivery and postpartum periods. The rites of passage pattern can be illustrated through the stages of pregnancy.
During the rites of separation the pregnant woman is subject to prenatal care and pollution taboos.  Mexican American women believe exposure to cold air, winds and draughts from air conditioners is dangerous. Hot air is considered equally dangerous; sitting near sun heated window glass can make one ill. For the Navajo, the pregnant woman’s head must not point west, which is associated with death.
Labour is the rite of transition during which the woman is often kept physically apart, in a natal ward or a menstruation hut, as she is “contaminated with holiness “, in a vulnerable but “sacred” condition. The common folk position for giving birth is kneeling or squatting, with attendants supporting from behind or pushing on top of the uterus. In western culture, medication is provided in order to encourage uterine contractions, and the passive “patient” is encouraged to sleep in between.
Melanesians have an elaborate system where the position of the mother -to -be must be arranged according to the day and hour. Mexican women are taught to close their mouths to prevent the uterus from rising up, and Navajo women are forbidden to scream, in order to preserve the secrecy of childbirth.
 The rite of aggregation brings back the woman from the “sacred” to the everyday world. The period of convalescence may take from six to 40 days. The end of this final phase is often marked by the baby’s first bath, or the woman’s first intercourse after childbirth.

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