The news that I was pregnant was received with a lot of shouting, hugging and kissing my belly (which was not even showing at this stage). It was lovely to share this joy with so many people. It seemed to me like the pregnant figure in Guatemala is idolised, people never stopped touching or stroking my belly. Even people I barely knew would want to pat the baby growing inside! From then on, friends and strangers poured out advice…
You shouldn’t watch tv just before giving birth, because the baby will be born blind.
Neither should you listen to music, the baby might be born deaf.
Wear a red ribbon around your waist to ward off the “evil eye”.
If it’s a full red moon, wear something red, or your baby will be born without a head.
You shouldn’t be walking upstairs.
You can’t lift that plastic chair.
Getting a bus in your condition…
The comments and advice were endless, some amusing, some ridiculous but all said with good intent.
A surprise to our friends was that we didn’t know the gender of the baby. But how will you know what clothes to buy? I could give you my baby bath, but its pink, what if the baby is a boy? ‘Baby Showers’ are very popular in Guatemala, and whenever I’ve been to one, everything is either pink or blue, the balloons, cake, table cloths, wrapping paper…everything. It seemed that for babies only two colours existed: blue and pink. This resulted in all our baby gifts being white (and we were very grateful for everyone’s generosity).
In private hospitals in Guatemala 85% of births are delivered by caesarean and the public hospitals are avoided if one can afford it. So with doctors performing caesareans for any minor reason, we decided to go with Hannah Friewald in her natural birth centre. This meant forfeiting any access to pain relief but ensured I would only have a caesarean if it was absolutely necessary.
Many of my Guatemalan friends were shocked to hear I would not be giving birth in a hospital and even more surprised to hear it was just with a midwife and not a doctor. They then kept asking me when my birth was scheduled, to this I replied any time around May 1st. They didn’t understand, but what day will you give birth? I explained that the baby would come when it was ready. This was an unusual concept to people who had planned dates for their caesareans.
We are so glad that we decided to go with Hannah, having a trusted midwife at the end of a phone line if we needed anything was very reassuring especially in the days waiting from when my waters broke to when I gave birth. In those four days, we became very impatient and worried that something was wrong. I went walking for miles up hill, did Pilates and Yoga everyday and drank different suggested teas to induce labour, but nothing seemed to work. I realised, it was something totally out of my control and that I had to trust it to God’s timing. In my desperation, I found comfort in Psalm 121. I memorised it in English and Spanish, recited it and sang it out loud.
1 I lift up my eyes to the mountains –
where does my help come from?
2 My help comes from the Lord,
the Maker of heaven and earth.
3 He will not let your foot slip –
he who watches over you will not slumber;
4 indeed, he who watches over Israel
will neither slumber nor sleep.
5 The Lord watches over you –
the Lord is your shade at your right hand;
6 the sun will not harm you by day,
nor the moon by night.
7 The Lord will keep you from all harm –
he will watch over your life;
8 the Lord will watch over your coming and going
both now and for evermore.
I prayed that God would protect my baby and trusted that he was watching over us.
In public hospitals, husbands or any relatives are not allowed into the ward when you give birth, whereas with Hannah, Tom was able to be very involved. Tom sat in the birthing pool with me holding me up and with every contraction he applied strong pressure to my lower back to help me endure the pain. I kept telling him to push harder. Hannah commented that it was the first time she’d heard the dad being told to push harder instead of the mum. She also noticed that Tom was working extremely hard during the birth to support me and saw the pain in his eyes too! Apparently in shorter labours the pain can be much more intense. This was the case with mine, Elicia was born within 6 hours of getting to the birth centre. But from arriving there I could hardly stand up and the contractions came seconds apart. There were moments when I thought I could not go on, but what could I do?.. this baby had to come out!
Elicia had a short umbilical cord which is why when my waters broke on Monday, the baby couldn’t come down low enough to start the contractions. It meant that when I came to push, for every cm she came out she would come back in two, until the cord had stretched enough for her head to be born. This was a bit of a demoralising hour and a half of pushing but unquestionably when the baby popped out and was placed on my breast it was most definitely worth it.
I admit my first feeling was relief and exhaustion when I first held Elicia in my arms. Then as I looked at this tiny beautiful, wrinkly, wet, waxy baby with wide blue eyes I was amazed. What a wonderful miracle of life! Thank you God! That night and the following day Tom and I kept breaking into tears; amazed that God had blessed us with our beautiful daughter. As parents, we felt nervous… should we really be allowed to care for such a delicate precious creature? I was overwhelmed by the love that poured out from me for this creature that I had just met. Perhaps this will help me to understand more about the love God has for his children.
Support after the birth
During the sleepless week and a half following the birth when I was recovering and it was painful to sit, stand and walk , we were so blessed by our Latin Link team. They brought us round a meal every night, we ate the best we had that week than we had all year! Our friend Suzanne meant so much to us visiting, washing up and so generously being there for us. It truely was God’s community in action.
We were also touched by the excitement of our Guatemalan friends who were desperate to see us. We appreciated church friends, colleagues and neighbours visiting, however at times it was a little intense and we needed to have time to learn how to be parents without attending to visitors. It was lovely to share our joy with our friends and family in the UK, What’sApp and email messages never ceased accompanied by numerous Skype conversations!
Guatemalan motherhood Advice
I must first acknowledge that advice was always given out of love and care. Also, that it is difficult to think analytically about concepts that are embedded into one’s culture, and realise that what one has grown up seeing isn’t necessarily the only way to do things.
40 days at home
It is cultural in Guatemala not to leave the house with your new born baby for 40 days. We first ventured out of the house in the second week. As we walked through our condominio, neighbours and shop keepers came out to see the baby. Even people we had never spoken to, but who had seen me pregnant, came to have a look in the pram. They were all shocked to see I was outside the house and worried that the fresh air would damage the baby. One lady told me I should put cotton wool in the baby’s ears to stop the air coming in!
Not only did we walk around our condomino but got on the bus to a local shopping centre to get Elicia’s passport photos taken. Elicia, oblivious to it all, returned home 2 hours later still asleep.
Imagine what our friends thought of us taking Elicia to this countryside farm and the beach!
After the baker had congratulated me and excitedly taken a look at Elicia, she told me off “How can you go outside the house without a jumper on? Your milk will go cold!”
During refreshments at church I queued up to receive my tostada with tomato sauce and oinon. When I asked to have some of the parsley sprinkled on top, the lady serving me’s face dropped: “Parsley?” she looked at me in shock. “You can’t have parsley, it will cut off your milk supply” Perhaps, being culturally insensitive I assured her that it wouldn’t damage my milk supply and asked for some on my tostada. Very reluctantly, going against all her beliefs, she sprinkled it on my tostada.
Colleagues at Potter’s House, friends at church and neighbours all asked me looking surprised: Why aren’t you giving Elicia a bottle? I replied that the mother’s milk was the best thing for a new born baby. “But you need to give formula as well so the baby gets enough and puts on weight”.
The paediatrician that I visited when Elicia was three weeks old asked if I was using formula. When I said no, she prescribed me a list of vitamin drops to give to the baby and told me Elicia was not gaining sufficient weight. Doctors often use weight tables for formula fed babies which don’t correlate with those breast fed. They don’t always take into account that babies grow at different rates and in our case, Elicia was born only weighing 5 pounds 14.
It is astonishing that even in such poor areas of Guatemala, mothers are encouraged to use formula milk to feed their babies, discarding their readily available, sterile, natural breast milk which boosts their baby’s immune system.
This is one aspect where I have felt most judged as a mother in Guatemala. Here, when the temperature is over 30 degrees and the sun feels burning hot, mothers wrap their babies in at least two layers of clothes and then big fleecy blankets that completely cover the baby. Sitting in my hot classroom, Elicia is red faced and sweaty in just a light cotton baby grow, the children scold me: “Why haven’t you wrapped her up? Put a blanket on her. Doesn’t it make her ill if she’s not wearing a hat?” My most accepted justification has been to tell my Guatemalan friends that if Elicia becomes accustomed to wearing blankets in the blazing heat of Guatemala how will she cope when she’s back in England where Winter temperatures fall below zero?
Holding the baby upright
When a baby is born the bones in their head are soft to facilitate the birth and they gradually get harder as the baby grows. Guatemalans believe that you shouldn’t stand the baby upright because this will enlarge the gap between those soft bones in their head.
When Elicia gets hiccups, everyone immediately rushes around anxiously telling me i need to get rid of them. People believe that tying a red ribbon around the baby’s wrist will stop the hiccups.
Out and About
I have been able to resume a few of my activities at Potter’s House and at church with Elicia. She is very much loved by everyone at church and Potter’s House. Being quite a tranquil baby, I have been able to lead bible studies with her on my knee and participate in planning meetings about the 2015 Holiday Clubs. Our first trip to Zone Three (around the rubbish dump) was met with so much excitement as my pupil’s parents came out of their houses to hold Elicia and even strangers in the street came to look at the ever-so-white baby!
Thank you all for your messages, prayers and gifts we have felt very loved.