A friend of mine – a French woman whose son is in the same class as B. – just had her third baby here in Tokyo. She had a home birth. My third baby, M., was also born at home.
M. with one of our midwives soon after her birth
My first two births were very good experiences, although the labors were very long. I had those babies at a birth center in the U.S. The first birth felt particularly special because I had been hospitalized with a complication for nearly a month from 33-38 weeks. To have been able to birth my baby as I'd hoped to was unexpected and very sweet. I think it's likely that had I birthed in a hospital back home, the births would have been hurried along in some way, since the pushing stage in the first labor was four hours and not much shorter in my second.
The day before we moved to Japan, I found out I was pregnant with our third child. So one of the first things I did when I got settled in was look for a midwife.
There are many options for birth here. Usually women birth in a hospital, clinic, or birth house. I think the culture here probably supports natural birth better than back home, regardless of where you choose to birth. (I birthed my fourth baby in a Japanese hospital – and someday I will tell you that story, too – it was quite similar to my birth center births). The vast majority of my Japanese friends have had unmedicated births (in hospitals), so much so that it's utterly unremarkable. That I've had four babies naturally is taken for granted here; even the discomfort of labor is not spoken of that much. Among my friends here, birth isn't not spoken of with particular pride either – it just is what it is. Women give birth – their bodies were made to give birth – that's the message I hear, here.
I've also met quite a few women who have given birth at home. Here's the cover of a book written by one of them, my friend Ito Emiko, who blogs here. Her husband took photos of their fourth child's home birth for this wonderful photo essay:
I had no real reason to fear unnecessary interventions or a high c-section rate if I chose a hospital here for my third baby, but I decided to look for a home birth midwife.
Having a home birth here was such a wonderful experience on so many levels. It was, of course, amazing to be able to labor and birth in my own home. I felt extremely relaxed, and it was good to know my boys were nearby, with all of us in a familiar environment. I'd woken up in the middle of the night in labor, called our midwife, and even baked a cake (inspired by a friend of mine who had baked a pineapple upside down cake in early labor). I loved being able to putter around in my own home during labor. Labor moved so quickly that I forgot to put eggs in the cake!
It was really interesting to compare midwifery care between the U.S. and Japan. There were many more similarities – the focus on emotional, not just physical, care for a pregnant and laboring mother; the way pregnancy and birth are regarded as natural processes; the midwives' quiet, unobtrusive presence once active labor begins. One of the main differences I noticed had to do with diet. My Japanese midwife focused a lot more on what I ate than my midwives back home had – not weight gain, but what I was eating. I was advised not to eat anything that would chill my body, particularly my midsection. There's a tremendous emphasis on keeping your midsection adequately warm when you're pregnant, based, I'm guessing, on traditional medicinal beliefs about keeping your core warm. Many women wear belly warmers, even in summer. The other area I was advised to keep warm were my feet and ankles. Almost all the Japanese pregnant women I saw were wearing leggings and socks, even in the heat of summer. I was advised to do moxibustion on my inner ankles every day. I was a total skeptic at first, I'll admit. I've heard of moxibustion being performed to help breech babies turn, but it was hard for me to find information about it really helping promote a smoother labor (although the inner ankle points are the same ones used to help induce labor naturally via acupressure). But I figured it couldn't hurt so I tried it for the last few months. And I did start to tune in and notice which areas of my body were feeling cold .
In any case, my girl was born within five hours. What a happy morning that was!
My friend Jennifer reports on homebirth under fire in the U.S. It makes me sad – especially given my perspective and experience about how normal and unremarkable it seems to be to give birth naturally here – that birth is such a fraught, contested issue back home.
I'm fascinated by how birth is regarded around the world. What sort of birth options are there where you live? What's the dominant cultural message you hear about birth?