Jul 8, 2020

Heart and Soil: Palawan’s Gentle Birth

I am writing this now as a friend from Ireland is outside this room in an intense process of giving birth to a baby girl in a pool of water inside this rented house in Casuy Road, Barangay Santa Monica.

As COVID-19 undergoes surges, so do other waves that arise, including a recent sudden demand for midwives and home births. Around the world where there are hospitals full of coronavirus patients, some mothers are being turned away so that many of them are opting to give birth at home or in small birth clinics.

I am writing this now as a friend from Ireland is outside this room in an intense process of giving birth to a baby girl in a pool of water inside this rented house in Casuy Road, Barangay Santa Monica.

Just now, Nicole’s cries during some hours of labor pain have been replaced by her laughter and baby Ayana’s first-ever vocal expressions, resounding with tones of glee following an intense journey, held so safe by a small birthing team consisting of a local hilot, a midwife and a doula. The women are still surrounding the pool where Nicole and her partner patiently await her body to naturally release the placenta, which will be preserved in accordance with the lotus birth.

As the team’s designated driver, I sit discreetly listening to these sounds from inside an adjacent room, reflecting what insights the gentle birth movement holds at this time.

Two weeks ago in Manila where a strict lockdown is ongoing, a friend underwent her second gentle home birth, a couple of months after another friend successfully delivered her baby boy in water in our ecovillage in Barangay Bacungan.

Giving birth in a pandemic-stricken world shifts the hospital process to the quieter and more traditional sanctities of the home or the birth clinic – those places women uphold their basic rights in making important decisions for their children.

My first experience of gentle birth was in 2010 when my son safely emerged into a pool of water after a quick and easy home water birth. My daughter was also born in water in November 2013, just a week after typhoon Yolanda had struck the Philippines. Since then, there have been countless water births by friends, either in Palawan or in different parts of the world. The gentle birth has been a constant witnessing of how women were beginning to take responsibility over the most natural process entrusted to all living things.

Over the years, I store a video of my daughter’s birth on my iPad. I am appreciative to have been a father who was granted the chance to “midwife” my own children’s births. I learn a lot from the odd chance of watching people’s facial expressions as they watch Issa slip so easily from her mother’s womb and into her arms. As shock shifts to awe, I witness the instantaneous shattering of our closely held paradigms around pain and fear. Gradually, minds ease into recognition of our oldest and most familiar ways. I listen to their silent utterance: “this is how it always has been and should be.”

In two separate places in our ecovillage, I quietly buried my son’s and daughter’s placentas alone. Many tribal people in the Philippines conduct this old ritual, believing that these are likely where souls choose to rest when they return to the earth.

I have had some chances to spend time with Robin Lim either when she visited Bahay Kalipay or upon visiting her home in Ubud, Bali, where she runs the Bumi Sehat Foundation. Ibu Robin received CNN’s Hero of the Year Award for 2011 for being the world’s leading advocate of gentle birth. This half-Filipina is responsible for establishing free care for thousands of pregnant mothers in Indonesia and has strongly safeguarded the gentle birth for numerous women from around the world.

Ibu Robin brings home gentle birth to the Philippines via Palawan Province, by opening Bahai Arugaan ni Maria Birth Center in 2020, in Aborlan municipality.

Paradoxically, one of the most painful positions in giving birth is to lay down. The position empowers the medical practitioner, as it disempowers the mother. According to Ibu Robin, when the baby exits the uterus and passes through the cervix, the mother’s body must move with a sensitive dynamic, dancing in a motion that allows the baby’s head and body to slip through the tight space in accordance with a magical angular movement made by the baby’s spine. In effect, the actual midwifery in the birthing process is timed by babies themselves, self-determining how they emerge into the world, given this chance they are deeply felt and heard.

A pool of water grants confidence to the mother, the father, and those involved in the “birth team.” In the warm liquid, listening to the baby’s rite of passage consists of waves of contractions and expansions held by the many elements that trigger the neurotransmitters and hormones that influence the autonomic nervous system’s reactive states.

In the birth room, music is key. We create playlists that allow the mother to journey through a plethora of emotion and physical sensations, enveloping those in the presence of the birth space, in deep trust.

Where worlds meet, important convergences occur. Isa Bel, a highly experienced German midwife has been living in Maia Earth Village for many years, working in tandem with Nanay Conching, (our most experienced local hilot in Maranat Tres in Barangay Bacungan) in slow integrative documentation of the ways traditional eastern wisdom meets western medical systems. Last year, Nanay Conching served as Isa’s own mid-wife when she herself gave birth to baby Laya in a rented cottage at the far end of Nagtabon beach.

By necessity, the gentle birth is an inevitable movement urged by conscious mothers in 2020 and beyond. Economic, medical, education, political, and social systems undergo many transformations now. If holistic change finds the earliest starting point, our healing might begin from the roots of our being, our very moment of arrival.

As more and more women hold space for our understanding of this most sacred activity, Philippine advocates are gently reminded of what we know from our deepest indigenous remembrances: nature facilitates best, our most fundamental process.

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