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by Melinda Chickering
When I tell friends from the USA, my home country, how we chose to give birth, they always say, “You’re so brave!” What would possess an educated, middle-class, thirty-something American woman to choose to give birth in a bathtub in Bali, rather than ensuring that she had the most advanced medical care in the world at her disposal, just in case?
Friends and family at home in the USA followed their cultural cues and ob/gyn’s advice. American culture prizes rationality, efficiency, risk mitigation, comfort and convenience. Most people take their doctors’ advice, have extensive pre-natal testing, give birth in a hospital, experience numerous interventions, and do not consider low-tech alternatives. Without the cultural tethers of ‘home’ and family, we faced a daunting freedom and sought our own way. I had always been one to do my research, and the pregnancy research revealed polarized opinions about how and where it’s best to give birth.
In over 30 years on Earth, I had never seen a birth - not of a farm animal, a pet or a person. My mom has four children, including two who appeared when I was an adolescent. Presence at their births could have been a marvelous bit of sex education! But in my home culture, birth is kept behind closed doors, a mysterious event fraught with pain, risk and fear. I hope that sharing my story will strip away some of the mystery and reveal some of the magic.
This is the story of how and why we decided to bring our baby into the world as we did, how it went, and how it changed my outlook on life. The answers we found in Bali and within ourselves paid off in a personally transformative experience. On the journey from head to heart, I found strength in loving support and empowerment in surrender. My experience of birth has become a touchstone of feeling more at home in the world, and in my own skin.
Becoming Home unfolds against the backdrop of contrasting cultures - eastern and western, traditional and modern. It braids together my experiences of Bali, of pregnancy and birth, and my own very personal shifts in the process.
My fears about giving birth arose from growing up in a culture focused on pain, inconvenience and risk mitigation on birthday. It was hard to trust that everything might be just fine. As a child, I had also felt vulnerable and unsafe, even in my own home. This was due to early experiences with divorce, drug and alcohol addiction and sexual abuse. From a child feeling unsafe, I grew up to be hyper-vigilant adult. These influences made it doubly difficult for me to surrender to the unknown and trust my body’s innate wisdom.
This also made it doubly worthwhile to do so. The fear that focuses on preventing worst-case scenarios often prompts interventions - even in healthy, normal pregnancies like ours - that also numb the potential of best-case scenarios. Our water birth at a small neighborhood clinic in Bali was a sacred experience that put me more in touch with myself and my sense of the divine as well as with my husband and our baby.
Becoming Home teases out the potential for birth to be more than birth - even a beautiful, gentle, empowering, loving and healthy one. It can be an opportunity to reach deep inside oneself and find the comfort of Home within. Our story also illustrates the contrasts not only between cultures of birth (modern and medicalized / gentle and natural) but also fundamental cultural contrasts between the cultures of Bali and the USA (east and west). There are some stark contrasts here that are no more vividly represented than in the context of such a precious and vulnerable experience as pregnancy and birth.
While modern medicine has a crucial role to play in emergencies, our pregnancy and birth were textbook normal, without pathology or complication. I believe that if we had chosen a hospital birth with many interventions, as is common in contemporary America, we would have forgone a huge opportunity. I hope our story inspires others to take their own leaps of faith – in birth or in life. Growing up in Iowa, I always dreamed of traveling the world, but I never imagined I would give birth in a bathtub in Bali.
Melinda Chickering is a writer and journalist who lives in Bali. Pre-order her book Becoming Home: A Memoir of Birth in Baliat .