The time immediately following birth in Haiti is a special time. It is a time when families pull together in intimate circles of care and embrace the new life and a new mother. During the pregnancy, these families have nourished mothers and the small lives within them, and also been nourished by them. After birthing, whether you give birth in a hospital or at home, you can expect to rest indoors, painstakingly tended to by the women in your family with whom you are closest. During this time, your mother and aunts, perhaps a close cousin too, will help you wash your body…
They will tie your waist to strengthen you, while caring together for and bonding with your new baby. They will unwrap your baby’s small blanket, undo the clothes to bathe her gently, look closely at each and every part of her body—leaning close to examine her ten tiny fingernail beds, the inner creases of eyes, the folds of her neck, her legs and back and hair. Tiny yellow bottles of Johnson and Johnson baby bath would be collected in a corner somewhere, a treasured smell.
So complete is this care that each soiled diaper would be a subject of conversation, not up shut and tossed out right away, but opened and explored for any sign that something isn’t right. Any trace of blood, any evidence of a chill. In like fashion you too would be tended to, your body washed and cared for as it sheds over many days the fertile home it grew in itself.
It is a messy transformation, one filled with raw, organic smells and textures, things that go back in and things that come out, and even in that intimate bodily space, others would be there for you. Your feet would be gently wrapped in the softest socks, the bed covered in as thick and as comfortable fabric as could be found, a nest for the emotional and physical transformation you undergo. That is what the Haitian mothers we are speaking with could come to expect.
Women and families, using this language of bodily care, communicate to other women that their lives, and the lives of their children, are cherished. That they will be helped to blossom. That they are valued. Most of all, it communicates that they are not alone. Through the suffering and the joy and the pain of this metamorphosis, through the dangers it brings, through its triumphs, they are not alone.
Nel, is a middle-aged Haitian woman who, like many in rural Haiti, is skilled in herbal healing and knows a great deal about women’s health and early infancy. She has tried to instill these skills in her daughter and grandaughters, emphasizing the importance of sacred bodily care in the post-partum period.
“When I gave birth, really when anyone in my town at all gives birth, even if its at the hospital, as soon as you get home you go into a prepared room in your house. The other women you are close with go inside with you during the first three days when your body is cleaning itself out from the first part of the birth…they help you clean yourself throughout that time…You can’t drink water, but only a prepared special drink, ti zan. It takes three days for ti zan to wash your body out, to cleanse you from the tissue and discharge of birth. After three days, the first part of those birthing substances are out of you. The women staying with you leave the house. They go search for the medicinal herbs they need to bathe you and soothe your body. Understand? They boil the herbs in a large pot of water, and then let them cool. They do a ritual called the benyen cho, bathe you in the warmed herbal water. They boil ti zan, they give it to her with kosman, gwo koz zaboka, they put it all together and boil it in hot water, and the mother bathes. It cleans out her body from the birth. The water is not boiling hot, but it cant be cold. If you have a cesarean section they wait a while before giving you this bath. They don’t do it right away because its important the surgery wound heals. But still, you would be inside, with others caring for you during that time. Inside with your baby, without leaving that safe space. Other people do everything for you so you don’t have any wants or needs. They bring you food, bring you water, bathe you. You don’t have to ask for anything.”
Even if you end up in an emergency birth in the hospital, once the baby and you are safe enough to leave, that is what should await you. Smelling the cooked herbs, tasting the tastes, feeling the gentle forms of touch and bodily nourishment that have been passed down to you from the ancestors. Even if, and especially if, the baby dies, that care is what should await you. Even if you die, that is the circle of care you leave your baby in.
For it is not a woman alone who brings a child into this world. When we talk about what the experience after birthing is like in Haiti, that is the image we want you to imagine. How it is supposed to be. How it has been. How it can be again.