Friday, August 19, 2011

Our Singing Birth Story

I gave birth in Bali. I had a natural birth in water, assisted by midwife Ibu Robin Lim. My daughter had a lotus birth, we didn’t cut her cord and we left her placenta attached to her until the cord dropped off spontaneously. I also used our placenta as a post-partum remedy. I treated it with salt, I dried it and I ate it in form of grinded powder.

Now, my girlfriends thought all this was very exotic and extremely unusual. They asked me to describe my experience in detail. So I did. I was amazed by their reaction; I didn’t realize how lonely can a new mother be. I had such an emotional feedback. Every new mother got back to me with her own story, and other women who didn’t have children were equally moved. My experience was unfamiliar to them, but at the same time, it was awakening something very deep and painful, a wound. I followed the suggestion to share my story beyond the circle of friends, as it could help other women to make their choices, but most of all to make them feel less alone. I published my Memoirs of a Singing Birth. Giving birth is an extremely emotional experience; it is such an intense state that there will never be enough words to describe it, but oh, how much do we need them; in form of storytelling, poems, songs, performances… We have a deeply rooted need to celebrate motherhood.

Before, when I was a Maiden, my perception of birth was vague, distant and unfamiliar. As the matter of fact, I was scared in front of that black hole that for me was the act of birth. My mother gave birth in the hospital for three times. She didn’t have much to tell about it. Or, she didn’t like to go into detail about that experience, just few hints. I knew my grandmother gave birth at home, on her bed. For three times she was assisted by her mother, my great-grandmother, who was a medicine woman, and by her husband, who was holding her under the arms while she was kneeling. It was a beautiful image that I cherished as a jewel in my memory, since my mother told me about it. The forth time she gave birth, my grandma had a modern midwife since her mother could not assist her anymore, and this midwife was applying modern birthing methods, like a lay-down position. It was in the late ‘50s. But the labor was hard and long and my grandma made it only when the midwife told her to do as she did before, kneeling. Later on, the practice of midwifery became illegal in my country. All women that I knew gave birth in a hospital. The medicated birth was the end of birth storytelling; there was only silence, few descriptive words and occasional whispers of medical mishaps. Birth became ”a thing to do”, a “necessary nuisance”, something to forget about as soon as possible, something unfamiliar, often humiliating and basically it was considered uninteresting and annoying, to talk about it, even within the same family. There was no way anymore to witness a birth in the family. With the hospital birth, the chain of experience that used to be passed from mother to daughter was broken, and grandmas followed the fashion of not talking about certain things. Now, this is what I noticed in my personal background, but I found out it is common to many women that I met.

At the time when I became pregnant, I knew I was no longer a “normal” woman, I could not accept the idea of being a “patient”. The word “patient” comes from the Latin word “patientem”, meaning “bearing and enduring without complaint”. And this is what women are supposed to do while they are about to give birth to their child in the hospital. They are considered sick. Now, I was not sick. I felt all I needed was love and kindness, a maternal help. I had a problem though: where would I go to give birth with such request?

I was living in Bali with my partner Rob. We decided to give birth to our daughter on the “Island of Gods”. It seemed more human. Balinese culture pays very much attention on the act of birth and it respects both the mother and the child with all its attributes. But maternity hospitals in Bali are modern western hospitals, nothing romantic, nothing maternal. I didn’t know any trusted midwife, until I found out about Ibu Robin Lim and her natural birth center Yayasan Bumi Sehat. A friend gave me her number. I called her and we went to meet her in Ubud. She was speaking my tongue. She was practicing water birth and lotus birth; she was maternal, kind and loving. She had the answer for everything. She was strong, a fighter, but at the same time, very sensitive and generous. I felt secure. I knew I could trust her no matter what. I could stop worrying and I could let myself go, knowing I will be treated like a daughter. I felt so lucky.

Ibu Robin is a great supporter of birth singing. She and other midwives at Bumi Sehat welcome the child with songs and quiet mantras. They sing while catching the baby. She was so happy I was a singer, and she told me that singing would help me during labor.

When I went into labor, I found myself confronted with an unknown feeling of pain, cyclical waves of pain. I needed some time to realize what was going on at first, but after a few hours it became intense and very clear. At some point, I started to sing, it came to me spontaneously. It was the sign for Rob, while he was driving me to Ibu Robin that I was unable to communicate. I was in another dimension, within myself. I was inside with my pain, fighting my demon, facing the beast, killing the dragon. I was in my story, and the song was the link between me and the world.

Rob and I were writing songs during my pregnancy. We made an album during our first year together - a celebration of our love and passion, a tribute to our mojo. When we were expecting our child, the child of that mojo, new songs were coming to us. They were fine and mellow, sweet and gentle, the reflection of our pink baby cloud.

At some point during labor, I started to sing one of our new songs. It felt so appropriate. The song gave shape to my pain. If I was inside, my voice was out there, representing my feelings. It was a faithful representation, I assure you. Rob could clearly follow my waves by listening to my interpretation. There was no need for words. During these pain-singing sessions I could realize that the pain was not lasting longer then a few verses, peaking at the very beginning. I was measuring the pain and the contraction by articulating the song. When the contraction stopped, I would stop. And it was a short span. It lasted little more then one minute. It took me by surprise. Inside, I thought the pain was a never-ending giant monster. Now, this new discovery was relieving. I could rationalize the pain, I could prepare myself for a new one. I found a method!

I don’t know about you, but I like to have things clear in my mind, I’m very rational and I need to know about what’s going on, not to control it, but to let go more easily, with a piece of mind. If I were a yogi, maybe the meditation would do the trick for me. But I’m not a yogi, and my mind needs to be fed with appropriate food: information, logic, schemes, calculations. I had to cheat on my mind by distracting her, and singing did the trick. It took off my mind from the fact that my body was feeling pain, so my body could feel the pain in peace, without being bothered by fear. I let go. I let the contractions do their job. I was facing my wave of pain with tranquility and confidence, because I knew they wouldn’t last more then few verses. I would start on top of the wave and then descent towards the shore. All that in about a minute or so. If the pain was my wave, the song was my surf board. I’m not a surfer, really, but the metaphor fits nicely.

I wasn’t aware, but singing was also helping the dilatation of my cervix, as Ibu Robin would explain to me later, since the mouth and the vagina are tightly connected in our body. Of course, one could also vocalize or groan and moan, everything is good except shutting up and holding inside. Well, let’s say that screaming is not of much help, it’s a waste of energy, but its better then holding up. That is why a nice familiar atmosphere is better for birth. A woman needs to feel at ease to let herself go, like in love making.

When the pain was intense beyond my imagination, I started to make weird faces, protruding my tongue, like a demon or a Medusa. The iconographic tradition from all over the world shows this funny face, it’s an archetype. And for me, in that moment, it felt appropriate. I finally understood what was it about. It spoke clearly to me saying, take out your tongue, open your mouth, let the sound come out from your guts, from your roots, this is what you are supposed to do. Ibu Robin was encouraging me to do so. She was actually enthusiastic that I was doing all that weird stuff because she knew this would influence my dilatation. So it did.

Now, imagine the scene – it looks grotesque? Instead, it was sensual, and it felt sensual and sexy. Rob was pleased. It was as if we were making love. In a way. It was also very funny. I laughed a lot about the situation. Laughter is another good thing to do to open up. But nobody laughed at me, they were laughing with me, making jokes, chatting, being supportive and nice. I wasn’t at home, but I felt at ease at Bumi Sehat. And Ibu Robin Lim was like a mother to me.

Lecture at Mamapalooza Expo & Conference, Marymount Manhattan College, NYC, May 2011.


  1. Lovely story! I spent six wonderful weeks catching babies at Bumi Sehat last year and hope to go back soon!
    Are you presenting your singing workshops yet? And where?

  2. Hi Rivka!
    Thank you for your lovely comment. I'm so glad we share the love for Bumi Sehat. What an amazing place... and what amazing people supporting it!