Rachel is British and her husband is Balinese, and their babies were born in Indonesia and welcomed in typical — but still fascinating — Hindu cultural fashion, which all combines for a super interesting birth experience! I’ve read this essay at least three times, and I’m still crazy about that ground touching ceremony. (But seriously gasping at the story of Rachel’s online friend’s mother-in-law! Oh my goodness!)
You’re really going to love this one, Friends. So please join me in welcoming Rachel and her Balinese babies!
I’m originally from the UK and met my Balinese husband while I was backpacking around Asia. I knew nothing about Bali before I came here, and was thrown in the deep end somewhat after we married. I moved into my husband’s family compound after we knew each other for less than a year.
Bali is a deeply traditional and spiritual culture, and religious ceremonies are an important part of daily life. Family is also incredibly important, as children are expected to look after their parents in their old age and to continue the family name and traditions. So naturally everyone was thrilled when we found out we were expecting a baby a few months after our wedding.
Until fairly recently, it was common for women in Bali to have their babies at home with the assistance of a doula (midwife), but these days, most women choose to give birth in a hospital. Many women, especially those from poorer areas, still give birth at home and the infant mortality rate in Indonesia is one of the highest in the world. A clinic called Bumi Sehat was set up close to us in Ubud, run by American midwife and CNN Hero of the Year, Robin Lim. This clinic exists mainly to provide maternity services to women who cannot afford to pay for medical treatment, but many expats also choose to have their babies there due to their natural and gentle birthing approach.
Although Bumi Sehat has an excellent reputation, I opted to visit a specialist maternity hospital for monthly check-ups during my pregnancy, which occurred weekly as my due date approached. My experience was very different to what I would have had in the UK, where maternity services are midwife-led and most women only have two ultrasound scans during their pregnancy. I had a scan at every single appointment and ended up with a full book of them by the end! I was also assigned an obstetrician who saw me at every appointment, and I did not see a midwife until I was actually in labour.
I’d decided to go for a hospital birth just to play things safe as it was my first pregnancy, but I was still very keen to do things naturally. So I was glad that my doctor was an advocate of natural birth and advised me to look into hypno-birthing. Generally no pain relief is available for Indonesian women for a normal birth, although I have heard of women opting for a Caesarean section to avoid the pain!
Despite the number of scans and the fact my medical care was obstetrician-led, the whole system seems to be fairly laid back in terms of medical tests. There was no thorough checking of the 20 week ultrasound, and I didn’t have a blood or urine test until week 20. This is fine if there are no complications. However, there’s a shortage in Bali of negative blood, so if you run into any problems it would make sense to at least know your blood type earlier on in the pregnancy! I’ve heard of women shipping in blood from Singapore in case of complications during labour. I actually ended up having a post-partum haemorrhage after my second labour, but was lucky enough not to need any donated blood.
Very few women in the UK give birth in a private hospital. The normal procedure is to labour in a private room and then stay in a ward with several other women after the baby is born. Here it is the other way around! When I had a tour of the hospital I was impressed with the lovely hotel-like rooms that the family gets to stay in after the baby is born (with an extra bed for the father) but the delivery room consisted of a few narrow beds separated with a metal curtain looking very clinical and under harsh lighting. I actually cried after I saw because I really didn’t want to give birth there!
As it turned out, both my births were so fast, I didn’t really care where I was giving birth in the end! For my daughter, I came in for my normal check up in the morning and my doctor wouldn’t let me leave as I was already 3cm dilated and contracting…although I felt nothing! I spent all day at the hospital complaining because they wouldn’t let me go home, but they made me stay in the delivery room because I got to about 7cm without feeling any contractions. I was so fed up at being made to stay in that tiny room and refused to lie on the bed so I paced up and down beside it instead until my water broke and I was suddenly hit with strong contractions with no break in between them – after only an hour or two (my memory of this part is a little hazy!), my daughter was born.
My doctor told me to come to the hospital when my contractions were 10 minutes apart for my second pregnancy since my first birth was so fast. As it happens, I woke up at 3:00 am with only the mildest of cramps, which quickly became stronger. When I timed them, they were only one minute apart! I arrived at the hospital fully dilated and my son was born at 5:00 am, only two hours after I first felt those mild cramps!
I’d heard stories about Indonesian hospitals taking babies away and feeding them formula, but this wasn’t the case with my hospital that was very pro-breastfeeding. The only annoying thing was they kept taking my babies away and putting them in the nursery! I wanted to be with them all the time, so I kept calling and asking to bring them back. Apparently most Indonesian women prefer the babies to be taken care of by the nurses for the first couple of days while they rest.
There are a few traditions from the Balinese Hindu culture that I found interesting while I was pregnant. It’s considered bad luck for the father to cut his hair while his wife is pregnant, so my husband ended up growing quite a mane of hair that he promptly shaved off when our children were a day or two old. Pregnant women are also encouraged to eat whatever they crave; it’s believed that if you deny your cravings, the baby will be born with a twisted face! There are few restrictions on what to eat and drink, but my husband tried to get me to drink Dalumen, a green jelly drink, as it’s considered particularly healthy for pregnant women. I refused because it looks (and tastes) like pond slime to me! After giving birth, new mothers are given mung bean porridge with coconut milk and ginger to increase milk production.
While some pregnant women have a ceremony for their baby while they’re still pregnant, most of the ceremonies come after the baby is born. It’s very important that these ceremonies are all completed properly in order for the baby to become a fully-fledged Balinese Hindu. They’re normally completed on specific dates according to the date of birth but if a baby is born outside the country, they might all be completed at once when the child is older.
The first and most important of these ceremonies involves the ari ari, or placenta. This is carefully saved after the birth at the hospital and is buried outside the parent’s home in the family compound with a stone placed on top. As you enter someone’s home, you’ll see stones for girls on the right and boys on the left. Every day, special offerings are placed on this stone. When the baby is small, the stone is washed with the baby’s bath water and given small oleh oleh, gifts of cake from wherever the parents have been outside the house that day.
My mother in law also brought offerings to the hospital. There is a small temple on the side of the hospital (just like every building in Bali) where more offerings are placed. We had a small ceremony outside the house to officially welcome us when we came back to the hospital, and a new plankiran, wooden shrine, had been placed on our bedroom wall for more offerings. This is also the place where the baby’s umbilical cord stump is kept after it falls off. It’s believed if the baby falls ill, drinking tea made with this will cure any serious illness.
As a new mother, I was forbidden to enter the kitchen until my baby’s cord stump had fallen off, which is actually quite a clever way to ensure mothers rest and stay with their babies instead of cooking for the rest of the family. I was treated like a queen and had all my meals and even glasses of water brought to me!
Balinese babies generally don’t leave the family compound except for hospital visits until they have their ground touching ceremony at three months. Babies are generally carried around and passed from arms to loving arms – there’s always someone willing to hold the baby! You’ve probably heard the phrase “It takes a village to raise a child” and this is really true in Bali, where everything – especially childcare – is shared between the extended family members. It’s common for Indonesian women to hand over a lot of the childcare to their mother-in-law, and nearly all the babies I saw at the clinic in the first few months were in the arms of the grandmother, with the mother trailing behind. Coming from a reserved culture and wanting to look after my baby myself, I found this quite hard to deal with, although luckily my in-laws were very respectful and didn’t overstep their boundaries too much. Another woman I know online who married a Balinese man came in to find her mother-in-law breastfeeding her baby!
The first main ceremony for the baby is at five weeks, which is one Balinese month (the Balinese use a different calendar system). After this ceremony, I was free to go back inside the family temple. New mothers and menstruating women are considered unclean and may not enter any temple. We continued to have a small ceremony for our babies each month.
The major baby ceremony is the ground touching ceremony which takes place at three Balinese months (six months in some parts of Bali). On this date, the baby is officially welcomed to the family as a real human being; up to this point they’re considered to be like little angels, halfway between the earth and spiritual plane. The ceremony is as big as a wedding, involving thousands of offerings which take many months to make. A pig must be purchased for making ceremonial babi guling (spit roast pork) and the baby normally wears a special outfit and lots of gold jewelry including bracelets, anklets, rings, and a necklace that often contains an amulet that has been blessed by a priest for protection. As you can imagine, this gets quite expensive!
The ceremony for boys and girls is slightly different. For my daughter, I had to walk her around a central group of offerings three times (just as I did for our wedding), before she touched the ground for the first time. She was then encouraged to pick objects from a bowl of water, and the baby’s choice is supposed to indicate their future. While this was going on, I was given a vegetable dressed as a baby (seriously!) and then exchanged my vegetable baby for my real baby, who by this point was blinged out in all her gold jewelry! My son’s ceremony didn’t include the vegetable part but was very similar. The baby then has her first taste of foods to represent all the different flavours (sweet, sour, etc.) in the family temple, and the whole family prays together.
At 210 days old, Balinese children have their first otonan, or Balinese birthday. At this point they have all their hair shaved off as a cleansing ritual so that they can attend the village temple ceremonies. My son didn’t have much hair anyway so he didn’t look very different, but my daughter looked quite funny for quite a while! We went back to the UK for a visit just a few days after my daughter’s first otonan, and I reckon everyone was thinking I was a terrible parent for shaving my poor baby’s head! After this ceremony, each village temple is visited in turn with a special ceremony to officially welcome the baby to the temple. However, the Pura Dalem or cemetery temple (sometimes translated as the dramatic sounding “temple of death”!) cannot be attended until children are about two years old.
When babies are a few weeks old, the family can visit a special kind of holy man who communicates with the spirits and finds out which member of the family has been reincarnated into their body. My daughter is apparently the reincarnation of my husband’s older brother, who died at birth.
Apart from the religious ceremonies, the cultural differences when it comes to raising children are quite apparent. Babies are bundled up at all times despite Bali being a tropical country and very hot all year round. I have seen many babies wearing multiple layers of clothing and woolly hats while the parents are sweating and fanning themselves in shorts and a t-shirt. When we left the hospital, both my children were dressed by the nurses in clothes, booties, mittens and hat, swaddled in muslin, wrapped in a flannel sheet, and then swaddled in a blanket! I was never allowed to take my children out without wearing socks and a hat as babies, and I still remember the death glares that a Western woman with a newborn wearing only a nappy got at the baby clinic!
In the UK, new babies are not allowed to leave the hospital unless they are safely secured in a car seat. I had bought a car seat in Bali and installed it in our car, but wasn’t allowed to use it; most people here think it’s cruel to strap babies in a seat instead of holding them in your arms. Although saying that, the majority of babies go home on the back of a motorbike, rather than in a car!
It’s also believed that shallots will keep babies safe from evil spirits. We had to cut open one and put in in the bedroom every night and rub it our baby’s forehead before we went out of the house. Whenever my son or daughter had an unexplained crying fit, my mother-in-law would chase me around the compound trying to put shallots on them!
I’m a big believer in baby-led weaning, which made my husband’s parents think I was completely insane! Babies here eat only rice porridge until they are at least a year old and are spoon fed for much longer. I’ve seen six and seven year olds being spoon fed!
While some of the cultural differences can be frustrating, I still feel incredibly lucky that I have the opportunity to raise my children here. In the West, so many people are focused on work and money. But here, family and culture are the only things that really matter. And hey! If I’d had my kids in the UK, I doubt my two year old would have been speaking three languages and reciting mantras in Sanskrit!
Thank you, Rachel! Friends, was I right? This was an excellent glimpse into a gorgeous birth culture. Can you imagine if your partner grew out their hair for your entire pregnancy? Or not being allowed to enter the kitchen until your baby’s umbilical cord has fallen off? Or bring home your baby on a motorbike? It’s so eye-opening, isn’t it?
Tell me which custom touched you the most, will you? I can’t help but feel that all the celebrations and rituals and prayers are the absolute best way to welcome a baby.