In the Delivery Room: Reflections on Childbirth and Intergenerational Trauma
呼吸//Breathe is a series in collaboration with feminist researcher, PhD candidate, community organiser and Migrant Zine Collective founder Helen Yeung 希琳. It aims to capture the multi-faceted, complicated and often contradictory emotions behind survivorship for Asian migrant women and marginalised genders. The Chinese characters 呼 (fu1) 吸 (kap1) mean to exhale and to inhale. When combined, they make up the action of breathing, often unnoticed but vital for our existence and living. The series invites three writers to document emotions such as hope, anger, grief, healing and tenderness, and what it’s like continuing to breathe in the present and every day. 呼吸//Breathe features an editorial by Helen Yeung 希琳, and essays from Dinithi Bowatte, Nalin Samountry and an unnamed Guest Contributor. Each piece is accompanied by artworks from illustrator Liz Yu.
Please note that this series contains sensitive conversations around trauma, abuse and harm and may be upsetting for some survivors to read.
The temperature in the delivery suite is warm. It’s strange to feel so warm in a sterile hospital space. I’m also running warm because of what I’ve been calling the heater in my belly – more accurately, the full-term baby in my womb. I am sitting in one of two occupied delivery rooms in the labour ward of my local hospital. I am a Laos writer living in Wainuiomata with my partner and two children. I am a couple weeks into my maternity leave from legal resource writing and expecting to deliver my third baby within the next day in this room.
If you are going to be giving birth, chances are you have come across information on how breathing techniques can help during childbirth. There is a library of breathing techniques that aim to increase relaxation and decrease the perception of pain. The idea is that controlled breathing can reduce fear and anxiety during childbirth. When the mind is in a relaxed state, the body can give birth more quickly and painlessly.
I’ve had a vaginal delivery and a caesarean section for my first two children respectively. The experiences differed greatly but shared one common denominator for me – I really had no choice in what was happening to my body. From the contractions slowly and painfully changing the form of my cervix, to the obstructed labour and an acute surgical delivery, I had, in both experiences, the feeling of a forceful evacuation.
In both childbirth experiences, I practised breathing techniques. I felt it was the only thing I could control in the entire experience. I am admittedly not someone who loves to be pregnant and views childbirth as the ultimate manifestation of feminine empowerment. For me, pregnancy is a conduit to having a child, childbirth is an inevitable and unavoidable experience. Having some sort of control during childbirth was a lifeline I clung to as my body was the most out of my control it has ever been.
In my childbirth experiences, I’ve focused on a deep breath in, holding it for five seconds, then a calm breath out. With every inhale and exhale, I controlled and then manifested. It was between these breaths that I felt the strongest connection to every maternal figure in my life, especially my mother.
It was between these breaths that I felt the strongest connection to every maternal figure in my life, especially my mother.
My mother was born in Laos, the third of five children. She took her first breath at home in the northern hills of Luang Prabang. She grew up in a culture and economy of subsistence. Her family’s life centred around the simple acts of sustaining themselves through fishing, farming and grazing livestock. The memories of her childhood, like collecting bamboo, fruits, greens, honey and khem grass, are rooted in her natural surroundings. She excelled at creating things with her hands, which is how she can still manipulate paper into delicate flowers and is the craftiest person I know.
She grew up in the midst of a decades-long civil war and on the fringes of the Vietnam War. From 1964 to 1973, the US dropped more than two million tons of bombs over Laos, equal to a planeload of bombs every eight minutes, 24 hours a day, for nine years. Laos is famously known as the most bombed country per capita in history. My mother had to risk uncovering an unexploded bomb every time she went foraging. She had to learn the signs of a recent cluster bombing before walking any unexplored path, and swears she could still recognise the hum of different US military planes.
Laos is famously known as the most bombed country per capita in history
As a first-generation New Zealander, the disconnect I feel with my family’s culture has been defining to my identity. The nuances of this feeling are shared on one of my favourite Instagram accounts – @browngirltherapy hosts a mental-health community for children of immigrants, run by writer Saha Kaur Kohli. The page applies mental-health information to the unique experience of children of immigrants. They recently posted a thread that perfectly describes the feeling of grief I have when I want to connect with my own cultural identity. It describes carrying the grief passed down from your parents’ traumas or because of what was taken from your ancestors through wars, imperialism or colonialism. When life feels the most tense, when I feel the most stretched and thinned, this feeling of grief is harder to carry.
During childbirth, I want to be connected more than ever to my ancestors and to their knowledge of childbirth. But there’s a barrier in the medical system that prioritises Western medical practices over cultural knowledge. For someone who already feels like an imposter within my own culture, trying to assert some cultural responsibility within the labour experience in an overtly Western medical setting is overwhelming. The work to be done to incorporate cultural knowledge into labour practices performed in hospitals is significant. The perspective I have encountered in the medical system is mirrored in the letter, published in the Listener in 2021, by seven academics who said that the Indigenous knowledge of mātauranga Māori “falls short of what can be defined as science itself”.
My maternal grandmother died when my mother was six. Her father was unable to support five young children alone, so my mother was sent to live with relatives. Growing up without her mother, father or siblings, she felt unmothered (a word coined by writer and poet Meghan O’Rourke to describe those without mothers). When she became a refugee as a young adult, this was amplified to a feeling that she had no place in her own country.
Like most immigrant parents, mine provided me with everything I needed, but not in the form that I wanted. The most prominent depiction of family I was exposed to came on TV between 5.30 and 7.30pm. I ate up Western depictions of mothers in 30-minute morsels and would compare my own family life to the perfect family with the Stepford wife and mother. I compared my mum to American sitcom moms who were only on screen to reflect their devotion to their families, not as fully fleshed human beings with their own lives.
I compared my mum to American sitcom moms who were only on screen to reflect their devotion to their families, not as fully fleshed human beings with their own lives.
Looking back on my childhood, I recognise now the difficulty my mother had with mothering, especially when she lost her own so young. She resented the expectations I had of her and I resented her aloofness. She was not always emotionally available and it took me until adulthood to realise it wasn’t my presence that caused this. I have a memory of her telling me, when I was ten years old, that she was leaving my father to live with another man, and that she would be taking my two older sisters but not me. It’s hard not to take that kind of rejection personally and, if I’m honest, I still carry that chip on my shoulder. It’s probably the reason why, every time my partner says “I love you”, I reply with “Do you?”
The relationship I have with my mother led me to learn about generational disadvantage, or how the effects of trauma can be passed down through generations. Recent research on intergenerational disadvantage in Aotearoa shows that maternal mental health is the primary indicator for a child’s health and wellbeing. A recently published paper on intergenerational disadvantage and the importance of maternal mental health says that even mild stress during pregnancy can affect the development of a child. This suggests that intergenerational disadvantage can be passed from mother to child through biological contributions.
According to the Helen Clark Foundation report Āhurutia Te Rito, It Takes a Village, 20 percent of New Zealanders experienced symptoms consistent with clinical mental illness during the perinatal period (from the beginning of pregnancy until up to a year after birth). This could include feelings of anger, anxiety, guilt or hopelessness. In extreme cases, it could include maternal suicide, which is Aotearoa New Zealand’s leading cause of death for pregnant people and new mothers. Caring for the mental health of pregnant people and new mothers goes far beyond just one person, but will directly affect the wellbeing of their family and the development of their child.
Caring for the mental health of pregnant people and new mothers goes far beyond just one person
The double-edged sword of highlighting this research is that pregnant people and mothers are already obviously struggling. Being aware that a mother’s mental health has a direct impact on the development of their child adds pressure on a pregnant person who is already navigating stress or trauma. It’s how we mitigate this that will benefit communities. Real support for pregnant people and new mothers can mitigate the cycle of disadvantage being passed from mother to child. Real support needs to be accessible and also address practical realities that drive intergenerational disadvantages, such as access to affordable and safe housing, childcare and food security.
Within Laos cultural practices around birth, a new mother is cared for by her family and community, and is often required to rest for up to one month after childbirth, with meals and childcare for older children provided by her community. Te ao Māori, Pacific and many non-Western cultures centre the mother’s care after childbirth, and integrating these practices within Aotearoa New Zealand’s Western medical model of care could reduce the feeling of isolation that new mothers can feel.
Childbirth has always been viewed as a spiritual experience in my family. It’s a time of connection between myself and the child inside of me. The moment of my birth, and the birth of my mother and of her mother are interconnected. This connection is celebrated as the new life begins, tethered to the family that breathed before them. The research findings that trauma and disadvantage can be passed from mother to child come as a natural revelation to me.
When my mother was born, she had all the eggs she would ever have in her already-developed ovaries. My culture and belief would deduce that I was there, living inside of her, when she experienced the death of her mother, the instability of war and living in the most bombed country per capita on earth, and the trauma of being a refugee. Children of refugees inherit so much from their parents. Often it is in our quest to understand our identity that we are tasked with unpacking, contextualising and understanding the trauma of our mothers before us. While I am always in the process of understanding, I also have the resilience of my mother and hers before me; after all, I am my mother’s daughter.
This essay series has received partial funding support by the Mātātuhi Foundation. Ngā mihi nui!
Struggling with the contents in this article?
The following websites / helplines are available for people in Aotearoa needing support:
Mothers Matter: a collaboration of individuals committed to improving perinatal care for all women in New Zealand.
PADA: Perinatal Anxiety and Depression Aotearoa
Need to talk? Free call or text: 1737 for mental health support from a trained counsellor
Shakti Youth: for migrant and refugee women - 0800 742 584 - 24 hours
The header images for all essays in this series are by Liz Yu.