Birth in South Africa

Gourmet Birth

I am cooking up a storm in the kitchen, while waiting to be called for a birth, (a client called a few hours ago to say she may be in early labour). I am cooking because it keeps my hands busy and engages my mind in a familiar task. I know what to do. I have made lasagna a thousand times,

Gourmet Lasagna
Gourmet Lasagna

tried different recipes from different cookbooks. Today this, my own, lasagna recipe is spontaneous, it flows. I peel the onions for a tomato sauce as my three dogs watch me, expectantly waiting for any titbits they might glean. I live alone in a house with my canine companions and my children have left home. I no longer need to cook. The days are gone of rushing to buy food at the supermarket on the way home, to cook supper for my family. I miss it.

Cooking and baking is the stuff of caring for others. It has been done by all the women (and men) before me, way back to when the wheat was ground with a pestle and mortar, the cow hand milked, the butter beaten into a pat. Nowadays mechanical machines do it all for us (so we can do other things).

But today I need to cook for others, and I pause as I chop tomatoes into little squares, then drop them into the pan with sizzling onions and garlic. I think of births I have attended and food. A dash of salt, pepper and a handful of fresh basil from the garden, a trickle of squeezed lemon juice, a teaspoonful of sugar.

As I cook, I recall the home birth my apprentice and I attended, where Chris, the husband prepared a similar dish while his wife, Donna Lee was in labour. He would spend a bit of time at her side, holding her hand, and then retreat to the kitchen to make tomato sauce, then return to stir the thickening into the milk for the white sauce. As the labour picked up to a nice pace, he layered the lasagna strips into a pyrex dish, spread the tomato and vegetable sauce over the strips and poured the white sauce over the top finishing with a generous sprinkling of cheese.

Donna Lee, Chris and Baby Connor
Donna Lee, Chris and Baby Connor
When the mother started groaning with each surge, the lasagna went into the oven. We stroked her hair, and wiped her face with a warm cloth. We massaged her aching back with oils. As the aroma of oven-baked lasagna began to permeate the house, the labour surges intensified. The mother’s sweaty brow needed soothing, and the momentum grew. When our tongues were curling and nostrils begging to be released from the torment of ‘beckoning to be devoured’ smells, the baby was born. The relief was tremendous. Soon mother, father and baby were all tucked up into bed, and all five of us tucked in to the delicious lasagna with relish and gratitude.

Food at births is as important to midwives as it is to mothers. After long hours, midwives often find themselves peckish and in need of sustenance. It does not take a midwife long to suss out where the food is in the house (or where it is not). I remember one couple: their cupboards were bare except for a loaf of sliced white bread and an empty jar of peanut butter. It did not bode well for the labour which took days and seemed to last forever. The baby was finally born, however the mother retained the placenta and needed to be transferred to hospital. I was not surprised. White bread indeed. Mothers need real nourishment during pregnancy and so do midwives. I mean healthy food like fresh raw vegetables, fruits and meat, cheese, eggs, fish, beans, nuts and seeds.

My tomato sauce now is bubbling away with zucchini slices, carrots and mushrooms. My white sauce is thickening and I am layering the pasta sheets with the sauces and cheese. I am cooking supper for a very dear friend who is losing an early pregnancy. Even when grief threatens to drown us, we need to eat and be nourished. We especially need to know that when we can no longer hold ourselves together, someone else will hold us and nourish us. A bit like the fishes and the loaves on the Sea of Galilee. To know in moments of despair, that there is plenty, that we will be nourished and continue to hope and experience happiness again.

Babies are filled with our hopes and our love. A family of four children were having their fifth baby. We, my apprentice and I, arrived in good time, fearing at first that we would not be in time for the birth. The mother, Sam, was quiet and resting in the bedroom at the back of the house. Later, she took a hot shower to help with the discomfort of labour.

Fragrant R with Pumpkin and Chickpea Curryice
Pumpkin and Chickpea Curry
In the meantime, the other children were being shepherded to Granny’s house next door after checking in on their mother. Granny was insistent that we had food and while we were busy with Sam, pots of rice and vegetable curry appeared in no time on the stove. Meanwhile, we ran a deep bath of warm water for the pregnant mother, Sam. She sank into the warm water and her whole body softened and expanded simultaneously. Cardammom and cinnamon smells wafted past the slightly open door. Soon, with a slight movement and single shout, the new baby girl arrived to a joyful welcome of “She’s here”! Her sublime arrival was consummated with bowls of fragrant rice and mild well- rounded curry. Mom Sam was ecstatic at the experience of her first home birth with Granny, Dad and the children all coming to greet the new baby straight after the birth.

Preparing food and sharing food reminds us we are all turning in the cycle of life and connected to a few intrinsic elements: air, water and soil. When new life or labour threatens to overwhelm us, we can cook, steadying ourselves to match the rhythm of life. My lasagna is now complete and I have taken it to my friend in foil punnets.

Food nourishes us when we are working, mother and midwife alike. It keeps us going when labour is long and hard, it comforts us when we have losses or feel tension or grief. One grandmother baked a cake during her daughter’s labour and iced it just as the husband arrived to join his wife in the birthing pool. A short time after, the baby was born into the parent’s waiting arms. I patiently waited until after I had assisted mother and baby out of the bath, dried them and made them comfortable on the bed until we ate the cake and I must confess that I ate the first slice!

Midwives and mothers love good food alike and it does not take us long to find the good food in a home. As one of my clients recently said: She “remembers me as the midwife who liked her strawberries in the fridge”!!


7 thoughts on “Gourmet Birth”

  1. In the house with very little food it seems you are more worried about yourself than your client. Shame on you for blaming the mother for poor nutrition when had you opened your eyes you would have seen a home where the people are hungry and in need of food for hunger not for a gormet. I would imagine that family wouldn’t be able to afford better food for the nursing mother and there is no way that family would be affording formula.

    Look past the end of your nose and your own stomach.

    1. Dear Intorainbowz

      Thank you for your comment and reflecting to me my self deception. You are right, some households are suffering from poverty and struggling to provide the basics let alone a varied and nourishing diet. The trick is to assist people choose more nourishing food that is within their means. I also would like you to know that I assist such clients for no fee at all, or a reduced fee and always take the time to discuss nutrition during ante natal visits. I do despair though, when clients do have the means to take care of their nutritional needs, yet choose to spend their resources in other ways. Health is so important when a mother is pregnant and prevents many possible complications during pregnancy and birth, as well as in the postnatal period. Helping women take care of themselves is a project in itself in a country where the majority of people live below the breadline. Thank you again for pointing out my insensitivity in this article.

  2. great article, thank you! At the birth of my second child, my husband had just put a bread in the oven to bake, so the smells permeated our house that morning while I laboured. Our son came too quickly and we didn’t have time to put up the birth pool. But after he was born, we pumped up the pool, all got in to have a bath, including our 2 year old daughter, and ate hot bread with jam and cheese! My mom and dad were there and our midwife all relaxed round the birth pool. aaah…

  3. Yet another reason I prefer home births! I remember one dad feeding his hungry wife Christmas stuffing while she was still in the birthing pool giving their newest son his first feed on one glorious Christmas day home birth!

  4. Hmm…. This brings back fond memories. I remember the butternut and spinach lasagne Chris made for us from Donna Lee’s meticulous instructions… I too find myself recalling births by the meals we ate! Lovely article Marianne.

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