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new internationalist
issue 212 - October 1990


Pregnant in Kingston
Giving birth in Jamaica set Anne Lyons thinking about
different attitudes towards sex, life and having children.

'Hey baby-madda! Hope it's a yout'!'

'Baby-madda! I give you the next one!'

I was white, pregnant and in Jamaica and didn't know how to respond. Should I launch into a discourse on why I didn't value male above female children? Give no response and risk appearing racist? Or simply smile and collude? I had been easier to discuss issues in pubs and read about them in the New Internationalist.

I had left for Kingston largely dismissive of the anxieties expressed by family and friends, telling them that, after all, women have babies all over the world. Leaving behind hi-tech hospitals and computerized records did not bother me so much as leaving behind certain hard-won changes in birth procedures. I did not really know what to expect away from the National Health Service and my mum, and so, armed with a small library of books and the good wishes of a Jamaican midwife at Homerton Hospital, I just hoped for the best.

I gave birth at the University Hospital. From the start everything was firmly in the hands of the professionals. I was shaved, given an enema, sent to shower and then directed to a bed in the delivery room. There was no gas and air, but pethidine (a painkiller) was offered as a matter of course (and accepted) and I was cut. I wouldn't say it was a particularly woman-centred experience but I did feel confident in the skills of the midwives and the doctors and knew that there were all the necessary facilities should anything go wrong.

This is not always the case in Jamaica. Many women receive no medical attention at all - even in hospitals - due to pressure of numbers and lack of staff. A recent survey showed that 18 per cent of the births were unattended and 35 per cent of institutions had maternity beds with more than one patient to a bed.

Pregnancy and having a baby does make you public property. While I was pregnant a young security guard used to enquire solicitously about the state of my ankles. The 'helpful advice' after the child was born, however, did get a little wearing: 'Hold her head up!' 'Support her back!' 'Don't cut her hair or it will stop her talking!' But I was struck by just how proficient at handling babies and young children were people from all walks of life. Mr Lewis, the mechanic, for example, soon managed to quieten my baby daughter Rachel while I was out of the room.

Attitudes to family and children vary considerably according to class, however. The middle and upper classes adopt a fairly Western lifestyle, though the children are often brought up by a live-in 'helper'. The children lead sheltered lives, getting chauffeured to and from their prep schools. Working-class children, by contrast, are often 'grown' by a female relative in the country - usually a grandmother or an aunt. Their mothers work in town or 'in foreign', sending back money and visiting when they can. Working-class children are expected to be independent, travel on the packed buses, take responsibility for siblings, do washing, help sell or 'higgle' in the market and work on the land. The extended-family network is vital for survival: one woman will look after all the children while the others work.

As child-care is easily available and children are integrated into daily life, having a child does not automatically exclude a woman from her previous lifestyle as is so often the case in Britain. I had a discussion with a middle-class Jamaican woman who argued that Jamaican women are more liberated than Western women because they are more economically active. Few Jamaican women fall into the wife-mother trap of isolation and financial dependence.

On reflection I feel that the advantages are only available to women of a certain class. Their freedom to pursue careers and to be liberated from child-care and housework depends on the labour of another woman who, although financially independent, is actually struggling and has yet more work to do when she gets home.

A negative side of the pro-baby culture is that women who do not breed are 'mules'. And those who do breed often bear the brunt of the responsibility for their children as men often fail to support their children or act as a role model. When Fathers' Day was celebrated in the local church recently I saw several giggling and embarrassed adolescents rise to their feet. They were clearly biological fathers only - not practising parents.

So many girls get pregnant young, often through ignorance, and are subsequently unable traumatized by the whole experience of pregnancy and childbirth. Unable to cope with the financial or everyday demands of a baby, they often end up relying upon their own mothers to care for the child. As Jennifer said after her 15-year-old gave birth: 'Instead of de five pickney, it now six'.

Anne Lyons lives with her family in the Jamaican capital, Kingston.

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