THE MAKING OF A FILIPINO
By Gina Mission, Philippines



Lourdes, Susan and Anita are all 20-something women from the Philippines who are expecting their first child. But their pregnancy, childbirth and childcare experiences will be as varied as if they lived in different countries. Nowhere are the differences among the 70 million Filipinos more pronounced than in procreation.

Lourdes, 20, is one of some 400,000 Mangyans who live in the hinterlands of Mindoro, 186 kilometers northwest of Manila. The Mangyans live a nomadic life, hunting and gathering wild animals, fish and fruits. Their small villages are comprised of houses made of palm wood and covered with palm straw.

By the size of her belly, Lourdes is probably in her seventh month. But she does not know exactly, since Mangyan women do not receive any special pre-natal care and don't know their due date. Pregnancy for the Mangyans is a normal event and not something to be fussed over.

Excitedly, albeit with a hint of resignation, Lourdes awaits her due day not only because of the birth, but because she will then learn the truth about her husband's rumored philandering. Mangyans believe that the ease of labor is determined by the husband's fidelity, or lack thereof. If Lourdes experiences difficult labor, then her husband indeed has a mistress. And unless he confesses his infidelity to her during delivery, labor will not progress.

A piece of sharp bamboo and an unsterilized bolo (large knife) will be used to cut the baby's umbilical cord. The umbilical cord will be cut only after the placenta has been expelled since to do otherwise will, it is believed, cause death to both mother and baby. An hour after the placenta's expulsion, Lourdes will start doing light household chores. A day later, she will resume her usual activities which include gathering firewood, scrounging wild plants for food and collecting water from the river. Mangyans believe that following delivery a new mother just needs four hours of rest to get back her normal strength.

As soon as Lourdes' baby is born, and even before the cord is cut, he/she will be cleaned and wiped with a wet cloth. The cleaning will continue until the baby is a month old and then stop until the baby is old enough to bathe alone. Nor will the baby wear clothes until age seven. This is a way of letting the child adapt to the natural environment, like a wild animal.

Thousands of miles away from Lourdes in Mindanao is 22-year-old Susan. Home to some 16 million people, and the second largest of the three Filipino island groups, Mindanao is blessed with rich natural resources including white sand beaches, exquisite mountain ranges, caves, and hot springs. But while a tourist's paradise, most Mindanaoans live a backward lifestyle with widespread poverty and illiteracy. Traditional mothering and pregnancy practices are known as the "visayan system," coined from the country's third island group, the Visayas, with which Mindanaoans are closely affiliated.

In contrast to Lourdes, Susan has only been allowed to do light household chores and faces many daily taboos and a few privileges, particularly in the first trimester. Whatever food she desired was, at least theoretically, made available to her even if she later decided not to eat it, to prevent miscarriage. She avoided eating a twin banana lest she give birth to twins and consuming soft drinks which, it is believed, can excessively increase the fetus' size. Nor did Susan stand by doors, which can cause difficult labor. She didn't look at ugly pictures, which could make the baby ugly, or have her picture taken which can cause still births. She confined her wardrobe to black, down to the underwear, and slept with her legs closed tightly to repel bad spirits.

After birth the real nitty-gritty of Visayan mothering begins. The expelled placenta will be buried along with pen and paper so the baby will grow up even smarter. When the baby first defecates the feces will be massaged onto the infant gums like toothpaste to ensure strong teeth. Susan will use the baby's first urine on her own hair to prevent it from falling out when she's older. A ring soaked in water will be put in the baby's first bath to create flawless skin. The first cut pieces from the baby's fingernails or hair will be inserted in the pages of the bible, so that the baby will grow up God-fearing and obedient, or in the pages of another book, so the baby will grow up learned. The triangular cloth used to tie around the baby's navel will, after the navel is healed, be tied around the foundations of Susan's home, along with those of future siblings, to make the baby close to the family.

Nor will Susan immediately resume her normal life following delivery. She will wait at least two weeks before she takes a bath, and then only in water with a special herbal concoction to avoid future health complications. For a month, she will only eat rice with chicken, beef or til-ogon, (a deepwater fish), vegetables and fruits. Reading or watching television during these days is strictly forbidden, as this would cause blindness.

Anita, 29, a Manila resident who is in her own last trimester, prides herself that her pregnancy will be free of such old customs and as modern as that of any other Western woman. She reads recent American books on pregnancy and mothering and closely follows the advice of her doctor. This assistant to the marketing manager of a multinational company is resisting pleas from her mother and mother-in-law to hire an herbolario (quack doctor) during delivery who would treat her with prayers designed to drive out the spirits. The older women believe the mere presence of the herbolario will also ensure the baby grows up to be obedient.

As modern as she is, even Anita has her superstitious side. During childbirth, she plans to wear a medallion from her officemate, Liza. The medallion is believed to have ensured easy delivery and good health for both mother and child to several women in Liza's family. While Anita does not entirely buy Liza's story, she concedes that it wouldn't really cost her anything to try.


Gina Mission, who lives in the Philippines, writes for CyberDyaryo http://www.codewan.com.ph/CyberDyaryo, an on-line newsmagazine for civil society. She has been writing about women's issues for several years.