I'm on an eleven hour bus ride departing from Chiangmai after ten days of learning about Thai abdominal womblifting. Ten days was barely enough to scratch the surface of this indigenous healing practice, and I feel called to one day return so that I can continue to deepen my understanding of this work.
We spent the first week learning about energetic points along the body, and how to massage the womb prior to adjustments. While our teacher, Homprang, knows where every organ is in the body she has only recently seen a cartoon drawing of the human anatomy! As we struggled to find each reproductive organ by forcibly poking our partners' abdomen until their bodies resembled domino playing pieces, she placed her hands on each of ours and invited us to close our eyes to feel with our hearts instead. "We are not doctors with (cutting) tools. In the old days, the only tools we had to use were our hands and our hearts. Don't think too hard; just feel it."
Homprang is one of the few licensed midwives in Thailand. Midwifery became institutionalized within the past ten years and out of over 200 elder midwives from various villages who were required to take the government exams, only about twenty managed to pass. She knew it had nothing to do with their ability to deliver babies, but because they didn't know how to take tests! Today, some of the best midwives in Thailand are restricted from practicing and have no one to pass down their teachings to.
While Homprang's initial dream was to open up a birthing center, it has now become a call-to-action to maintain Thai healing traditions that existed before delivering babies in the hospital became standard. Although her paid students are primarily foreigners from developed countries who come to learn traditional Thai massage, this affords her the opportunity to teach various traditional healing modalities to Thai nationals at no cost. The challenge is that not many Thais have an interest in these skills since it is equated to low status employment with very little money. Many migrant women from rural villages who work at massage parlors in the city with informal training are paid such low wages that they are willing to sell their bodies to make ends meet. According to End Slavery Now, "The use of Thailand as a rest and recreation destination for U.S. military servicemen in the Vietnam War as well as rising rural poverty, particularly in the 1960s and 1970s, led to urban migration and the growth of the sex industry in the cities. In the 1980s, Thailand saw a boom in sex tourism as the government poured millions of baht to promote tourism in the country."
Homprang is working diligently to restore the reputation of Rasidaton (Thai Yoga) by facilitating educational workshops throughout the country.
Homprang considers post-partum depression a western phenomenon that has only become normalized with the rise of urbanization. She recalls while growing up in the village, a new mother was never left alone. She was always surrounded by family, and a doula and midwife were readily by her side. Every birth is a ritual, and was also a time for a woman to experience her own rebirth as a mother. Recovery post-partum (after birth) was at minimum a month; a mother was given all the time she needed to rest and clear out any remaining lochia so that her uterus could realign itself properly. There was very little room to feel sadness when love was abundant in the room.
I thought about my mother, the rituals that brought her into this world and how she did not have that support when my sister and I were born. My mother shared how my father was working when she was in labor with my sister, so he couldn't make it on time to the hospital. I know my sister had a traumatic childhood growing up without my parents having proper childcare, and when I came into the world eleven years later my grandmother flew to the United States to make sure I would not be alone. I can still see my grandmother arriving with nothing but a single bag of belongings she carried over her shoulder, and was amazed that she was able to travel alone from her small village without having spoken a word of English. If she could raise eight children in a jungle, surely she could care for one in a foreign land.
My mother told me the story of how my grandmother experienced her first earthquake while both my parents were away at work. I was sleeping upstairs as she prepared food in the kitchen downstairs, and when the ground shook she was so terrified she ran out the door into the middle of the street crying for help. The neighbors didn't understand anything she was saying, but she pointed to the house to indicate I was still inside. Though the earthquake was mild, she felt as if the world was falling apart; they walked her back home to convince her I wasn't harmed. Perhaps I rolled off the bed headfirst as a baby, which my mom claims is an attribute to my stubborn nature.
My grandfather followed my grandmother to the United States after this experience, missing her affection and worried for her safety. The first three years of my life, they raised me and grew vegetation in the backyard to cope with being away from their land - until they became homesick and decided to return to Thailand. They brought me along, hoping to relieve my parents of childcare. As my mother said her final goodbyes to me, she decided against it last minute and flew back with me to the states. (My parents were then referred to a childcare center by their other Thai friends who practiced Christianity, which projected me to a young life of religious confusion as my parents were devout Buddhists desperate for support - but that's for another story.)
I don't imagine returning home to the states to practice womblifting, since this is powerful work that will require more training of me until I am able to embody it with confidence. However, the love for my mother and the women who come before me has grown tenfold. How do I recreate these rituals for our current and next generation so that people like my mother don't need to experience moments of birth and rebirth in isolation? What do we do to reclaim the past while making peace with the present?
To my sisters who had to go about birth alone, I'm sorry I couldn't be with you when you needed it the most. While I may not be able to gather the medicinal herbs harvested in Southeast Asia, I have my hands and my heart to use. I am not a doctor, but these are the greatest healing tools I have to offer. One does not need to travel across the world to receive or learn this medicine, for it is a wisdom already flowing through our blood. We are the dreams manifested of those who came before us; may we learn how to expand this medicine for many generations to come.
We are the midwives birthing a new world.