Interview with Francoise Freedman

Interview with Francoise Freedman

Interview with Francoise Freedman

- How do you introduce yourself when you first meet a person? What is the most important thing about you that you share first?

- I’ve always had trouble answering this question. I live a “double life”: my family is its central point but I’m still an anthropologist and I keep working at different projects as a scientist and as a teacher. I’m also a Yoga therapist, a maternity nurse, founder and manager of Birthlight, and this is, probably, getting more and more important for me during the past few years. In the upcoming years I am going to bring these two aspects of my work, anthropology and the whole Birthlight thing closer together.

- Do you still work with the natives of Amazonia today?

- Yes, I do. We are still implementing some projects for organic coffee growing and wildlife preservation in the Andes Highlands of Peru together with the specialists I used to work with when starting my science and research career as a young girl.

- Please, tell us more about your first time in Amazonia and the way it influenced your further life.

- I first went there as a young researcher student. I was 22. This research was part of my PhD paper at Cambridge University. One of the prerequisites was that I had to do it individually, no teamwork was allowed, so I was on my own. As I reached the destination, I tried to contact the French researcher who had been working there for a while, but he made it clear that he was not eager to communicate. Then I went straight to the Amazonian aborigines who were not too friendly either, from what I’d heard. The day when I first came there they were celebrating something — it was the highest point of the celebration, everybody was drunk and dancing. They invited me jokingly to join their fun, but I took it seriously. I was wearing military-style trousers, and to be able to dance with everybody else and, as they told me, to look like a woman, I changed my clothes for the traditional apparel of the Andes region. As the tribe women were changing my clothes, they were staring at my body and discovering the differences between them and me with great interest. Doing so, they were touching me, which surprised me a lot. When I came out, wearing my local dress and with my hair done according to their tradition, I heard: “Look! She looks like one of us!”, and I really felt differently. I was dancing all night to the rhythm of drums that were leading us, in a circle of women enclosed in a circle of men. The next morning, they offered me some food for breakfast and then the dancing went on, and in the evening an old woman from the tribe called me and took me to the place where they were looking after babies, a sort of a nursery. Since the whole tribe was celebrating, she told me to watch the kids. And I had absolutely no idea about it! But that was the place where I felt really good, surrounded by elderly women of the tribe who were handling babies easily and skilfully when they had to calm them, for example.
Later, I got deeply immersed into the life and everyday routine of these Amazonian aborigines: I was following them everywhere, helping them in every manner I could — growing vegetables, carrying water, cooking meals — I really had to work hard. So, I was living among them and gradually I learned their dialect quite well: at first, I couldn’t understand a single word and I had to communicate by gestures. It took the first three months of my staying there.
That period was very important for me because I was watching a lot — the way they communicate, their living habits, their gestures and the way they bring up their children. It seemed odd to them that at my age I still had no kids. I was a baby-sitter for an 11-month old: one of the tribe women broke a local rule and got pregnant with the second child before she was allowed to, so they passed her first-born to me. It was a hard job for me. I had to learn how to do a lot of things: how to carry the child, move quickly holding him in my arms, how to carry a basket and the baby at the same time, how to feed him (when he grew up a bit, I chewed bananas and fed them to him). That’s when I obtained the fundamental knowledge about the organisation of our body.
Six months later, I had to leave for a while, as “my” tribe got into a fight with their neighbours and it was no longer safe to stay there. Back in England, I consulted my research advisor on my further steps, had a little rest with my family and returned to Peru being pregnant by that time (I got pregnant on the day of my departure). Nine months later I gave birth to a child in England and then went back to the people of Amazonia for another eight months.

- How did your life change among the aborigines when you came to them being pregnant?

- For them I became someone to take care of and to teach, to bring up. They were giving me different food and behaved differently with me. They were truly supportive. They taught me how to listen to the nature around me, to the plants and the stars, to the moon and moon cycles, to the spirit of water and the spirit of forest, and I felt like a living being with its own place in the Universe and its own mission, like a part of it. In a little while, I could only be told from my tribe-mates upon close examination, by a bit lighter hair and a notepad. That was the time when I learned a lot about plants and their qualities.
I grew close with a woman who was a midwife in our tribe. She was of an unusual origin: a daughter of a local woman of the Andes and a woodcutter from Brazil. For me it was a happy coincidence: she could pass her knowledge to me, a foreigner, as her father was not local as well. She started taking me with her when she was helping deliver a child, showing me how to massage a pregnant woman and to prepare medicines. All the time I was free from physical work I was spending with her, side by side, and my interest was growing bigger every day.

- Were you prohibited from spreading this knowledge in Europe?

- No. When I came back from England with my newly born child, she initiated me by way of a special knowledge sharing ritual that, as she thought, I was ready for. I didn’t take it too seriously at that time, but I felt responsibility for the knowledge I obtained. Then she told me that my mission was to pass this knowledge to my people. And she kept teaching me. Several times, when I was trying to somehow escape from the mission imposed on me, I had to get back to it anyway.

- What is the essence of the knowledge of the Amazonian aborigines?

- The essence is sensibility and delicacy towards other women, intuition-based perception of what is going on here and now. She was generous enough to share her knowledge about the human body with me, so I can teach this to delivery nurses today. Everything was taught in the verbal form and it was odd for me at first not to write anything down.
This knowledge sharing opened a whole new angle of the world view to me and I can hardly find any words to explain it. This might sound odd and even suspicious but I have to admit it. It has definitely become a part of me but there’s no use trying to explain it from the logical point of view. That night, after the sharing ritual was finished something really important happened to me. Before that I couldn’t put my concept of a woman’s nature or connection of a woman’s body and her emotions into practice. At that point, I got a deeper insight into it.

- Is it appropriate to compare this knowledge sharing to the passage of knowledge in Yoga (Parampara)?

- Yes. It is practically the same. When I finally returned home after the expedition, the interest for more knowledge in this area was still burning in me. And I found the answers in the Indian scriptures. They were very close to the knowledge I obtained from the aborigines of the Andes as well as to shamanism.

- Is this knowledge somehow related to healing?

- Some people integrate it into healing, others into meditation, still others look for deeper knowledge and wisdom. When they teach you, they guide you in this respect, too. For me, Birthlight has become a chance to put my knowledge into practice.

- I’m sure, you’ve heard about Jean Liedloff.

- Yes, of course. By the way, she is speaking at our Birthlight conference this summer.

- How much is your experience similar to what she has described in her book?

- I lived “next door” and I know the people of that tribe. If you ask me, I’d say her vision is a bit too romanticized, but all the fundamental aspects are correct. And I do agree with what she says. I admire this up-bringing method: its implies so much respect for children, patience and permission to do what’s natural for them instead of giving orders. Adults simply direct them, making sure that they understand everything correctly, for example, when children learn what the “edge” of the house is. I’ve seen mums teaching it to their babies who have just learned how to crawl — otherwise they could fall from the “edge” of the house and die, as houses are built on quite a height. I’ve seen a baby falling once, but it was not his home; I’ve never come across any practices of the kind among the aborigines of the Andes. Besides, there were always sharp machetes and axes everywhere. Kids were crawling right next to them, but not a single accident ever happened.
In my home there’s always been a hot oven in the kitchen, but my kids never got burnt. However, we had to be really cautious every time we had guests with small children: they were heading straight to the oven intending to touch it, and we had to prevent it somehow.

- How many children do you have?

- Four: two girls and two boys.

- How old are they?

- 21 to 32. The senior kids used to look after the younger children since the very beginning and they are still very close together.

- Have your kids been different from their peers in any way, say, when they were going to school?

- I’d say they’ve always been more confident and more conscious physically because we’ve always done a lot of exercise: climbing, balancing, etc.

- And psychologically?

- All of them are very sensitive and I think it’s great.

- Natural childbirth is getting more and more popular these days, and at the same time the number of Caesarean sections is increasing. What do you think about it?

- Yes, indeed, the situation is getting graver. I am afraid in the future we’ll get so far as to see a woman in labour watching her own C-section or the delivery process on a display. In China, India and Latin American countries, the number of Caesarean sections has increased dramatically and has virtually become normal. It’s very sad, but we have to admit this fact.

- How can we help these women?

- We can only help them after the child is born. The Birthlight answer is to provide every kind of support to the women who are going to give birth naturally, to everyone who is ready to hear us. It’s not that difficult, it’s possible. And it’s sound. And we have to support them from the very moment of impregnation, throughout the prenatal development period. And then, right after the Caesarean delivery, we must give them an opportunity to neutralize this experience, both for themselves and for babies. In this case, a child needs closer communication with parents, and father’s role is of special importance for such children. We pay great attention to this during our classes and we do observe good results. Communication based on love can make up for everything. Parental love nurtures a child.

- What are your tips for pregnant women?

- First of all, they should start paying more attention to breathing and relaxation practices as soon as they find out they are pregnant. The early stage of prenatal development is very important for the embryo and it needs consistent support that can be provided by breathing and relaxation. So far, this aspect has not been paid due attention, but we focus on the fact that this relatively short period of development has long-term and significant consequences for the baby. [Editor’s note: This is the reason why the above mentioned Birthlight conference that took place in the summer of 2009 was dedicated to this topic].
Besides, this is the time when a woman should become sort of a mother to herself (“mum’s mum”). She should devote more time to herself, avoid thinking all the time of how to get prepared for the childbirth and what clothes to buy for the baby, but instead support and nourish herself as a mother-to-be. This is necessary to become a good mother in the future. That’s why we should devote time to ourselves, to little promenades and, above all, to the future baby’s father. Before he can give something, support a woman when it’s necessary (during the childbirth, for instance), he must receive something, feel support in his turn. This could be massage or delicious meal — then he’ll be happy to take care of his woman. Women often forget about it and demand that their men give them more than they can give.
A pregnant woman should be surrounded with nice, beautiful things (this approach can also be traced in Ayurveda). According to ancient traditions, a mother-to-be should avoid any scenes of death, violence, anything scary and disgusting. We should learn to listen to our current condition. If a woman feels that she is overwhelmed with such emotions when she watches TV, she should simply avoid watching it.
In general, she should become more perceptive and responsive to herself. Some pregnant women come to us with a firm intention to have a C-section. Later they start wondering if they really need it, but they think that everything has already been planned and it’s too late to change anything! While in fact they should be open to changing their plans, open to various options, simply open.
Besides, this is the time when they should maintain relations of every kind. Pregnancy is a good time for a woman to restore the relationship with her old friends, with her mother and other people she cares about. This is a chance to feel yourself in the centre of all the relationships you have — nobody can be indifferent to the birth of your child. This is a good time to reconsider your relationship with different people and to feel their love and care.
Of course, your living and eating habits are of great importance, but a lot has been said about them, while the important things that I’ve just mentioned are not often considered.

- What does being a mother mean to you?

- Being a mother means finding different ways to give, again and again. I think being a mother means being able to give. And to forgive. As you give, you receive, and this is what creates the dynamics, the movement. The symbol of mother for me is two palms out.