Below is an extract from Lilia Tarawa’s recently released book, Daughter of Gloriavale: My Life Inside a Religious Cult. During the early years of her life, Tarawa and her entire family were part of the Gloriavale Christian community in New Zealand, where they were home schooled, worked as free labour within the community and were expected to marry at 16 so that they could begin procreating.
Babies were a big part of life in Gloriavale. Birth control and abortion were strictly forbidden and we were proud of how we didn’t murder children in the womb like so many people in the world.
Grandad was very fond of bragging that we had the biggest families in New Zealand. He liked to show visitors a photo he’d taken of all the children who were number three or more in birth order, saying ‘None of these children would be here if their parents had practiced birth control and didn’t have a faith in God.’
A favourite sermon of his was to preach about how lucky we were to have been conceived by Christian parents. He’d say, ‘Guess where the most dangerous place in the world is. It’s not on the road in cars. It’s not flying through the air in planes. It’s in the womb of an ungodly woman.’
My grandmother bore sixteen children to Grandad Hopeful before her death and I grew up surrounded by cousins' babies. Grandad Hopeful would say, 'Children are an inheritance of the Lord. The fruit of the womb is His reward.'
Mum taught me to knit all sorts of babywear - cardigans, booties, hats - I always knitted a matching set for each of Patie's babies. Some of the women could knit a whole garment in just a few hours.
Childbirth was highly celebrated and parents were expected to prepare their children for the practicalities of having a large family. Boys and girls aged ten and older would often attend their mother's births to assist and learn about the procedure.
We birthed our children at home. There was no need to visit a medical institution for something that was a purely natural part of life. God had promised us that women who continued in holiness and faith would be saved in childbearing. But if there were problems with a birth then a birthing mother would be taken to Greymouth hospital.
The district midwife made regular visits to pregnant women and attended the births to ensure nothing went wrong.
The first baby I ever saw born was my Aunt Patie's second son when I was 10. When he came out he had the umbilical cord wrapped around his neck, he was blue and wasn't breathing. He was fine once the midwife got him breathing. Afterwards, she asked me if I was OK, but to me, this was normal because I'd never seen a baby born before, so I was blissfully unaware of how severe the situation was.
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I was just there to observe and help with my mother's next four births: Asher, Judah, Serena and Melodie. Because I was now the oldest girl I learned all the child-rearing skills too. I bathed my younger siblings, changed nappies, helped with potty training and when the babies cried in the night I would climb out of bed to attend to them to relieve my exhausted mother. I watched the women help each other breastfeed, if one mother had an abundance of milk she would suckle the child whose mother didn't have a good supply.
Women were allowed about two weeks off after giving birth but then they were straight back into the workforce. I always wondered how some of the ladies did it. They would birth during the night and the next morning be at the meal table to present the child to the community. The husband would make a big announcement. 'The Lord has blessed us with a new baby boy and his name is Courageous.' Everyone would clap and cheer.
When Patie had her fourth child, complications arose after she'd gone into labour. Her waters had broken, she was fully dilated but the baby wasn't coming. I was rubbing her back, giving her sips of juice and bathing her face with a cool cloth. The midwife decided she needed urgent medical help but we were so far away from any hospital with no time to wait for an ambulance. We would have to transport Patie ourselves.
The boys brought round one of the stripped-out vans, threw down a mattress, blankets and pillows and we helped Patie lie down. I sat by her head and held her hands as her body was being wracked by gigantic contractions. About twenty minutes into the journey we went over a sharp bump. Patie groaned and gasped out, 'Something's moved. I can feel the baby coming. Right now!'
I shouted, 'Stop the van!'
Patie was clenching my hand, almost breaking it. I ignored the pain of it and repeated over and over, 'It's OK. Just breathe through it. Go with the pain.'
She was bearing down. The back doors of the van flung open, I scrambled out, the midwife climbed in and a few minutes later my tiny, screaming cousin Submissive was born. The midwife handed her to me after her mother had a cuddle. I cradled her squawking body in my arms.
'Welcome little girl. You're going to be so loved.'
This is an edited extract from Lilia Tarawa's book, Daughter of Gloriavale, which is available for purchase via Booktopia.