We stood waiting. Waiting for my sister to come pick us up. My partner, myself and this little bundle of blankets and baby tucked into a car seat ready to go home. Home, just us. Just us and our baby. Oh my.
I had given so much attention to each week of pregnancy, how big my baby was in relation to fruit; an avocado, a grapefruit, a melon. I made sure I felt prepared for my labour, what positions I might adopt, what breathing could help me through. I had not given much thought to what was going to happen when I actually got home with my baby.
After hundreds of thousands of years of human existence shouldn’t we be ok with this process of looking after a small baby. We’d be fine – right?
The thing is we didn’t used to do it alone. We had our family, our tribe, our village around us, supporting us, reassuring us, guiding us. We felt our way through parenting. We observed other mothers, we grew up learning childcare from our mothers, aunties, sisters and neighbours.
Now, many people become parents having never held or changed a baby (that was me). We are suddenly solely responsible for keeping this vulnerable being alive and healthy. Terrifying. Our way of learning has become a matter of reading books, looking at diagrams, listening to a ton of advice from the ‘experts’. We have begun thinking our way through, rather than feeling our way through.
This conflicts with the very biology of what it is to become a mother. What happens to our brains when we have our babies? The concept of ‘baby brain’ has left us feeling confused and stupid. The stress of parenting now means our oxytocin – the feel-good hormone so vital to this stage of becoming a Mother – is left diminished.
All around the world in every culture we had traditional practices for postpartum care, which some cultures practice still, but most need it to be revived. These practices all varied from culture to culture of course but similar ideas ran through each one. The mother would be looked after for 6 weeks / 40 days following the birth of her baby. She would be kept warm and cooked nourishing food. She would be supported, reassured, guided, celebrated. Without guilt or shame she would rest, sleep, heal and recover whilst her baby was looked after.
In Morocco traditions the new mother is called a Nafsa, she is treated like a bride, dressed in beautiful clothes and jewellery. She is given henna, cleansed and scrubbed in a hammam, her hair is washed, her vagina steamed, her belly bound, and bones closed.
When my baby was 6 weeks old, I crumbled. I was certainly not rested and recovered; I did not feel like a bride. I would lie awake at night pumped with the adrenaline of having laboured for a day and given birth to my baby. I would remember the intensity of it all as I watched him sleep.
He would feed every 2 hours throughout the night. After all the horror stories I had heard and read of suffocated babies, I was too scared to fall asleep with him in my arms. He woke, I would feed him, and settle him in his basket next to my bed. I would drift off eventually, but far from immediately. Sometimes I’d wake in a panic that the pillow next to me was him, that I hadn’t put him back safely, only to feel the relief of seeing him lying snug in his basket.
I would watch the clock day and night, noting each time he fed and for how long. Which breast had he fed from last? Would he need more than I could give him? My head was full of the numbers I was told was normal. Normal? For this unique baby, mother and situation, nothing felt normal. I wasn’t me anymore. I was exhausted, burnt out and a ball of anxiety.
I was so desperate to get this right. I allowed no room for making mistakes. I was intent on keeping the house tidy because, should it be in chaos, it would appear to everyone else that I wasn’t coping in some way. I would rush around whilst my baby napped or bounced happily in his chair to tidy, clean and possibly have a shower. Because this was the only visual way of showing that I was handling this Mothering malarkey. The fact that I had kept my baby alive and healthy by the end of
each day didn’t seem like it was enough.
This is the experience of so many women now, but it doesn’t have to be this way. Once we understand the true meaning of baby brain, how we can embrace it, we can feel empowered to know that nature is making room for us to learn the all-important skills for becoming the parents we want to be.
Once we understand oxytocin and how it makes us more compassionate, more sociable, more connected, we can understand its importance and look at ways of boosting this. Once we start asking for and accepting help, we can feel more supported, rested and safe enough to risk feeling uncertain. Once we recognise there is no going back to ‘normal’ we can begin relating to the new women Motherhood creates.
We must think beyond the birth of our babies. We need to become clearer about our unique family vision and identify our own fears and dreams. We need to get clued up on the importance of the right postpartum care, to ensure we receive support of the loving and listening kind, so that we can journey into parenthood with confidence, peace and joy.