This article originally appeared in the Scottish Herald – saturday 21st february 2009 and was written by the very talented Vicky Allan
Should you rush back to work after childbirth? Vicky Allan talks to those who prefer to take this post-natal business lying down
WHEN the French justice minister, Rachida Dati, returned to work five days after a caesarean section, she triggered a savage debate.
The impetus to get back in action quickly after childbirth is a relatively new one. Throughout history most cultures have practised the opposite: a period of “confinement” in which the new mother is looked after by family and community, often away from men, fed certain foods and nursed through the early weeks after giving birth. “These customs,” says Tina Cassidy, “were meant to facilitate bonding, establish good breastfeeding practices, ensure that the baby thrived, that the mother recovered and the newborn was kept removed from potentially dangerous diseases.”
Even now, women in much of the world still follow the practice. Here in Scotland, however, it is rarely entertained as a possibility, though a friend of mine was advised by her midwife to remain in bed for 15 days after giving birth to her second child, ringing a bell whenever she needed anything. “Allow yourself to be treated like a queen,” she was told. “It will be your last opportunity given you now have two children.”
Edinburgh childbirth educator Nicola Goodall went further following the births of three of her four children. Goodall, who converted to Islam at the age of 23, opted to follow the traditional Muslim 40-day confinement period. During that time, she tried not to leave the house and succumbed only twice: when she had to take her daughter to hospital and to buy a nursing bra. Other people took her children to school. Friends brought her soup and shopping. Her husband took over many household jobs.
“I would spend as much time as I could in bed for as long as possible. Then I would spend as much time as I could sitting around reading. It was like a honeymoon, the babymoon that Sheila Kitzinger the social anthropologist, writer and childbirth campaigner talks about. Relaxing, eating well and just spending time looking at the baby,” she explains.
This practice isn’t so far from what might have been the norm in Scottish culture a century ago. The oral history book, Scottish Midwives, records the experiences of midwives and “howdies”, the uncertified midwives or “handywomen” who were their precursors and often spent around four weeks in a mother’s home, helping out with chores.
“We had to try and keep the mothers in bed,” said Margaret Foggie, who conducted postnatal home visits in Glasgow in the 1930s. “We would tell the husband to remember the wife was not well, so run the messages and look after the weans’.” Annie Kerr generally stayed with mothers for around two weeks after the birth, and described having “sic a shock” when one woman got up to pick up her baby while she was baking in the kitchen. Another midwife from the Outer Hebrides recalled: “In the olden times the mother really stayed in bed – she didn’t come out at all in the first 10 days. The friends went before she got up, to see the mother and the baby and there is an old Gaelic word for it, bangaid’, which is like a banquet.”
The book includes testimonies from women working in the latter half of the 20th century, including, one, Ella Clelland, who observed the transition from confinement to shorter hospital stays and said: “Mothers nowadays don’t or won’t rest enough. They possibly think they don’t need to. But they get very tired and I think that’s why postnatal depression is more now.”
Was Clelland right? Reports of postnatal depression are certainly on the rise and some people, including Diane Nehme of the Association for Post-Natal Illness, believe that lack of rest may be a contributory factor. “There is no respite care, and women are often discharged in 48 hours, even after first deliveries. There is so much pressure to live up to unrealistic expectations to return to work after short maternity leave and no paternity leave, juggle childcare and raise the perfect baby.”
Japan, which practises a month of confinement, has one of the lowest levels of postnatal depression in the world. “The problem,” says Cassidy, “is that the support system to encourage mums to stay with their newborns has frayed.” The physical distance that strains family ties and the detachment from local communities means many first-time mothers don’t even consider a period of rest. No-one is telling them they should behave like a queen for a week and they wouldn’t know how to find the help to do it even if they wanted to.
Confinement wouldn’t work for everyone and, over the centuries, many women have felt repressed by it. But what matters is that women are aware of it as an option and can make an informed choice.
Of course, some women – particularly those who run their own businesses – cannot contemplate this short holiday from career obligations. A few weeks after the birth of her second child, Karen Macartney, who runs the website informedwomen.co.uk, turned up for a business appointment, but was physically ill with nerves to such an extent that she couldn’t enter the meeting room.
The broadcaster Gail Porter talked, during a recent interview, about doing voice-over jobs within a month of giving birth to her daughter, only to find herself leaking milk into her shirt and sobbing into the microphone.
On the whole, women who run their own businesses seem to be among the most successful at managing the transition to motherhood, perhaps because they have more control over managing their workloads around the needs of their children.
Lorna Pellet, who currently runs Graduates For Growth, recalls that her two pregnancies were creative times in which she expanded her businesses – her original venture was Edinburgh’s Café Florentin. “The best time for planning, for a woman,” she says, “is when she’s pregnant. You can have expansive thoughts because there is a finite timeline. For me the process of being pregnant and having a child was also about reshaping my lifestyle. I think you have to be prepared to go with the rhythm of the child, coping with the changes as opposed to trying to fit the child into your life. Having my first child felt completely natural. I did have childcare and we had a flat above one of the shops. It was very flexible. It’s about having a great infrastructure and this is where community is incredibly valuable, and something that it takes all parties to invest in.”
There is no obvious path back to the days of the howdies and that associated secret world of female knowledge – nor would we want it. Bringing fathers to the birthing bed has been one of the great revolutions of modern times. If we are to create a society in which men and women can operate with freedom and equality, then we need them to stay there. Indeed, we would like them to stick around for longer, ideally with equal paternity leave rights to those afforded to women. They need to hold the baby for longer.
Meanwhile, Goodall believes the idea of lying-in will have its time again. “Not long before I was born, you might have got into problems as a healthcare professional for encouraging a woman to breastfeed. Now the opposite is true. And I can’t help but think that it will come around that way with rest after childbirth.
“We know so much about maternal bonding today, and even breastfeeding is now seen in the context of this whole biological nurturing thing. So I think having a time of seclusion with your baby, a babymoon, will soon be seen as part of that.”
find the original article here
nicola mahdiyyah goodall is a revert muslim who grew up with hip hop based in edinburgh, scotland and london, england. she works with women trying and mainly succeeding to build circles of knowledge and community primarily with birth.