Mothering the mother
by maya khera
The birth of my first child was long and arduous. Returning home from hospital, I remember feeling like I had been hit by a bus (and let me be clear, by this I mean a classic red double-decker bus weighing in at around 13 tonnes), so it was nothing short of bewildering when people greeted me with joy, exuberance, and congratulations.
The whole birth experience was so overwhelming it left me feeling injured and exhausted. And yet, the day after my daughter was born, I took up my husband’s suggestion to go for a walk and some fresh air. What were we thinking? Not only had I just given birth, we live in the heart of a smog-filled metropolis--and to make matters worse, it was the middle of July and England was suffering the slow burn of a terrible heat wave.
We had just about reached the corner of our road before I wailed, “I neeeeed to gooooo home!”.I had been feeling shaky ever since we left the house, terrified that I would keel over at any moment from exhaustion, dehydration, or perhaps even the shame of bleeding through the nappy-sized maternity pad I was wearing. Not such a romantic stroll after all.
Just a day later, I joined my husband, mother-in-law, and my own mother to lunch at a rather fancy and fashionable restaurant. No one batted an eyelid so of course I assumed it was perfectly reasonable to go out to lunch less than 48 hours after giving birth. I remember struggling to cope with the heat and getting hotter and hotter as I fumbled around clumsily trying to breastfeed in public for the first time. What I quickly learned (albeit too late) is that there is nothing discreet about trying to feed a tiny sparrow-like mouth with hard-as-rock melon-sized boobs. All in all, I’m pretty sure the meal ended in tears, either mine or my baby’s--I can’t quite remember. I hugely regretted having ventured out once again so soon after my baby was born.
I tell you all this not because I relish recalling these memories but because, ten months later, I was sitting on the bathroom floor staring incredulously at a “positive” pregnancy test. Turns out, breastfeeding is most certainly not a form of contraceptive. Once I recovered from the shock of my second pregnancy (which, incidentally turned out to be one of the best things that has ever happened to me), I started reflecting more deeply on my first birth experience and the days, weeks and months that followed.
Why hadn’t I listened to my body’s signals to rest and recover from what had been its biggest and most intense event? Everyone told me to “sleep when the baby sleeps,” but I barely managed to steal a nap in the window that my newborn slept. Why did I exhaust myself by not only receiving streams of visitors, but then offering tea and a dose of witty banter or meaningful conversation? What was it that made me so reluctant to just slow down and take care of myself?
I guess a part of me thought that taking care of myself meant that I was selfish or even weak. My own mother had raised four kids under seven with very little to no help, as her family was on the other side of the world in Australia. I rarely, if ever, saw her doing much for herself, and so I internalised the idea that mothering meant taking care of others over and above yourself.. This belief about the virtuous selfless mother is far from unique to my own story, but it seems to extend into the lives of millions of women universally.
And yet throughout history and across the world from China to Brazil, a postpartum period of healing and adjustment is not only allowed but expected. Family, friends and neighbours rally around to support the new mum by cooking special recovery meals, helping out with housework, and tending to the new baby or older siblings so that mum can get some much-needed rest.
My own father comes from Panjab, at the foothills of the Himalayas, where a forty-day period of rest or confinement is considered essential for the woman to regain her strength and focus on bonding with her baby. The more I read and talked to my dad about this traditional practice, the more I became convinced that taking care of myself and taking care of my baby were not mutually exclusive but inextricably linked.
And so, after the birth of my second child I decided to put this age-old wisdom to test. I talked with my partner and family about the global significance of the first forty days following birth and asked them to support me during this time by preparing healthy meals or snacks, helping with light housework like loading up the dishwasher or washing machine, and taking my energetic toddler out to play. For me, the postpartum period was not about strict confinement--this was neither possible nor desirable--but about giving myself permission to slow down, ask for help, do less, and be more with my beautiful boy. I delayed social visits, picked up my phone less, took afternoon naps more, and enjoyed indulging guilt-free in some early evening Netflix viewing (much to my husband’s delight).
I was lucky. While postpartum rest may be a necessity, it’s certainly not a luxury afforded to everyone. The tradition of spending 40 days at home resting and recovering may be particularly unattainable for most women in today’s world, who contend with limited access to paid maternity leave and lack of proximity to their families. But what remains certain is that every new mum--whether it’s her first or fifth child, needs all the help she can get in those first weeks after giving birth.
It would not be an exaggeration to say that this process of resting, healing, and staying close to home has completely transformed my experience of early motherhood. I feel so much more relaxed and calm knowing that if (or should I say “when”) I am up multiple times in the night, there is no pressure for me to push through the following day in a caffeine-fueled form of mania just so that I can attend the latest baby sensory class, or meet friends, or read Nietzsche. In fact, what I have learned is that neither I, nor the world around me, will fall apart if I spend much of my day simply drinking Earl Grey tea and revelling in sheer delight at my son’s sweet cooing noises.
This time is too precious to be rushed through. At least that’s what I’m still telling myself sixteen weeks in, as I continue to live life at a deliciously slow pace. Having dropped the need to conform to an image of myself as the eternally bountiful and heroic mother, I have become quite the expert at switching off the noise of the outside world and savouring the magic and beauty that lives noisily under my own roof.