Blocking out Baby
Published in The Guardian
“Why didn’t you tell me,” I wailed, to mother, sister, friends and anyone else who would listen, as I struggled to survive the first few weeks with a new baby. “We did, we did,” they intoned in reply, “But you wouldn’t listen.” Pregnant women it seems have a block about the final outcome of their chosen state. There is so much emphasis on experiencing pregnancy and having a positive birth experience that there is a tendency to neglect what is much more important – preparation for the baby.
Janet Balaskas, author of The Encyclopedia of Pregnancy and Birth (with Yehudi Gordon) teaches ante and post-natal classes at the Active Birth Centre in London. She says, “Of all the events the After Birth workshops are the least popular. It’s as if birth is such a big thing, they can’t think any further.” Childbirth teacher Lolly Stirk says of the women in her ante-natal yoga classes, “I tell them till I’m blue in the face to prepare for afterwards but they seem to find it impossible to see beyond the birth.” Stirk agrees that when the movement for natural childbirth began there was an almost exclusive emphasis placed on the day of birth, “It was necessary then but now we do need to be strong in emphasising after birth too.”
Jackie O’Carroll is expecting her second child soon and talks with dread of the difficult first few weeks, “When I had my first baby, I didn’t have a clue what I was in for. I hadn’t a notion of how demanding and relentless it would be.” Susie Prus now has three children, the youngest three months old. “I felt so special when I was expecting my first baby. I loved being pregnant. But then afterwards I suddenly found myself at home with the baby and no help. It was awful.”
Preparing for birth can sometimes seem like an end in itself. Pregnancy is now regarded as a positive, even fashionable state. We wear our skinny stretch skirts and tight leggings with pride over the emerging bulge. We pore over textbooks detailing the development of the foetus. We attend regular classes to keep in shape and adapt and strengthen our bodies for birth. We discuss the advisability of water-births, the father’s role, the use of drugs during labour, whether to have a home birth or hospital confinement. Exactly what we should include in our Birth Plan. But the books all seem to stop somewhere around the moment of magical bonding when the baby is a few hours old and is blissfully suckling for the first time. Or perhaps we never get to the following chapters.
Birth we learn is a normal physiological experience.( Sure and so is death.) It is also utterly exhausting, emotionally and physically. Instead of a week or two to recover we are expected to walk out of hospital- within 24 hours in some NHS hospitals- and cope, both with our own changed, and occasionally unhinged state, as well as the baby.
Health visitor Judith Hanson visits many new mothers and talks to ante-natal classes, “It’s true, they never seem to see beyond the birth. Most women have no idea how they are going to feel.” She adds, “Often it is the older professional women who find it hardest, because they are so used to being in control. One woman actually had a baby filofax, with pushchair cross-referenced with pram. I think she expected to file baby under ‘B’!” When Judith had her own baby, however, she admits, “It was horrific. And because I was supposed to know all about it, I felt even worse. I still didn’t know why the baby was crying!”
The NCT runs a helpline for new mothers; Nicky Elliott, who has a two year old son herself, is one of the volunteers who telephone with support and encouragement. “When I had my baby I didn’t know any of the bad points. I think the NCT felt people didn’t really listen. They just don’t want to know before the birth. All you are concerned about is pain relief and maybe how many baby-gros to buy. You never think about how it is all going to affect you. ”
She found her own NCT supporter invaluable, “The good thing was she persisted. I’d think there’s that crazy NCT woman again – and I never believed I would go to a coffee morning, but I found myself pushing the pram along nonetheless. When all the excitement has worn off you suddenly find yourself stuck at home – there needs to be much more emphasis on how life is going to change. You never know how you are going to take to it, or what kind of mother you are going to be.”
The lack of immediate family around means many women have to cope alone or with the help of a seriously shell-shocked partner, who probably doesn’t have paternity leave and is ill-prepared himself to cope with either baby or mother. Peter Walker, author of The Baby Massage Book, and a single parent himself,sometimes sees as many as 100 new mothers at his classes in a week. He feels strongly that in order for women to be able to cope with the first few months of a baby’s life, men need to play a more prominent role, “It is the most important job in the world, and other countries – Scandinavia, for example, are beginning to recognise the need for paternity leave.”
He also points out how often relationships break down under the strain of new parenthood; many women regard the need to maintain an emotional and sexual relationship with their partner as an added strain, instead of an essential element of the support system. Susie Prus wishes she had received more advice, particularly about spending time with her partner. “I was so wrapped up with the baby I just forgot about Timothy, and we actually ended up separated for a time.”
Walker also believes that women need to be looked after following childbirth. “They should be treated with the same care as they are treated in the latter part of pregnancy.” In China for example the post-partum period is called “doing the month” – the new mother stays in bed for the first 28 days, to be cossetted and fed chicken soup, usually by their mother-in-law. In India someone comes in to massage the new mother every day, and someone else also massages the baby. In our rush to reclaim birth from the doctors and insist that it is not an illness, we seem to have abandoned the idea of any special care for the new mother at all. ***(cut)
In an attempt to get the women she teaches to see beyond B- day, Janet Balaskas has started to organise her ante – and post-natal groups back to back. She encourages pregnant women to come to classes for mothers and babies, so they can learn to handle the babies, massage them perhaps, and most of all talk to other new mothers about their experiences and any problems they may have had.
Lolly Stirk encourages women to return to her yoga class after birth and tell the other pregnant women about their experience. But when I returned with my own tale to tell, I found that sure enough they all wanted to know every excruciating detail of the labour and birth, “How many hours of labour? What was the pain really like? Did you have to have stitches?” But when I tried to tell them that giving birth was nothing compared to coping with a new baby everyone simply looked puzzled, as if they really couldn’t understand. As if, should they fully comprehend the enormity of what they were about to embark on, human procreation would be seriously at risk.