I had a lightbulb moment this afternoon whilst chatting with my lovely yoga teacher and therapist friend Stephanie Satriawan. We were musing over the fact that we see more and more women working right up to their due date. It isn’t usual these days to hear stories of women going into labour at work, or the day after their maternity leave started.
In a culture that glorifies busy, and is also focused entirely on the health of the baby, not the mother, is it perhaps not surprising, especially as mothers want to keep their maternity leave for when they feel it matters most, after their baby is there. I can’t help but wonder if expectant first time mothers also believe that somehow they will get their rest once their baby has arrived.
But, I can’t help but wonder, are we missing something very important there?
My instinct tells me that this period of “doing nothing” before the birth is very important indeed. It feels that the mother needs the rest physically (that’s a given: most of us feel pretty tired during the third trimester of pregnancy), but beyond that I feel that she needs the time to just “be”, to connect with her baby, and to build her strength, both mentally and physically, for the birth and postnatal period afterwards. This article, “the last days of pregnancy-a place in between” describes this very well.
I cannot help but wonder how much impact this has on women’s physical and mental wellbeing. I can’t help but wonder what the outcomes would be if women maternity leave was automatically starting a few weeks before their due date (This is the case in France, you stop work 6 weeks before, but then women only have about 2.5 months left after birth which is another story).
I started to wonder if there was some actual peer reviewed research on this topic, so I searched for articles and was quite pleasantly surprised to find a couple of papers on the subject-I didn’t even know that this had been studied! One Canadian study found that the risks of obstetric complications during labour decreased with the duration of leave, an American study found that women who stopped work at 36 weeks were 4 times less likely to have a cesarean than women who worked right up to they gave birth. A Mexican study also linked no antenatal leave with low birth weight. There are also several studies showing a link between short antenatal leave and preterm births and low birth weight.
This really exemplifies the fact that our culture has little understanding of how important the perinatal period is, on both sides of the birth!
I want to make something clear : I am certainly not blaming women for this, and I know that some women work until they give birth because they have no choice, for example for economic reasons. I feel that the blame should rest squarely on a culture that fails to understand and support the needs of birthing women, rather than on women themselves.
Still, because a shift in cultural treatment of expectant women, I would like to encourage women and birthworkers to think that postnatal recovery starts before the birth.
I am going to start adding that to my discussions with pregnant women.