A tale of two births
A baby is born. Whilst the new mother was pregnant, she was the centre of attention. Now she is elbowed out of the way by visitors who just want to hold her baby. Visitors means she misses out on naps, and they expect her to entertain them, leaving her with a messy house and a cranky baby. Nobody asks her how she feels. With no previous experience of babies, and no family nearby, she feels lost and worries whether she is doing things right. Her partner returns to work after two short weeks. She struggles to meet her baby’s needs, and her own. Nobody helps with the chores or the cooking. She receives a lot of gifts, but they are all for the baby. She is exhausted by the broken nights, and longs for a much-needed nap, or some baby-free time. Her days are a blur of feeding, and babycare. Her social network has disappeared, for her friends are all working 9 to 5 jobs. She feels isolated and lonely. She longs for adult company. She feels guilty that she isn’t enjoying every moment. She struggles to make sense of this new experience. She hides her feelings and pretends everything is ok. Everybody gives her conflicting advice and undermines her instincts. Nobody takes care of her body, and there is immense pressure to “go back to normal” both physically and socially. By the time a month has passed, she is exhausted, uncertain about her mothering skills, and still in a fresh postpartum state physically and emotionally.
A baby is born. The new mother is celebrated and her status is increased by motherhood. There is an understanding that she has performed an incredible feat by growing and birthing a whole new person, and that she needs time, rest, and good care and nutrition to recover well from this. Family members, and members of her community rally round. Everything in her house is taken care of, all the chores and all the cooking. All she has to do is rest and get to know her baby. Experienced mothers surround her and support her in learning to care for and feed her baby. Someone comes daily to massage her body, and bind her abdomen with a cloth, in ways designed to help bring her recover faster, both physically and spiritually. She is treated and revered like a queen. People fight over who is cooking her next meal. The dishes which are cooked are specifically designed to restore her strength, nourish her body, and boost her health. She is never alone, there is always adult company, and she can talk about her feelings and make sense of her changing sense of self. There are always loving arms to hold the baby whenever she needs it. She recovers well, and by the time a month has passed, and she is ready to re-enter community life, she is stronger, confident and competent in herself and in caring for her baby.
These two stories may seem too polarised but they are cobbled from stories of mothers I have heard through the years.
This book was born from 10 years of working as an perinatal educator and doula.
Ten years of supporting expectant and new families.
Ten years of hearing stories, stories of women struggling as new mothers, and stories of women blaming themselves.
Ten years of also hearing completely different stories from cultures where the tradition of supporting new mothers is still strong.
Ten years of weaving threads together and slowly being able to see a picture. A picture that how wonderful the postpartum can be, and that shows how wrong we have got it in the Western world.
This book was born out of frustration, and out of wanting to help facilitate change.
When I look back, the seed was planted by many people, by attending many conferences and training, but mostly it was created by listening to stories from new and not so new mothers.
Stories of new mothers I supported as a doula, who received presents for the baby, and who were alone at home most days, expected to meet their newborn’s needs, their own needs, and run their household alone, and who wondered why they found it so hard to cope, and blamed themselves
And then there were the stories from women who came from a culture that still had nurturing postpartum traditions.
Hellen, from Kenya, who told me in the school playground the stark difference between her experience of giving birth to her first child in Kenya, where she told me, you didn’t lift a finger for 4 months, that you didn’t even wash yourself, and that people fought over who would cook you diner. Hellen then moved to the UK, remarried, and with a preschooler and a newborn, and a husband who expected a hot diner on the table every night, told me she cried every day remembering the support back home.
Swati, who told me that, when she gave birth to twins in India, her mum hired an old lady from the village who came to give her a full body massage every day for a month!
So I did some research and realised that not that long ago, such practises were part of the Western world too.
This book came from a desire to try and change our culture to become a more supportive one for new mothers, one that recognises the need to nurture them after birth so they can recover and feel supported and find their feet more easily.
It is not a call to action to go back to the good old days, but one to create new traditions for our world.
It is full of practical suggestions on how to re-create a nurturing postpartum in today’s world, including a whole chapter on writing a postnatal recovery plan.
The early reviews I got for the book reflect extremely well what I am trying to achieve with it:
I simply could not stop reading this passionate, well-informed, urgent plea for changing our damaging culture of postpartum care. Sophie Messager’s genuine voice compels readers’ compassion not only as a scientist turned Doula but also as an inspiring storyteller. After reading this book, no one will turn up to visit a new family with a cuddly toy and expect tea to be served. Rather, they will bring a nutritious cake or casserole and perhaps offer a postnatal massage for the new mother. Françoise Barbira Freedman, Medical Anthropologist, University of Cambridge, Founder of Birthlight.
I love this book. Sophie is a scientist turned doula, so is beautifully qualified to offer practical, evidence-based information with compassion and empathy. She gives us pointers to things we should all know, but have somehow lost in our rushed and internet-obsessed world. Based on her four pillars of postnatal recovery – rest, nutrition, social support and bodywork – she gently guides us through practical steps to support an optimal postnatal recovery. Packed with common sense and wisdom, with enjoyable personal stories and references and resources second to none, this book has something for everyone who is pregnant or has just had a baby. I not only recommend it, I would go so far as to say I think it is essential reading. Becky Reed, Midwife and Postnatal Group Facilitator
As an anthropologist, I found this book fascinating. As a pregnant woman, I found it essential. It completely changed how I thought about and approached the end of my pregnancy and planning for the oft-neglected time after birth. Sophie draws on cross-cultural wisdom and experience, as well as the scientific literature, to articulate how the exhausted, neglected, overwhelmed stereotype of new motherhood we have in our society isn’t an unavoidable universal but a relatively recent cultural choice. And, crucially, a choice we can be empowered to un-make with some care, planning, and support. Eleanor Fleming, Postgraduate Researcher, Department of Anthropology, Durham University
Sophie’s book is a powerful call to action and essential reading not just for those who are pregnant or have had children – but for all of us. At some point in our lives we will come into contact with a loved one who is expecting or has recently had a child and Sophie’s book reminds us of an age-old universal wisdom about caring for the mother. The book is a wonderful resource including poignant personal stories. My hope is that the book will have a ripple effect. Caring for mothers during this precious period after birth is an avenue not just to look after two individuals (baby and mother) but a step towards creating better societies. Dr Johanna Riha, mother and consultant epidemiologist.
By sharing the experiences and concerns of modern women during their postnatal journeys, Sophie unveils for us the wisdom of postpartum care across the globe and echoes the voices of traditional midwifery throughout time. Thorough research, easy to follow advice and lots of useful resources make this book a must read! Not only for mothers to be, but for all of those who understand that perinatal health is a key element to help our communities thrive. Laura Leongomez, Holistic Voice Therapist and doula