We know the saying, “it takes a village to raise a child,” but we often forget that this isn’t just about a child’s education, it is also about giving mom a break!
Just a few hundred years ago, Americans observed the “lying in” period of 3-4 weeks after the birth of a new baby, where mom would rest, regain her strength, sip fatty soups and bond with baby while relatives and neighbors looked after her house, other children or other duties. None of these helping women were paid, and they all anticipated the same care and help when they delivered children of their own. This was not begrudgingly allowed, but socially accepted and encouraged.
Medicalization is the phenomenon of normal human problems becoming defined and treated as medical conditions, and thus becoming the subject of medical study, diagnosis, prevention, or treatment.
This can lead to medical breakthroughs, or it can lead to a sort of cultural hypochondria.
Birth and women’s health in general has become more highly medicalized here in the States in the last two hundred years or so; more births have medical interventions than births without them; menstruation has more prescriptions than ever before; and menopause is considered by some medical researchers and drug companies as a hormone ‘deﬁciency’ condition due to ovarian ‘failure,’ rather than part of a natural life cycle. And yet, the postpartum period has been wantonly ignored as a time where moms need care.
Improvements in medicine have had incredible impacts on women’s health here and around the world just in the last 50 years, and it goes without saying that much has changed for women since colonial times allowing us to lead in the workforce, to fight for our rights and access to healthcare at all, and, heck! even to own land! Though there may be some over-protective paternalism in the strict adherence to a ‘lying in’ period after labor and delivery, and while women’s bodies are indeed strong and capable, it is and always has been a physical and emotional ordeal to bring a child into the world. With the highest (and rising) maternal mortality rate of any developed nation, and as the only industrialized nation without mandated paid maternity leave, postpartum care must be considered in our cultural context.
Some version of the lie-in is still prevalent in many Asian, African and Middle Eastern countries as well as certain parts of Europe and many immigrant communities in the US. The Daily Beast’s Hillary Brenhouse writes, “The Chinese traditionally adhere to 30 days of restful confinement-another week for a C-section- during which time moms are meant to consume lactation-inducing soups and herbal tonics… In Mexico, the ritualized interlude, or the cuarentena, goes on for 40 days…Balinese women are not allowed to enter the kitchen until the baby’s cord stump has fallen. Dutch maternity nurses make postpartum visits every day for the eight days after childbirth, and in France, as elsewhere, new moms spend nearly a week in hospital.”
…the thing to focus on here is the idea of a culturally recognized and accepted postpartum rest period. With these rituals comes an acknowledgement, familial and federal, that the woman needs relief more at this time than at any other- especially if she has a career to return to- and that it takes weeks, sometimes months, to properly heal from childbirth. An acknowledgement that overexertion after labor could lead to depression, infection, increased uterine bleeding, or prolapse. An acknowledgement that the postpartum stretch shouldn’t feel, as it did for so many of the American women who took part in my informal survey, like one long sleepless night.
Rather, what we are given as a cultural standard for this period is one of “bouncing back,” to full-time work and pre-pregnancy clothing- expectations that are, for most women, unreasonable.
What we see, instead, is women berating themselves for having difficulty during this transition time, feeling like failures for their exhaustion and pushing themselves to ‘act normal’ almost immediately after delivery. Perhaps sitting in bed for a month or more isn’t quite what we need (or want!), but neither can we ignore the importance of what we can do to make the postpartum period safe, comfortable, and suitable for each mom.
- Initiating meal-trains
- reaching out to our government to change things little by little
- asking for help from a local doula service
- advocating for yourself and the moms you love to take care of themselves.