I read with interest the article posted on WMW about Kate Alexandra, who adopted a 40 day confinement practice in order to bond with her new born baby in her “nest” at home. As someone who struggled with the prospect of being stuck at home with a baby all day, when I had my first child eleven years ago, I was expecting to read a horror story of cabin fever, depression and mental exhaustion. I was pleasantly surprised, however, by the benefits that Kate reaped from the experience.
It led me to think about my experience of maternity leave. I was used to working full-time and socialising frequently. As referenced in the article about Kate Alexandra, there is a huge amount of pressure on women in western cultures to carry on as normal following childbirth. We are expected to get out and about, get back into shape very quickly and have clean and tidy houses. Advertising and media is downright scary to a new mum, seeing all these perfect ‘yummy mummies’ managing to look great, bond with their babies and breastfeed in beautifully tidy calm environments. Breastfeeding can be a real pressure in itself, as even if a mother takes to it like a duck to water, it takes a very confident and liberated woman to breastfeed in public, even if it is a lot more acceptable to do this in today’s society. I personally never felt comfortable enough to do it in the middle of a shopping centre or restaurant, but have ultimate respect for those women that do.
What created a great deal of stress for me, as a new mum, were outings with my son as a baby. He was born small, which meant he fed frequently to build his weight up. This meant precise planning and time management for journeys and carrying a lot of pre-measured formula in containers. He also suffered from colic, meaning that often after he had been fed, he would still cry, despite having been burped enough. I will never forget waiting for the lift in Mothercare with him in the pram, after sitting in a hot and overcrowded room of other mums for over an hour feeding him and then trying to get all the burps out of him and get him settled. His colic was causing him to cry as we waited for the lift, but I knew as I walked with the pram he would settle down. A woman stopped and confronted me, “Have you thought that your baby might be hungry???” She yelled at me. I could have slapped her in the face, but luckily the lift opened and I travelled home and then cried.
I actually relished the days when I didn’t need to go anywhere, where I didn’t have to rush to get him fed and dressed by a certain time to catch the tram to ensure I met up with other mums at the prearranged time (I don’t drive). Where I didn’t have to put myself through the stress the night before to prepare everything I needed for the next day and pack it all properly. I actually enjoyed all the sitting around feeding him and letting him fall asleep in my arms. My friend lent me a load of DVDs, which I had never watched before and when he settled down for his nap I would snuggle up with him in the armchair and watch a film, if I had time. And time was the key word. Often when he had naps, I would furiously try and sort the house and laundry out and then get annoyed when my son awoke while I was halfway through loading the washing machine. Yes it has to be done at some point, but not all at once and a house with a new baby in it does not have to be pristine or tidy as long as the baby’s things are clean and sterile. In hindsight, I was a much more relaxed mum when I had allowed myself to watch a film, or as in Kate’s example, she embraced the silence and meditated.
I have realised, after reading Kate Alexandra’s story, I created a lot of tension for myself and my baby, through trying too hard to keep up with everyone else and get back to ‘normal’ and into a routine too quickly. I wish I had relished those precious moments with my baby a little more and not beaten myself up for staying in all day in my pyjamas and watching his face, instead of forcing myself to the local mother and baby group (which I hated), or travelling into Birmingham to meet other mums for lunch – which, while the hour I spent with them was great, the preparation was immense.
Maternity leave and paternity leave is granted in order that parents have time to bond with and nurture their babies, but society and the media is putting them straight back on the treadmill. I hope Kate Alexandra’s experience inspires other mothers (who wish to, as we are all different) to take a different approach to this amazing time and relish it rather than rushing it.