Maddie McMahon is leading our breakout session on Doula Care at “Growing Families: Facts, Fiction and Other Stuff” this October. It is a one-day event for all expectant and new families – mum, dad, grandma, grandad, aunts, uncles, supporters – and the professionals who work with them. This is a not-for-profit event, created by four mothers, two of whom are also healthcare professionals. Our mission is to tackle the postnatal information that desperately needs covering for new families. To explore expectations and evidence around the early days with baby. To keep ticket prices low, with no expectation of making a profit, in order to open up the event to as many people as we can. To ensure that support for the event comes from ethical organisations and those who share our interest in evidence based information and family wellbeing. To give new families the confidence to face the challenges ahead.
Please click here to book your place: https://growingfamilies.co.uk/prices-booking/
Here Maddie discusses what she feels new mothers need.
Back in 1999, pregnant for the first time, I sat shyly in an older mother’s living room at a summer barbecue. The men were in the garden, poking the fire, while I sat with the women, non-alcoholic drink in hand, telling the assembled group of friends and acquaintances that I was 3 months pregnant. The woman next to me on the sofa visibly blanched, clutched me by the arm and hissed through clenched teeth: “get an epidural”. Thus, I was initiated into the complex world of motherhood.
Looking back now, through the lens of 13 years as a doula, I understand why I felt so deflated, so filled with trepidation and so at sea for my whole pregnancy and for years as a mother of 2 small children. With hindsight I think I’ve got a pretty good handle on what I think I needed. I do know we’re all different and nothing can be universal, but here are my top 5 things that new mothers might need. Do let me know if you agree.
1. Chuck out the fear
Instead of fear, some positivity would have been nice. Some belief in my body to grow a child without incident. A pinch of faith that my child could be born without drama. It might have been nice to hear “good on yer” from time to time, instead of the hollow laugh of “you’ll soon find out….” Insert the excruciating pain of childbirth/how stupid you are to think you can have a natural birth/how utterly exhausted and bitter you’ll feel about having kids…
Perhaps it would have been nice to be celebrated for the immense achievement of making new life. Maybe my community could have gathered around and honoured me. Rather than suddenly feeling invisible and no longer a productive member of society, perhaps I could have been rewarded for the gift I was giving and patted on the back. Instead of being accused of being a drain on society and perpetually asked when I was going back to work and the ‘real world’, it could have been pointed out what an immense joy it is to become a parent and what an enormous contribution parents make to the perpetuation of the species.
2. Treat her like a grown up
In no particular order, things that diminish and undermine pregnant and new mothers:
“Pop up on the bed for me” and other, equally infantilising language. Is that an order or a request? Why and what for? Anything I need to give consent for?
“Down there”, “Tail end”. No, it is my vagina. The seat of more power and creativity and pleasure than you can possibly imagine. Use her name, she deserves it. And while you’re at it, use mine too. I am not “mum”. I am a full person, with a name and a life. Please don’t diminish me by using one of my roles as my definition.
“You need to”, “You have to”, “You must”. More orders? Don’t I have a say? How can I decide if you haven’t talked me through the pros and cons? Anyone who tells you that you are, or are not, allowed to do something hasn’t grasped a pretty fundamental notion: that this is your birth, your body, your baby. Parents, when they have access to good quality, evidence-based information, make safe and appropriate choices for themselves and their babies. So you get to do the allowing, the choosing and the calling of the shots. Hey, Mama, you’re the boss!
Then there’s the “You’ll make a rod for your own back” thing. I’ve never really understood this mythical rod and why it’s so universally used as a means of scaring parents into being (usually) as dictatorial as the person gloomily threatening the dire consequences of relaxed parenting. I fed my kids when they were hungry, helped them fall asleep in a way that worked, cuddled them as much as I and they wanted, took the line of least resistance, picked my battles carefully and tried to say ‘yes’ or ‘what do YOU think’ more than ‘no’. I generally tried to respect their emotions and their opinions and practised a form of benign neglect that appears to have resulted in a pair of pretty well-balanced teenagers. Despite all the dire predictions, I can’t seem, for the life of me, to find this rod. Maybe we should be asking parents how THEY want to parent rather than heaving out another tired old clichéd bit of homespun advice.
3. Help her find her tribe
We are a tribal species. We didn’t evolve to do this on our own. Find the old crones that make you feel safe and understand the processes you are going through. Find your sisters who will wipe your tears and pick you up on a bad day. Find your mother figure who will love you and cradle you through birth and beyond. Once, we had the collective wisdom of a whole village of women. We would gather in the red tent and menstruate together, birth together, laugh, cry and eat together. Today, that kind of support is all too often absent from women’s lives. Where once we would have seen birth, sat amongst nursing mothers and cared for many babies before having our own, now we come into motherhood devoid of experience and sisterhood.
As famous midwife Sheena Byrom says, “Find a good midwife or doula and stick to them like glue.” A guide through the maternity maze can help you understand your choices and support you on the journey. She can help you carry some of your heavy luggage so it doesn’t weigh you down on the way. She can be there to celebrate your achievements and hold you up when things feel tough. Most importantly of all, she can believe in you. Friends, old and new, can be there too, to listen and accept you, just as you are, with unconditional love. When women become mothers and babies are loved and worshipped as they should be, everything usually blossoms beautifully.
4. Forget the Clocks
The minute we find out we’re pregnant the numbers start crowding in; how many weeks am I? When do I have my scans, my midwife appointments? What is my fundal height? My HB? When is my ‘due date’? Age 40? Over 40 weeks? By the time we actually go into labour, whether that is naturally, or induced to someone else’s clock, we can have been hypnotised by the numbers.
So what’s the problem? Why can’t we quantify our bodies and our babies; measure them in minutes and hours, in centimetres, millilitres, in pounds and ounces? Why can’t we define, confine, analyse, portion and fix this journey? Can’t we take the uncertainty out of this life-changing event? Measuring also means controlling something. If we can explain and describe something, suddenly we have power over it, the fear is replaced with understanding – isn’t this a good thing?
Perhaps. Except that to truly measure and understand the butterfly, you have to pin it to a board.
Numbers come from our modern human brains, our neo-cortexes, the part of our brain we use to pay the mortgage and remember our PIN. Thing is, we don’t grow our babies, give birth or mother with this part of our brain. We do all that with our primal, mammal brain, the brain that is all instinct and deep, ancient knowing. The brain we can’t describe, define or quantify. It can help when mothers are supported to understand that each body and each baby is different. Some births are slow and some are fast. Both can be perfect. 2cm dilated right now doesn’t mean you won’t have your baby in your arms very soon. There is no magic number of minutes at the breast that will ensure a baby is well fed. There is no ‘right’ centile for the baby to follow. You, and your baby, are unique and special. Numbers might sometimes help flag up possible problems but let’s use the numbers as a tool instead of allowing them to rule us.
5. Have a Babymoon and a 4th Trimester
You just grew a person! For a whole 9 months, your body changed and rearranged itself. This baby was born from your body; a stupendous effort, however the birth plays out. You are a superstar, Olympic athlete, astronaut returning from a heroic mission to the moon! You deserve some time out from life, to rest and recuperate, for every organ in your body to navigate its way back into place, for your bones to close and your breasts to learn their new job.
Just as a honeymoon gives us space and time to lay down the foundations of a new relationship, to celebrate and honour the union and to forge ever-closer bonds by spending time together, a babymoon allows for mother and child to become motherbaby; to stare into each other’s eyes, to spend time in bed in skin-to-skin contact, to let milk and love flow in equal measure; for the baby to explore his new habitat from the safe vantage point of his mother’s chest and for mother to tentatively try on motherhood for size.
This is a time for motherbaby to be nurtured and for the union to be celebrated. When people come, they should come with food and a ready hand to help with household chores. In many cultures, mother and baby are washed and massaged regularly. The mother’s job is to rest and gain confidence in her mothering skills as she feeds and cares for the baby.
It is during this time that parents can be supported to understand the innate and immutable needs of a newborn baby; that for the first 3 months at least, the line of least resistance is often to imagine how it would feel to be small, helpless, a bit freaked out at being in the big wide world, with a very small tummy, hyper-sensitive skin, and a ‘normal’ that was warm, dark, wet, moving, noisy, heart-beat-throbby. This is the 4th trimester of pregnancy; seeing this new addition to the family as still ‘foetal’, not quite ready for the world, still needing near-constant contact with his mother’s body to grow and develop.
When we see our babies as cups that need filling with love and touch, as tiny creatures who just have needs that ache to be met and who do not have the cognitive ability to manipulate us, they can seem much easier to understand. With support, parents can then work out how to care for their own needs, as well as the baby’s, to make the most of the baby’s rhythms and adjust to the new-normal pattern of family life.
Anything I’ve missed? Five points was a number picked at random for the benefit of this article. What do YOU think mothers need? And what about fathers, I hear you say. Well, that’s another article!
Expecting a baby? New to parenting or wanting to explore more about what you know? About to become a grandparent? Supporting new families?
Then this conference is for you!