As a Lactation Consultant and former Midwife and mother myself, I have learned well that the transformation into parenthood is one of the most profound experiences of life. Becoming a parent and welcoming your new child is a journey that will take you to places you least expect.
When I teach expectant parents about the transformation to parenthood, I say that it all begins with the birth. The hormonal orchestration of birth, facilitates the bond between mother and child with every oxytocin induced tightening contraction. Oxytocin is called the “hormone of love” and as if facilitates the complex dance between mother and baby, the mother opens in every way for her child. As her body opens for her child so does her heart.
As the baby emerges from the mom’s body and is put against her belly, the baby then begins their instinctive journey up to moms heart and to her breast to suckle for the very first time. Mother and baby are now forever connected in their dance together that holds the key to transformation, heartache, anxiety, love and joy.
As the birth facilitates the process of opening, the postpartum time reveals the wide open, very vulnerable state for the mom. She is profoundly sensitive, easily over stimulated and biologically hard wired to meet her baby’s every need.
Today’s modern woman who is taught the values of independence and self reliance is often thrown off balance as she experiences such vulnerability and the need to depend on others for her most basic needs for food and fluids as she attends to the babies needs for the very same thing. This biological dance between mother and child is all consuming as the baby has the need to stay physically attached to the mother, often all hours of the day and night, as they seek access to food, protection and love. Parents are often caught by surprise by how hard this time can be and how time consuming it is to take care of such a small infant and a new mother needs.
We live in a culture that has very little understanding and compassion for this time. As new parents learn to navigate postpartum, they are often navigating the visitors that come to the door with a gift and the expectation to visit and hold the baby. We also live in a time when the technology of cell phones and emails and texts have blurred the lines between work and home and when the outside world feels entitled to have access to us at all times of the day or night. When I ask parents what advice they have been given about this time, they often repeat the wise phrase “Sleep when the baby sleeps” but I often follow with; But what does that mean? To truly get rest at odd hours of the day and evening, the visitors must be managed and the phones and emails must be put on silent. That is not so easy when that is not our cultural expectation.
In cultures that have held on to some traditions from before industrialization, postpartum is handled much differently. Often the grandmother or another elder woman is there to take care of the household and all the meals of healing foods and she is there to pass on her wisdom about breastfeeding and caring for the baby. The new mother is often instructed to not leave the house for 30 to 40 days and stay in bed with her baby as she nurses often and sleeps in between. All the mothers needs are tenderly taken care of and the mother tends to her babies needs. The expectation to go back to work in most countries is often adjusted to accomodate this profound transition of adjusting and establishing breastfeeding with a new baby as parents often get at least 6 months payed leave. There are 4 countries in the world that don’t have a paid maternity and/or paternity leave. They are: Swaziland, Papai New Guinea, Jordan and the United States. The United States is the only industrialized country that does not have a payed leave.
As I work with new families, I often see the fall out from our lack of understanding and support of this profound time. As I help the mother with learning to breastfeed her baby, I know that most of us are learning with biology guiding us but with our culture imposing harsh judgements and expectations that often undermine this delicate dance between mother and child. I have learned that mothers and fathers are trying to do the best job they can as they profoundly love and care for their baby and there is a natural symbiosis of development between mother and child in those early months.
In the early first few weeks when the baby is a bundle of reflexes and instincts and is eagerly seeking their most basic needs for food and comfort, it is natural for the parents to feel profoundly anxious as try to understand their babies needs. The mother is biologically hard wired to respond to her babies cry and to feel an urgency to meet her babies needs as quickly as possible. Parents often feel worried and insecure that they are not doing a good job and all the emotions that are so close to the surface can create a tension and feeling of walking on egg shells. The love hormone “Oxytocin” is being released by both mother and father with the skin to skin contact when they hold the baby and the mother releases even more Oxytocin every time she nurses. If the mother is surrounded by loving care and positive affirmations, this time gets better more quickly. The birth of a child gives birth to the parental instincts that will guide you on this journey for a life time. But the first few weeks, that instinctual voice is buried in a bundle of anxiousness and insecurities and can be quieted even more with over stimulation and advice from well meaning relatives. As the weeks go by and the parents learn to accept their new reality and navigate the challenges that can often come with breastfeeding and caring for a baby, the mother often learns the importance in asking for guidance and help. My mantra for new parents is to ask for help until you don’t need it anymore and that the partner is often better able to facilitate getting that help as the mother is often in a state of feeling overwhelmed. If the parents seek the help they need in gaining greater understanding of their baby and understanding of the normalcy of the emotional state that they are in, the level of confidence grows.
Most of us don’t know much about feeding a baby when we have our first one because we have had very little opportunity to learn from others by watching a baby feed. The cultural messages of fear and misunderstanding of breastfeeding follow the path of distruction that formula left in it’s wake. As formula was introduced in the 1940’s in our culture, it’s clever marketing played on the natural fears and insecurities that every parent has in those early weeks and helped those moms durning WW II go back to work to support the war effort. Formula companies continued to confuse us as they said that formula was more advanced as it was made in a scientific lab and didn’t come from women’s bodies. Women often tell me that they are more afraid of breastfeeding then labor, although they are afraid of that too. We have been told that to trust our bodies and our babies is suspect and losing the ability to measure and quantify and just rely on our instincts is dangerous. I find my most profound job as a lactation consultant is to not only educate moms about their babies and their bodies but to give them the support that our culture falls short on and to encourage them to continue to find that support and help that every family and baby needs but also deserves.
In the symbiotic development of mother and child, at 8 weeks a little magic happens between mother and child. The baby’s instincts and reflexes don’t look so jerky anymore and appear more purposeful and clear in their meaning. The mother’s instinctual voice is louder now and she is often starting to listen to it. She is more able to go out into the world with greater confidence and feels less overwelmed by the stimulation. The baby becomes a more efficient eater as feedings at the breast are often half as long now. This is when the learning phase of the immediate postpartum is starting to come to a close and the next phase begins. Of course, this is when most mothers half to go back to work and so this adds new and different challenges.
What I have learned from this delicate, wondorous journey is that we as mothers deserve great compassion and love as we are the caretakers of the next generation. We must also show compassion and love for ourselves too and leave judgement at the door as we seek the support that we deserve. Our children are the best teachers in the world as they are in a constant state of learning but live in the moment. Our children just want our love and compassion, don’t you think that we all want that, too?
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