For months, you sacrifice your all to bring about life. And this life belongs uniquely to you. Then the baby is born and suddenly, the baby belongs to everyone else... or so they think.... or so it feels.
Recently I came across a beautifully written narrative called No, Please Don't Visit My Newborn! by Laura Grace Weldon. It might be best to read the article for yourself, but in short, she describes a time shortly after the birth of her first child in which her husband's grandmother visits, takes the baby without asking, then refuses to return upon crying. Laura then explains her mama-grizzly response and how that one moment changed the way she and her husband planned post-birth boundaries in the future.
It was an article that I related to on a very personal level and was shocked by the negative response in the comments. The disappointment that plagued me as I read through is how this recently-having-birthed-mother was judged for selfish grandparent alienation. The conclusion that I've drawn is that culturally, we know very little about maternal health.
And I confess being an uniformed relative.
I remember when my sister had her first child. He was Frank Breech and her water broke the day before a scheduled version as an attempt to turn him. Though I am older than her, I was not aware of the real need for family boundaries and rode with them to the hospital, then sat in the room while the eager parents-to-be consulted the doctor on whether they should attempt a version or opt for a Cesarean (though I knew enough to not comment). I remember them deciding on the cesarean and then waiting an hour after the surgery to visit my new nephew. After we were welcomed to visit, my brother in law handed the baby to me and made a comment:
"Hold his head. Don't drop him."
"I know more about babies than you. Don't worry." I fired back.
Truth be told, I probably did, being the oldest of five children. However, I was far out of line and learned just how far after the birth of my first son a few years later. And let me say, I certainly went to him and apologized.
I was an intruder in every possible way.
I should have driven to the hosptial separately. I should have not have been in the room while they made the decision with the doctor. I should have given them more than an hour to bond with their new son, and I certainly should not have put my BIL's protective instinct in check.
They have not been resentful, but I still feel sad for robbing them of a private family moment.
Fast forward two years later. Aviel was coming into the world, arriving into our arms in a beautiful hospital birth. My mom and my mother-in-law were both in town for his arrival, in the waiting room during pushing, and visiting as soon as they were medically allowed. My father-in-law planned to visit several days after his birth, but my father was unable to make it at that time. What I did not anticipate is how overwhelming it would be to have 3 out of 4 grandparents visiting from abroad simultaneously. After leaving the hospital, guests would be present in our home until 10 or 11 pm. When they would leave, I would cry and cry. (And before I get to far into my story, let me just say that the grandparents were not necessarily doing anything wrong... they were all doting grandparents. It was simply a lot for me, having just birthed and desiring bonding with my brand new baby).
I felt as though Aviel was constantly taken from my arms the minute he finished nursing. Requests to not put him to sleep before feedings were not honored. Diapers were changed, with his chord stump still present, without asking. Pacies were placed in his mouth, again, without asking. Others held him during worship services at our Kehilah (congregation), which had been a special time of bonding for me before he was born.
"This has been great" one of the grandparents said one evening. "We didn't get nearly this amount of time with your nephew when he was born."
"Not at all. Its like we've been living with you."
In that moment, I realized my overwhelmed feelings were not an exaggeration, but a response to a having guest present far more than my recovering body, and heart, needed at the time! And apparently, the situation was characteristically different from the experience that one set of grandparents had with the first grandchild.
Not only that, but at our 2 week appointment, when the nurse explained that Aviel was not gaining weight efficiently and suggested one formula bottle a day, something of my own maternal instinct kicked in strong.
You see, I knew it was too much, but I didn't trust my instinct. I wondered if I was being controlling, and I felt guilty asking grandparents who lived abroad to leave, to return my newborn child, to not grandparent quite. so. much.
When the nurse pointed out that Aviel's health was at risk, and that we might need a feeding intervention that I did not want, that's when my own personal mama-grizzly came out. I then knew I needed to establish some better boundaries for both our sake. I needed some privacy to do skin-to-skin contact and increase my milk supply. I needed some privacy to make sure he was getting full feedings at regular intervals. I needed him in my arms to keep my prolactin and oxytocin high.
I needed him and he needed me.
We needed each other and this wasn't selfish... this was healthful.
As informed as I had been on the physiology of birth, I certainly missed something in understanding what my postpartum needs would be, and that my needs were symbiotic with Aviel's needs.
In the years since, as I've continued to study, I've learned that privacy in those early hours and days is a very important part of overall maternal and baby health, and an area where our western culture is extremely ill informed.
After a women gives birth, her oxytocin and prolactin levels are higher than they will ever be in her life, until she births again. Likewise, estrogen levels are dropping at rapid rates. She is likely sore from the birth, bleeding, and trying to learn how to nurse. With all that is happening in her body, in all honesty, it isn't the time for a huge influx of visitors. She very well may want and need space to work these new emotions, feelings, and body responses out privately. Learning to breastfeed certainly does take some work and doesn't necessarily go well with constant company.
With all that is happening, it should be understood that new mother is extremely vulnerable, almost just as much as a new baby, and the new father follows a close third. If a clash of emotions occurs, I doubt any party is intentionally trying to be be selfish, but either acting out of lack of knowledge (guests), or the extreme hormonal change taking place (mother). While the instinct to bond with a new baby will also be strong in grandparents, no one in the room is processing the birth in as complex biological ways as the mother, and all mature adults should do what they can to support her needs at that time, not only for her well being, but also for the baby. Extended family bonding can come later.
Since this is not something that is common knowledge, I believe falls on the new parents to process the post birth needs as part of the "birth plan" and to communicate expectations in advance. If I could offer some tips based on my previous experience, this is what I would suggest and plan myself this time around:
- Guard the first hour after birth. According to the research of Michel Odent, the first hour after birth is a very sensitive time physiologically for mother and baby. My birth plan for Girl baby includes guarding this time with my whole heart. Ideally, the baby will be with me in skin-to-skin contact, while the chord finishes pulsating. I'd prefer for her to be with either me or Devin, except for minor medical monitoring from our amazing homebirth doctor. I hope that she will mostly be in my arms until after her first nursing. Only after that takes place will it be time for her to meet and greet other loved ones.
- Plan for privacy and practical help. Privacy and practical help are essential for a establishing a healthy breastfeeding relationship. Make sure to communicate what practical help is for you. For me, its not holding the baby, so I can do other things. Its doing other things so I can hold the baby! Its cooking, doing dishes, laundry and and keeping visits short and sweet. Of course you can hold my baby, just ask first, please, and return promptly upon my request!
- Establish clear visiting hours. We'll have time for friends with an extension for extended family. For many, it will help ease emotions to communicate this in advance so hearts can be prepared to not "live with" the new family.
I hope that our postpartum experience will go a little more smoothly this time, and because I do believe maternal health needs run counter cultural, I hope this will serve as a starting point for other women to evaluate with their husbands what the first few weeks postpartum might require for their family to thrive!