Mothering the Mother: 40 Days of Rest

by Svea Boyda-Vikander on October 21, 2012

“The role of the midwife is to be mother to the mother.” (Unknown)

We’ve all heard that ‘all that matters is a healthy baby’. We hear it before we give birth, and we hear it after. We hear it when a mother’s had a cesarean and a subsequent infection, when she has Post-Partum Depression and when she is reeling from trauma. But it’s not true. A healthy baby is not all that matters.

Mothers matter.

Of course infant health is important. But the mother-infant relationship is symbiotic. If the mother is not healthy and happy, her infant will suffer. Moreover, isn’t her suffering itself worth our consideration? Isn’t it worth our attention and our outrage? In posts online, from friends and in the books I read, I hear over and over again that, in fact, the needs of new mothers and birthing women are not acknowledged. We’ve got in-laws who come over to empty the fridge, ogle the baby, and drive home. Husbands and partners who pretend to sleep when they hear the newborn’s cries; and a basic lack of essential post-natal care in the American medical system (a 6-week follow-up phonecall is not nearly enough). We have lost the will to mother mothers.

In the past, women were surrounded by their own mothers and other older women during and after birth. The midwife played (and sometimes still plays) the role of ‘mother’ in supporting the birthing woman, often staying afterward to assist her in housekeeping during the post-partum weeks. According to Tina Cassidy in ‘Birth: The Surprising History of How We are Born’, the terms midwife and grandmother are synonymous in many languages. But in a country where families are fractured, motherhood is undervalued, and most babies are delivered through a broken and dangerous medical system, this sense of safety and security is lost. And nobody calls their grandmother the equivalent of ‘obstetrician’.

But that kind of caring is the kind of attitude we need to cultivate.

While many people believe that, “Women from [fill-in-the-blank random 'savage' culture] just have the baby in the fields then get right back to work,” in reality  most traditional cultures, including those throughout South America, Europe (Greece), the Middle East and Asia, a 40-day rest period is considered mandatory after an infant’s birth. In this time the mother is not expected to leave the house, cook food, or do anything but bond with her infant. American healthcare providers know well that Latina mothers often miss post-natal healthcare check-ups because they take this tradition, which they call ‘la cuarentena‘ (like ‘quarantine’) so seriously. It is that important.

Women from the mother’s community stop by her place to offer support, childcare for older children, and to bring food. While we have maintained some of these elements in mainstream American society (think 1950s suburban housewife and her ever-present tupperware casserole), we fall far too short in giving new mothers what they need. New mothers need support, love, tenderness; good healthcare and maternity leave. While some feel ready to do so, most of us don’t need to work out, hop back in the sack, or feel compelled to present a perfectly made-up face to the outside community. If women were able to follow the 40-day tradition, and were encouraged to truly rest during that time, it would be so beautiful. While 40 days of rest is not realistic to those of us who need to look after other children, go to school, or work to pay bills, we can change our attitudes about what is expected of ourselves and other women post-partum.

And we need to do something, because the birth practices of our country – with its 33% cesarean rate, and the average woman being twice as likely to die in the perinatal period than her mother was – need recovering from. While I enjoy writing and reading birth plans, I would like to see more post-birth plans. Instead of flimsy bassinets, wipe-warmers and the racket that is the ‘themed’ nursery, I would like baby registries to list things like a week in a plush hotel, gift certificates to local restaurants (that deliver!), and housework coupons. I would like to see partners and families allocate some funds to this period; for it to be acknowledged as the special, difficult, tear-filled, milky mess of a time that it is.

*Photography used with permission. By (top picture) Earthside Birth Photography and (bottom 2 pictures) MW Photography.

**Svea Boyda-Vikander is a mother, psychotherapist and visual artist. She works with mothers and other creative people in facilitating healthy parent-child relationships and artistic practices. In February of 2011, she gave birth to her first child at the Côte des Neiges Maison de Naissance (Birthing Centre) in Quebec. This experience opened her eyes to the powerful healing and spiritual potentials of birth, and it quickly became her passion. She is now conducting research into perinatal depression, loss, and cross-cultural infant care practices at Goddard College, VT. Svea believes motherhood is a political act deserving of support, acknowledgement and endless tubs of mascarpone cheese.*

Share/Bookmark

{ 94 comments… read them below or add one }

Linda had a little Lamb November 18, 2013 at 2:06 pm

When I worked in South Korea I was amazed to find out that after a woman gives birth, she is to rest for one month afterwards. She can either stay at a type of care facility (which my student’s wife chose to do) or if they stay at home they do no work and have no visitors until after the month is over. I LOVE that idea and think that we should be doing it in the western world too.

Reply

1humanwoman November 18, 2013 at 9:52 pm

The “all that matters is a healthy baby” trope makes me nuts. I blogged about it here: http://humanwithuterus.wordpress.com/2013/10/23/healthy-babies-and-their-human-mothers/

Reply

Rebecca November 18, 2013 at 10:10 pm

I had the marvelous advantage of months to be home and a husband who doesn’t mind paper plates or washing his own sock. But… I was left too alone. I felt like everyone just expected me to know what to do with this tiny, wriggling, noisy, wet, hungry thing. I was so overwhelmed and so alone, but my lifelong disdain for being a burden and my inability to articulate what I needed left me sinking into PPD around the 4 month mark.

Reply

Sarah November 21, 2013 at 9:54 am

I had the same experience with my first. Sometimes, even if you can articulate your needs, there’s no one there willing to help you with them. I ended up seeing a counselor, casually, to keep my cool during those months-they should have therapists that specialize in mothering!

Reply

Melissa Hodges December 9, 2013 at 5:08 pm

“they should have therapists that specialize in mothering!”
While not “therapists” that’s what post partum doula’s do. We come in and help with the practical stuff, listen and support. Better than a therapist!”
http://www.dona.org/mothers/faqs_postpartum.php

Lots of my clients ask for my gift certificates for gifts from friends and family.

Melissa

Reply

Mrs. BWF December 9, 2013 at 10:09 pm

Great point!

Reply

Kkerin November 18, 2013 at 10:58 pm

…and we wonder why there is so much child abuse. Mothers are so devalued, they don’t have faith in their own abilities as mothers. They have forgotten their primary purpose, or, if remembering, are too shunned, criticized, exhausted, to fulfill it. Support systems? What a laugh.

Reply

Lisa May 19, 2014 at 5:16 pm

yes, we are supposed to “have it all, do it all and be it all” and always be shining bright. Being a mom has been devalued and its not cool.

Reply

TCM November 19, 2013 at 8:09 am

I would hate staying inside for 40 days. Seems more like a holdover of belief in the evil eye or baby getting sick if taken out. I got cabin fever, I WANTED someone to come over and hold my baby so I could leave for an hour or 2 until he had to nurse again.

Same for the idea of no visitors. I still want a social life. I do want to see people ogle over my cute baby. That said, I would hope that people who visit would do a thing or two to help me (without asking..because of course if we are asked, we will politely say “no,” when inside we are screaming, “please!”)

We are human beings, not mere vehicles of birth.

Reply

J November 19, 2013 at 8:21 am

While I understand everyone has different perspectives, I find it important not to make hasty generalizations. The entire United States is not full of uncaring people. My birth experiences were fantastic. I had my babies in the hospital with in an OB/GYN and I felt cared for and appreciated. Yes I had some nurses that were more thoughtful than others, but the majority of the healthcare professionals that I dealt with and I believe that most people deal with, are kind and considerate and wanting to be helpful to new mothers. When choosing a healthcare professional find somebody that you trust. Find somebody that cares about you and your baby and your experience in birth. I find it hard to believe that all in-laws come and eat all of your food and mess with the baby. And I find it hard to believe that all husbands sleep through the babies crying and are not supportive of their wives getting up to feed their baby. Just because the husband doesn’t wake up too doesn’t mean that they don’t support you. A reassuring pat when you climb back into bed can be a simple way to say that. I have found the contrary- that people are willing to come and help. Anybody that sees you in a grocery store asks how you and the baby are doing. Neighbors, church members ask how You and baby are doing. They bring meals they offer to help with childcare for the older kids. Mothers comes and help with the new transition. Husbands take time off work. If a woman feels like they would like a midwife, then she should use one, but just because a woman doesn’t use a midwife and uses a physician in her healthcare doesn’t mean anything bad. The key is communicate with the people in your life and the people involved in your healthcare. Use all of your resources, because there are a lot available.

Reply

REY777 November 21, 2013 at 8:37 pm

Your experience in the hospital was unique and not the status quo .If you ask around the majority of hospital births are miserable experiences where nurses reach inside you during contractions, duplicate actions to avoid litigation , restrict the mother and treat mother and child with sterile care.
With my 5th child , my ONLY non midwife birth in a hospital due to my age and FEAR –instilled by statistics….I was chastised for squatting and found out it was because the nurses were stalling and wanting me in labor a long time as the doctor had left for dinner. When I said I was Crowning the nurse would not believe me and finally called the doctor in when she looked and the doctor smelled like wine. GIVE ME A CARING LOVING MIDWIFE BIRTH ANY DAY OVER A CLINICAL SUPERGERM INFESTED HOSPITAL. We are NOT Sick , we are giving birth , a miracle.

Reply

Valerie Tyler January 30, 2014 at 11:50 am

Sure, bad experiences can happen at hospitals with obstetricians – just like some mother have traumatizing experiences with home births with midwives. I’ve had one bad hospital birth experience and one amazing experience. I changed doctors after my bad experience and found a loving, trustworthy doctor who put MY care (yes, MY care; not just the baby) at the top of her priority list. I wish that people would stop trying to put fear in the eyes of other mothers when it comes to where or how they birth. If I choose to have my baby in a *gasp* HOSPITAL, well then that is my decision.

And on the subject at hand, my husband and parents pretty much catered to my every need. I’ve never had a problem with my husband “pretending to be asleep” or my in-laws coming over to just “empty my fridge” and leave after ogling my baby. Though if they did, what’s the issues? The baby would be their grandchild! Is there an issue with grandparents ogling their grandchild and then leaving because they have a far drive (which THEY ALREADY MADE FOR YOU)? I would be MORE upset if my in-laws didn’t come at all rather than only to “ogle the baby”. I also would be angry if I was forced to stay at home and not have visitors for 40 days. I would get awfully restless.

Reply

Jennifer T February 5, 2014 at 4:10 pm

I am a pp nurse, I have seen the good and the bad, but I cannot say that I agree with you that the majority of hospital births are miserable. I have see many wonderful natural births, and no, women are not left on their backs. We utilize water therapy, birthing balls, etc. Obviously the body knows when it is time to push, and no, no one should try to stop you.

Reply

Emma May 20, 2014 at 8:56 pm

My hospital birth was wonderful. I had the most caring and sensitive team. I chose to give birth there because my greatest fear was birthing at home and something happening to my little baby. With that fear gone, I was feeling so much more secure! And yet, people have been so critical.

Critical of birthing in the hospital, critical of my use of pain relief, critical of my positioning or the fact I needed an episiotomy.

I feel like the most important thing a pregnant woman and new mother needs is respect. Respect for her choices. Respect for her space. Her needs, whether it be for company or solitude, indoors or outdoors, everything. Just people telling me “You needed pain relief, and that’s okay, you wanted your family there to meet the baby the day after he was born, and that’s okay” is wonderfully uplifting.

Reply

Ch21 December 23, 2013 at 10:03 pm

Same very positive situation with all 3 of my children. I wouldn’t say it’s the minority of situations I had time off after the babies were born and my husband had to go back to work so I wasn’t going to expect him to get up all night with the baby especially if all they needed was to nurse. …only something I can provide. Nothing against midwives and didn’t have any problems in a hospital setting either.

Reply

Mommyof5 January 12, 2014 at 1:19 pm

I’ve had very positive birthing experiences — at 3 different hospitals, 5 children total. At no point did I ever feel uncared for, neglected, abused or whatever other victim mentality this article tries to perpetuate. In my post-partum, I had family, church, and a spouse who helped, cared, loved, and provided for my NEEDS. I don’t think plush hotel stays and restaurants that deliver are an answer to someone’s post-partum issues.

Reply

Jujube May 18, 2014 at 1:07 pm

I had an incredible birth experience…in the hospital…without a midwife…and (gasp) with an epidural. Generalizations on either side of the argument aren’t helpful.

Reply

Jujube May 18, 2014 at 1:08 pm

Mommyof5, sorry, that comment wasn’t directed at you :)

Reply

Justine @ All About Birth November 19, 2013 at 9:42 am

I LOVE the idea of a post-birth plan! We absolutely need to nurture the mother more in the postpartum period. This post is a great reminder. I will be sharing on Facebook :)

Reply

Sarah K November 19, 2013 at 10:33 am

B”H
After my first baby I suffered at home with PPD and almost no care. It was such an awful experience. After my second I went to my mother’s house where she gave me constant care and support. It was like night and day. I cannot wait to provide the same love and security to my own children.

Reply

Kristen November 19, 2013 at 4:18 pm

I love this article mainly because it’s the first time I’ve read about post-partum 40 day confinement in such a positive light. I was born in the UK but my mother is Singaporean and I’ve done month long confinement sessions with each of my three children and hope to with number 4.

A lot of it is about bonding but a lot of it is to do with the mother’s physicality and well-being too. The Eastern belief is that the body loses its ‘chi’ or wind during birth and it is important to restore that in the month after. Typically, my mum will move in and take over the household but will also bring with her a suitcase full of tonics, herbs and teas and boil/cook/steam up a storm! I don’t question it – I know there’s a lot of ginger involved but I also know at the end of that month, I feel re-aligned, refreshed to take on the challenges ahead and completely nurtured and supported.

Reply

Amy May 18, 2014 at 7:20 pm

Kristin, I am a birth and postpartum doula and breast feeding counselor who moved to Singapore last year, and I absolutely love the idea of the confinement period. I know some mothers here complain about it, and some of the traditions can be taken to extremes (no showering for a month/don’t take the baby outside/no running the aircon – I mean, this is Singapore!), but the general idea of the mother/grandmother staying over, making healing foods, taking care of the household while mom and baby bond and figure out breast feeding is awesome.

Reply

Amber George November 19, 2013 at 6:57 pm

Beautifully written! I recently (6 months ago) had my first child. While my family definitely stepped up in a lot if ways…There were moments when some thought I should be back working out etc. Birth is a huge process for the baby AND mother. I love the idea of alternate baby shower gifts…because the truth is…my daughter doesn’t even use half the things I got. Food would have been more than welcome though =)

Reply

Don Juan November 20, 2013 at 1:05 pm

I am a dad who loves this stuff. It may not be cultural here, but just make it so for YOU in YOUR house. My wife and I just assumed that I would care for her and the baby and that she would care for the baby without having to worry about me or the house, for at least a good month (this went on for a good six weeks actually) She only went out if she wanted to, otherwise I “fetched” whatever was needed. I didn’t allow guests unless she wanted them. Of course, she had some friends and family over, and the helped also. It wasn’t work, it was pure joy to be needed and to be taking care of “my girls”. It was a weird and wonderful situation to be both totally in control of the house and gatekeeper and at the same time totally a servant, but isn’t that kind of how marriage is? She was The Queen, but I don’t think I’ve ever felt that manly since… Most of you have husbands absolutely dying to be more included somehow – use it! :-)

Reply

Sam November 25, 2013 at 6:37 pm

I agree that mothers need more care and support after birth and less chores and expectations.

And I too had a wonderful hospital birthing experience. I trust my doctor, the nurses and lactation consultant were amazing. Not only did my daughter get the standard hospital hat and receiving blanket, but I also got to pick out a pair of booties, hat, AND a quilt ladies from the community had made and donated. And I was encouraged to get up and move around, squat on the floor, soak in the bath, and do what I needed to in order to deal with the pain. They didn’t push drugs either. I said I wanted to do it as naturally as I could, and that was that. BUT… I live in a small town and I think that makes a difference on the level of personal care you get VS being yet another delivery in their assembly line.
I will be delivering in the same hospital in February.

Reply

Christa January 10, 2014 at 7:04 pm

Yes, please and thank you! I specifically asked for restaurant gift certificates – for local places that would do carry out. I got exactly zero but did get things like shopping cart covers (wut?) and we shoes that won’t stay on a baby’s feet ever. I give hot meals, not right away, but in a few weeks when all the other hot meals have stopped coming!

Reply

Sara January 19, 2014 at 12:06 am

Very good article. We definitely don’t take care of new mothers enough in today’s society. Seems like a vicious cycle because our mothers didn’t have this support either and therefore are resentful of providing it to their daughters. We need to break the chain.

Reply

Jennifer T February 5, 2014 at 3:47 pm

I am a pp nurse, we have one set of OB docs that see patients 2 weeks pp to screen for depression/anxiety, and then see them again at 5-6 weeks for the physical exam. I love it, pp depression is missed a lot, and as you stated mother has to be healthy to have a healthy relationship with baby. This group is also very good about setting up home visits with home care nurses if needed and lactation consultants. Happy birthing mommas!!

Reply

Leah April 15, 2014 at 12:55 pm

I wish people came as often after the 3rd or 4th baby as they did with the first. I never wanted a lot of company but I needed help. With the kids, with the house work, with everything! Since my mom pasted (after my 2nd) I feel like I’m inconveniencing people to get them to help out. They want the nieces and nephew s but really don’t care about me. Lump that in with a rather unassisted move and I was a mess of emotions for about a year. My husband did do what he could but he works and we can’t afford to hire someone. Fortunately, after that we are basically back to normal and have beautiful healthy children to love.

Reply

lauryn May 13, 2014 at 2:55 pm

I wish more people would realize that PPD can set in up to a year after baby is born. I didn’t start noticing anything until about 8 months post partum, and didn’t get diagnosed until his 18 month check up. I had no problems with my delivery or anything, but I was left alone e with the baby a lot. I wish more people had brought food or just offered to help out.

Reply

Christina savage May 18, 2014 at 5:14 pm

Thank you so much for this article. It puts into to words how I am feeling post-birth 3 weeks. I just feel less alone and crazy knowing that this is something others are discussing.

Reply

Camille May 18, 2014 at 8:36 pm

I love this.
Except the “33% cesarean rate.”
When women are bullied and scared into it falsely, yes I see the problem. But what about the women that choose it? That need it? That did not have a traumatic experience nor became less of a mother by having a surgery instead of a vaginal birth?
It’s time to stop bullying the women who have their babies via C-section with little quips like the ones in this article, because my healthy son and future babies that will be born that way will still have am amazing mother who is not any less of a mom because she was unable to push them out on her own.

Reply

Kendra May 19, 2014 at 7:53 pm

After my fourth C section I came home to a house full of guest, I just wanted to climb in bed but instead make a chicken dinner for everyone , they took turns holding the baby.. Big help!

Reply

G May 20, 2014 at 7:33 am

I had to go back to school immediately after giving birth, and my husband works. A month of bonding w/ baby sounds like heaven. Sometimes we just sadly look at pictures of our now nine month old and comment on what we missed. The newborn period goes so fast and they change so much during that time.

Reply

Gillian May 21, 2014 at 5:23 am

I had my children in the UK – where a mother is VERY important. The midwife will visit almost daily for the first two weeks and then you are taken over by a health visitor who will visit weekly for up to 6 weeks. If you are settled they leave you alone and if you still need help they will keep coming. The health visitor will then do a home call at 8 months and 18 months. More frequently if required.

The UK has wonderful after care. I felt very well looked after.

Reply

Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: