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.*

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