Sunday, March 23, 2008

Today's newspaper brought an article renewing calls to the Australian government to introduce paid maternity leave. I haven't been following it closely, but I understand that the matter has been referred to the Productivity Commission, which will delay action for another year.

It happens that today is Easter Sunday, probably the most distinctive and precious day in the Christian calendar, when we celebrate the bodily resurrection of our Lord Jesus. I was sitting next to Noel in our usual place in the Presbyterian Church in Surrey Hills when my phone vibrated, and I went out to answer it. A reporter from Channel 7 news asked me if I would be happy to talk about paid maternity leave. I explained that I would be available to talk in about an hour, and the reporter said she would arrange a cameraman to come to the Church at that time.

I don't have answers to the questions about paid maternity leave. How many weeks, or months? Full pay or 80%? For all workers or just those with permanent positions? What about low-paid casual workers? What about struggling small businesses? Would they simply avoid employing any woman who looked as though she might be likely to want to have a family? What about mothers who are already at home with a couple of littlies, who with their husbands have made the choice to live on one income while they have dependent children?

I can only give my answer from the midwife's perspective, in promoting health for mothers and babies.

I am deeply saddened that our society does not value the work of mothering. I am sorry that many new mothers feel that they must return to work and forego their place as mother to their young children. In making the decision to return to work, leaving a young baby in the care of someone else, a mother has, to a greater or lesser degree, to deny her natural maternal instinct and bonding with her child. She has to interfere with the natural processes in nurture and breastfeeding, while her sister who is able to learn mothering becomes intimately involved in all aspects of her child's life, and enjoys the unique attachment between herself and her child.

We like to quantify things, so for the purpose of this discussion I am going to limit my comments to the mother-baby relationship in the first year of the baby's life. I say without a doubt that any society that cares about its future must support all mothers to stay with their babies throughout the first six months, as a basic essential. I would add that ideally mothers should be able to delay any return to regular work that requires separation until the baby has past her or his first birthday.

There's no milk like mum's milk. Of course there are breast pumps that can be used in the office, and mother-friendly workplaces provide suitable spaces for mothers to express milk and refrigerate it. But breastfeeding is not just x milliliters of a white liquid - it comes with warmth, and the smell and feel of a mother's body. It comes with the voice that the little one has known since her hearing began in the womb. It comes with the unique familiar environment that is home terrain for that child.

What I am saying is that breastfeeding is a relationship - not simply an act of transferring fluid and food from a mother's breast to her child's stomach. Exclusive breastfeeding, recommended for at least the first six months of life, cannot be accomplished without the mother and baby working together. There is no substitute food so uniquely suitable for babies as their own mother's milk. Breastfeeding is not an end in itself, but it is a key that opens the door to strong mother-baby attachments and focused parenting. The health promotion, both in terms of disease prevention, and protection of normal relationships, that comes when a mother is supported in developing mothering skills and attitudes, cannot be measured in economic and productivity terms.

There is no 'one size fits all' solution to the paid maternity leave question. I would like to see all mothers supported in their early parenting, not just those who have good jobs. Programs that identify socially vulnerable women, and provide trusted peer support as well as professional carers will enable many of those women to take action to improve their own health and the health of their families. I would like to see a government working from the principle of protecting and promoting and supporting mothers and babies in achieving optimal breastfeeding as an indicator of healthy communities.

This statement may have alienated or angered some readers. You may argue that some mothers can't breastfeed. That's true, for a few, and there are alternatives available. Some couples can't conceive a child the natural way, and there are alternatives which they may try, but noone would argue that the alternatives are equally as satisfying or fulfilling to the relationship as the natural. I hope you will continue exploring this issue, and thinking carefully and critically about the importance of physiological mothering. If you do not want to leave a comment on this blog you can email me .

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