Sunday, March 30, 2008

What kind of support do new mothers need?
This question has been thought about by people through time.
When my mother was having her babies through the 1950s mothers were kept in hospital for two weeks, and sometimes nursed in bed for much of that time. Sponge baths and bed pans were the norm. Life was regimented in Brisbane during the post-war baby boom, and mothers and babies were expected to perform on time in all activities including eating and sleeping. Visiting by husbands was strictly controlled, and older children did not visit mother or baby in hospital. Mothers returned home to the realities of their own lives - washing, cooking, cleaning, chooks, children, and whatever else. They apparently knew that their time in hospital was important for their recovery.

When my grandmother had her children in 1910 through the 1920s she initially went to a 'nursing home' or lying in hospital which was owned and operated by a midwife. That's where her first child, Halley, and the twins Frances and Frank, were born. Subsequent births were at the farm in Redland Bay. My father told me how he and his siblings were sent to their grandparents' home, and the midwife, Mrs Heinemann, stayed at least a week with 'Mother'.

When I studied midwifery in Melbourne in 1972, prior to the birth of my first child, mothers usually stayed in hospital about one week, with 10-day stays being not uncommon. The first few days were for resting and recovery, and many of the women spent a pleasant time, enjoying the food that appeared at meal time, the clean sheets, and the company. Babies were cared for in the nursery, and mothers who were breastfeeding were encouraged to take a sleeping tablet. Breast engorgement was very common. Breastfeeding rates were at an all time low then, and midwives made up jugs of a mixture of sweetened condensed milk and water (strengths 1 in 8 or 1 in 6 1/2) and gave it to the babies. Visiting hours were fairly strictly controlled, and babies were looked at through the glass window of the nursery.

When I gave birth to my first child, Miriam, in Michigan USA in 1973, I was keen to do it my way. I went home on the third day. That would have raised eyebrows back home, but the cost of hospital care in the US had hit hard, and short stays were common there. I did not observe any rules as to how long you should stay at home and be looked after. My babies were very portable from day 1: they breast fed and slept without regard to where they were. Noel did what he could to look after me for a few days, but I was much better at cooking and home management, so it wasn't long before I took over and he was happy.

When our second baby, Rebecca, was due, my mother came to stay with us in Michigan for six weeks. I still remember how wonderful her cooking was. Shepherds pie and mashed pumpkin had never tasted so good! I learnt a lesson then about mothers.

We managed without my mother for the births of the two boys, Paul and Josh, but I always remembered how good mum's presence was in those early days after Bec's birth.

This past year or so I have been in the Box Hill BaBS (Birthing and Babies Support) group, meeting each week during the school term for peer support of mothers in pregnancy and with their new babies. Many of these young mothers are isolated from their families, and a new phenomenon that they experience today is that many of their friendships are via the internet. They chat together in chat rooms and email groups, but rarely see each other. The beauty of a BaBS group is that it is face to face; it is a community.

One of the wonderful things that has happened with the BaBS group is mothers caring for one another. The women have organised themselves to support the new mothers in the group. They have prepared food, or just gone to visit that person and see if any practical help is needed. The significant act is that they are with that new mother, in person. They become her sisters, her friends, and that's what she needs.

What kind of support do new mothers need today? There's no one answer. What they need is a caring community that is responsive to them as individuals. This can't be done by email. It takes effort and time, and face to face communication.

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