After the birth of my first child, I was floored. Not because the obligations of keeping an infant alive were more difficult than I had anticipated (they were), but I also couldn't believe how different I felt. My body was still tender from pushing out my baby for weeks and months after delivery. My belly and breasts, heavy and sagging, were unfamiliar. My anxiety was soaring in a way I had never experienced. To me, the postpartum experience felt more challenging than childbirth. Yet I'd been completely unprepared for the three months after birth, what I later learned was referred to as the "fourth trimester." I hadn't heard of such a thing, nor realized how much my infant would intensely depend on me for bonding, breastfeeding, and adjusting to life outside of the womb.
In recent years, much has been written about the profoundly important period of adjustment for mothers and babies. According to Harvey Karp, pediatrician and author of the international bestseller The Happiest Baby, newborns require "womb-like" nurturing for optimum development and bonding. He writes extensively about these needs in his book, which include nursing, being held, skin-to-skin contact, and near constant comfort. From a mother's perspective, it can be overwhelming, to say the least, to be in such high demand. But the thing that saved my sanity, and helped my baby achieve that craved and necessary comfort, turned out to be babywearing.
Babywearing, while a centuries old tradition in many cultures, has become somewhat of a modern phenomenon for busy American parents. There are dozens of wraps, slings, and carriers on the market and pregnant parents are told not to be without one—and for good reason. It's long been known to reduce infant crying and gives a parent two free hands, which feels freeing in the postpartum period (and even beyond). But new research shows the closeness is mentally beneficial as well. A 2017 issue of The International Journal of Nursing Sciences, reviewed evidence which showed links between "kangaroo care" or skin-to-skin contact between moms and babies, which can be achieved via babywearing with lowering rates of postpartum depression due to triggering of the release of the hormone oxytocin.
All of these mechanisms help ease the harsh transition from the safety of being carried in utero for nine months to the outside world. Babywearing is beneficial for fathers too, of course. But biologically speaking, staying in close connection is healthy for moms since they're adjusting both physically and emotionally—and often figuring out a work-parenting balance. And women often receive mixed messages from the outside world that diminishes those needs, altogether, as well as the needs of their new baby."
For most, especially low income women, society often demands mothers return to work within a matter of weeks, long before the fourth trimester is over, or before mothers and babies are emotionally or biologically prepared to be separated. An investigative feature published in 2015 by In These Times found that about a quarter of American mothers—with no paid leave in place—are forced to head back to work by the two week mark simply to make ends meet. Even middle class women are often back in the office by six weeks, or if they are really lucky (for lack of a better word), twelve. The US remains the only major country with no federally mandated leave program. So, while it makes sense biologically, that a newborn baby and mother require closeness from one another, our cultural understanding of this time, doesn't allow for it.
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Federally mandated paid maternity leave should be a necessity for all mothers to promote maternal and infant wellness and increase rates of breastfeeding, which are not surprisingly, lower in the US than most countries. But what about other policies that help keep moms and babies together for longer, like allowing moms to work from home, or even to wear their babies to work?
Kimberly Seals Allers, women's health advocate and author of The Big Letdown: How medicine, big business and feminism undermine breastfeeding stressed how society minimizes the postpartum experience and the importance of nurturing the parent-infant connection. Rates of postpartum mental illness are higher for mothers who have to separate quickly, even after 12 weeks, which Allers says women routinely tell her they consider themselves lucky to get, from their newborns. She says this makes perfect sense because it is not at all a natural event. "Being separated from your baby is unnatural for almost every animal species. When women know they have to return to work so soon, they don't bother to start breastfeeding. Plus, the lactation process is literally stifled by stress, so stressed out women often report fears of insufficient milk, which creates more stress."
In recent years, we've seen photos go viral of moms babywearing while casting votes on the floor of the European Parliament. But could babywearing to work ever be an accepted practice in the states? Allers believes this would be a positive step in maternal wellness, and says the result would allow moms to feel more at ease about returning to work. "Baby-wearing and bringing your child with you to work should absolutely be allowed," she says. But she also makes an important point: that these policies won't help all women, given there are certain places women wouldn't be able to bring their babies to work. "You probably can't bring your baby to work at Starbucks, so we need policies that don't increase the socioeconomic and racial gap between who gets to breastfeed and who doesn't and doesn't further breastfeeding as a privilege of professional women."
We are quite fond of idea of the mother who can do it all, but we don't have policies that make it possible, or at the very least, easy, for her to do so. As Allers put it "In this country we only look at reproductive rights as the right to not get pregnant, or the right to end an unwanted pregnancy, but what about those who choose to use their reproductive organs. They deserve rights too. That includes breastfeeding which completes the reproductive cycle, allowing me to feed what my reproductive organs created."
Bringing your baby to work is certainly not an option for every woman. But expecting women to "bounce back" continues to be unrealistic and detrimental to new moms and babies. Still, we are routinely met with images of fellow mothers in magazines flaunting headlines like "How I got my body back in four weeks." We see mothers headed back into work at six weeks, or sooner. And if we aren't ready to do the same, we are made to feel as if we are somehow failing the test of motherhood, or feminism, because we aren't able to separate from our newborn easily.
Imagine if our image of a new mother wasn't one with no sign of having had a baby at all, but of one, quite literally, connected to her baby, and being empowered by that connection at the same time.
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