Being pregnant can be amazing, challenging, wonderful, energising and, tiring; so many things. In our cerebral culture, where we think too much, many of us are unprepared for the physicality of making a whole new person within us. Then we have a baby, the rite of passage of birth often spoken of either in hushed tones or the emergency colours of media drama, and after it we have this being, a person in their own right, not yet viewed as such by many, but given a name. This person is completely and utterly dependent on us to stay alive, to thrive and grow strong, and everyone tells us it won’t be long until the little seed blooms, but in the long hours and days of early mothering this can be hard to believe.
It’s a shock, becoming a mother. That transition from pregnant woman, full of possibilities, to holding a baby is something you can prepare for physically – with exercises, breathing to help you ride the tides through from one place to another, interventions if you need them – but the emotional work, possibly the most important steps that could prepare us to butterfly into a new being after nine months of waiting, is often sadly lacking. That kind of work doesn’t make anyone any money and sadly we live in a world that prefers to hand us a shopping list rather than ask us about our feelings.
Newborns are amazing. They come hardwired to breastfeed, usually our bodies have everything they need, and mostly they can manage it for themselves, although some may need help and encouragement. Some will arrive calm and relaxed, ‘model’ babies who will be admired by everyone; others will be more vocal and people, well meaning, will make suggestions which are both damning and heartbreaking in the same breath. Society loves to judge new parents, sleep deprived, in a hormone haze and so vulnerable as they tentatively become something new.
Life with a newborn can feel like an endurance test; can you get through all the visits, fend off all the well-wishers and curious enquirers who want to hold your baby so you can do the housework? Can you deal with intergenerational horror stories about why your choices are wrong? Can you work out how to comfort a small person whose waking hours have not yet fallen into a circadian rhythm and still look like an iconic representation of the bearer of new life?
Society and the media have a lot to answer for, but the truths they tell are only true if we believe them. The very basic human needs that newborns have are simple: the need for food, the need for shelter and the need for love. Women’s bodies are amazing, in that they can provide all of those things, given the opportunity. As families reform and constellate into new shapes, and new ways of being together are explored, there are some wonderful magical things that can be discovered and experienced with a breastfeeding baby: the oxytocin daze of a little one, drinking, drifting, sleeping and dreaming; the comforts of skin to skin; how, as a mother, you become home to someone new.
I don’t know why we aren’t often told of these small beauties and blessings before we become parents. I do know that you can’t breastfeed a baby too much, babies are not manipulative, they do not want to press us beneath their thumbs or become rods for our backs, whatever that means in a modern context. In mothering a newborn, we are learning a new language, the language of each other, the language of togetherness, of family, and a new way of being in the world. The discourse markers are new, the landscape uncharted, and as we climb from the cocoons of our former selves, butterflies, tentative in a new territory, maybe we feel truly alive for the first time. There’s no greater treasure than knowing that you are made from the things you believe in. Newborns certainly invite us to hold up a lens to ourselves and ask: who am I as a mother, what is my integrity, how am I authentic?
Maybe if the world could shift conversations about mothering away from guilt and blame, then new mothers could stop feeling shame and find strength in their vulnerability and follow their bodies’ instincts: to keep their babies close, to enjoy them in their arms, to have empathy for these new people who are experiencing the outside world for the first time. The world can be a scary place when you’ve been held close in the warmth and dark for nine months and birth disrupts everything you thought you knew. While there is no single solution that works for every baby, many mothers find the coming together with others and sharing a space to give voice to their experiences is a powerful thing.
Knowing you’re not alone with a newborn and your experiences can keep you going through this new part of your journey in life.For me, that’s what LLL meetings were for: the glue holding together all my new experiences, forming them into something I called mothering, something I experienced in an entirely different way to members of my own family, because many of the choices I made about it were very different. It felt so good to know that I was not alone in these differences. It was immensely helpful to be able to take doubting family members along to meetings to show them how the accumulated wisdom of LLL was providing me with a good system of support, allowing me to make informed choices as a mother and follow a path to become something other than a product of my personal circumstances. This is what I wish for my own children; for them to be able to see past any current constraints and become who they want to be. This is what I wish for all mothers of newborns.
Alison Jones, LLL Oxfordshire
This article first appeared in Breastfeeding Matters No. 217 Jan-Feb 2017