A book that I absolutely loved from the Abuela Doula reading list was The First Forty Days by Heng Ou with Amely Greeven and Marisa Belger.
I adored reading this book as it provided an insight into how other cultures regarded the postpartum period and the traditions surrounding recovery. It was a book that I wished I had read when pregnant, as I was guilty of being up and about far too soon trying to get back to ‘normal’ which in turn prolonged my recovery.
It’s very much a book that has informed my postnatal work; not only the theory but some of the beautiful recipes.
The Abuela Doula course along with this book also awakened my curiosity in the history surrounding the postpartum period in my culture (English and Polish). Over the years many of the traditions and beliefs have fallen by the wayside in Western society, and it’s easy to discount them all together.
But actually Europe did have a tradition similar to the Chinese zuo yue zi (“sitting in month”). We had a “lying in” period (between 10 days and 2 months), and during that time the birthing woman was expected to stay in bed with care given by female relatives or paid caregivers. During the 1740s, ‘lying-in hospitals’ were set up in London, which provided not only support through labour by midwives, but also for maternity care postnatally for a month. It wasn’t just rich women who had the lying-in period, it seems that poor women were supported to have lying-in periods through donations of the parish, so established was the practice. It was normal for new mothers to stay in hospital for 10 days following birth right up until the 1970s, allowing them to sleep at night and ensuring they ate healthy food.
There was also tradition surround food and drink. The new mother might eat ‘Kimbly cake’ which she had prepared during the early stage of labour ( I love the idea of making a cake during early labour, there is something so homely and comforting about baking so will help oxytocin flourish, plus you are upright and moving). Or her husband may provide groaning cake and cheese, both of which have been specially kept for the occasion. In the postpartum period a traditional drink (a caudle) was prepared, made of ingredients including eggs and alcohol. It was thought to be beneficial and restorative to anyone who had given birth or was otherwise sick.
Although the woman who had given birth was not ill it was believed that it was all too easy for her to become ill, and that could be a serious issue without medication such as antibiotics. So the aim was very much to prevent such illness.
Obviously we know much more medically now, but even so reading books and information from the time which talk about these practices show that actually much of what was practiced was common sense, and is relevant still today.
Nature has designed us to take it easy after we have given birth. Breastfeeding and bonding are so much easier when we are in bed, naked, doing skin to skin. Our bleeding postpartum (lochia) often becomes heavier if we are too active. Pressure on our perineum (and stitches if we have had them) is much worse in a full sitting position rather than when we are semi-recumbent. Too often we become caught in a cycle of eating snacks and junk food in the postpartum period, feeling chained to the sofa but in turn this lowers our energy levels and fails to restore our nutrient store which was depleted during labour. It can also make make constipation worse (already common after having a baby) and that can lead to or aggravate piles.
When I talk to clients about their recovery during the postpartum period, so many are so reluctant to slow down. “I’m not used to it”, they tell me. “I don’t think I would be happy lying down, I like being up and about”. I try to stress to them that those first few weeks are precious. Not only will you never get them back, but the way you treat yourself and are treated by others will have a huge impact on your physical and mental recovery. It really isn’t worth rushing the recovery and pushing through the pain in order to feel ‘normal’. You need time to ease into the new normal of family life including your baby. Take the time, it really will be worth it.
http://www.gutenberg.org/cache/epub/7129/pg7129-images.html - The Prospective Mother, by J. Morris Slemons
Ritual and Conflict: The Social Relations of Childbirth in Early Modern England, by Adrian Wilson
Observations on the Popular Antiquities of Great Britain: Chiefly Illustrating the Origin of Our Vulgar and Provincial Customs, Ceremonies, and Superstitions, by John Brand
https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/3511335/ - Deaths in Childbed From the Eighteenth Century to 1935