I missed a huge opportunity by not reading the Convalescing Mother chapter of Lena Sadler’s book before delivering. Had I done so, I might have been able to arrange constant care for myself throughout my maternity leave in the name of living like great grandma.
After chatting with the moms at the breastfeeding support group about how support for new moms has changed, I thought to do some research to determine whether it is true or not. Sometimes we look upon the past with rose-tinted lenses (Those were the days!) when in fact it wasn’t so great. (Polio comes to mind…) If Lena’s directions are to be taken as indicative of the time (1916), I would say that our initial assessment of maternal support and care 100 years ago was quite accurate: women were directed to rest and breastfeed while they were attended by a nurse and contingency of family to manage the household.
“The uterus … begins gradually to contract and assume its normal weight of about two ounces; and it requires anywhere from four to eight weeks to accomplish this involution. In view of all this it is obvious that there can be no ﬁxed time to ‘get up.’ It may be at the end of two weeks, or it may not be until the close of four or ﬁve weeks…”
“During this period of the puerperium a member of the family, a neighbor, a visiting nurse, a practical nurse, or a trained nurse, looks after the mother and gives to the babe its ﬁrst care…”
“The nurse may have to sleep in the same room; but, if it be possible, she should occupy an adjoining room, she should have a regular time each day for an hour’s walk in the fresh air, she should be served regular meals, and be allowed some time out of the twenty-four hours for unbroken slumber. In return she will intelligently cooperate with the physician in bringing about the restoration of body and upbuilding of the mother’s nerves.” (Stadler 93)
Of course this was not care that was available to everyone. The working poor and immigrants would not generally have had access to this kind of care because of financial, cultural, and/or lingual barriers. Some of these women had to return to work, adding pressure to their recovery period. While I cannot dredge up stats on how many working women had newborns in this time period, in her essay Family Wages, Ileen DeVault reports that, “While married women made up no more than a quarter of the female workforce between 1880 and 1930, ever-married [married, widowed, or divorced] women represented between 30% and 47% of the female labor force.” While there certainly were women with new babies in the workforce, it seems likely that they were a relatively small proportion, perhaps less than a quarter. Today, conversely, has 62% of women with a child one year or younger working. Given the customs and sometimes laws regulating expecting women and work, it was more likely for turn-of-the-century women to return to work quickly in the countryside – especially homesteaders – than it was for urban women to do so. However, farming women were not recognized members of the workforce; census records list their occupations as “None.”
None of my great grandmothers worked when they had young children – not even GG Kingsley, whose family was desperate under the weight of the Great Depression. Well, let me put that a different way. She worked her tail off, but it wasn’t formal employment. She worked as a cook but not until her oldest daughter was old enough to help her with child-care, late in the 1930’s.
GG Irene worked since she was homesteading at the time of the birth of her first child, though again not recognized as formal employment. Further, my grandfather was born in Montana, a few days travel from GG Irene’s family in South Dakota. It was probably very difficult for her to go through the delivery and recovery without her closest family around (which, perhaps they visited for a short time, caring for her, but it was unlikely that she had that support team for 6-8 weeks like Lena recommends).
“Having a baby is a perfectly normal, physiological procedure. It is also, usually, downright hard work; and, beside the hard laborious work, there is not only a wearied and severely shocked nervous system to be restored, but there is also a certain amount of uterine shrinkage which must take place—and this requires from four to eight weeks; and so our mother must be allowed weeks or even a month or two to rest.” (Stadler 94)
Yesterday, my lactation counselor friend and I talked about how the recovery for women has changed since the turn of the century. That was why she became a post-partum doula in the first place – to help women who don’t have a network of support to help care for them during their recovery. Many women these days do too much too soon during their recovery period and end up opening up the placental wound. Many others are at home entirely alone, as their partners and family support networks get minimal or no leave from work to stay home and help. Many other women in the U.S. nowadays are forced to go back to work much earlier than is healthy because they don’t have any other choice. Meanwhile, their own recovery is jeopardized (not to mention the impact of separation on their baby, their nursing, and their emotional well-being). Since women have achieved the right to compete in the workforce, little to nothing has been done to support the work of childcare and household management. But I’ll leave the whole second-shift issue for another time.
In our family, we got lots of support and help from our extended family. But I also spent a lot of time alone, especially after the first two weeks. I made a point to reach out as much as I possibly could to get help from friends and family when they were available and have managed to be pretty darn well supported throughout. But I didn’t abide by Lena’s directives by any means. I was up and moving around in earnest within the first week after delivery.
Fact is, the recovery after labor hasn’t changed much in the last hundred years. No, we’re not bed-ridden for a month but the instructions I received from the nurses at the hospital were otherwise very similar to Lena’s. I was directed to get lots of rest, take lots of baths, use witch hazel, and to refrain from a lot of physical activity. To promote nursing, I was instructed to eat a lot, drink a lot of water, and hold my baby skin to skin. It’s not exactly the most cutting-edge medical prescription. So why do we expect women to recover any better or faster than they did one hundred years ago? Other than the reduced risk of infection (thanks antibiotics and vaccinations!) the recovery is basically the same. Why do we leave women entirely alone with a newborn child when their bodies are recovering and expect them to handle it? No wonder post-partum depression is on the rise. One blogger captured the entire thing quite well in a comic.
In hindsight, I really missed out on a great first month. Hanging out in bed, sleeping, eating, and nursing and doing some of these most strenuous exercises:
I. Head raising, body straight and stiffened.
2. Arm raising, well extended.
3. Leg stretching, with knees stretched and toe extended.
4. Massage, administered by the nurse. (Stadler 95)
#4 is my favorite.
Hindsight, man. 20/20.