Whether you consider yourself book smart or street smart, all knowledge bows to the experience of birth and the school of hard knocks called “mothering” that follows. Thankfully, there are books, websites, family, and friends that can offer a myriad of information, tips, and pointers to get you through. But in spite of all our readings and conversations, there were a few lessons that we had to learn on our own. With the news of my cousin and his wife expecting their first baby (Congrats!), I thought of all the things I wish I knew sooner: some significant, some silly, but all useful—for us, at least. Enjoy!
Listen to your own birth story and those of your siblings.
My mom shared many stories with me over the years but none had to do with birth. Maybe it never came up or I never asked, but asking my mom about her experience of birth connected me to her and the wider continuity of motherhood. My heart smiled at hearing how one of her labors started while she was cooking curry chicken in Kingston, how her midwife coached her to squat during contractions, how she slept with each of us as newborns on her chest at night, and how she recovered from each birth and went on to the next. There was something so comforting about hearing my mom describe birth. Even her nonchalant “I gave birth to all of you naturally; you can do it!” attitude was what I needed to hear. No in-depth analysis of pain management, no discussion of pros and cons of epidural use, just woman-to-woman straight talk. I loved it! It made me stand up straight and “(wo)man up!”
Don’t forget to pack your camera!
We don’t have any just-born pics of Lil’ Z- none at all! The nurse instinctively asked for our camera but we had none to give her. She took pictures with her phone but we never saw her again to retrieve them. The first baby and family pics that we have were taken by our very first (and very special) visitor on Day Two.
Cuts and tears can heal.
Many women share the “fear of tearing” but it’s so unproductive. Fear, being birth’s ugly antagonist, can get in the way of good and healthy progress. Some birth scenarios, unfortunately, increase the likelihood of tearing- pushing while numbed by an epidural, being rushed and not coached through pushing, routine episiotomies for first-time births, etc. Yes, it sucks to be cut, torn, or stitched, but guess what? You’ll heal, insha’Allah (God willing)! Life will go on and the experience will be a distant memory.
Two words…Sitz Bath!
The sitz bath is one of God’s many gifts to mothers. Really and truly, all women should be informed of the benefits of a sitz bath before leaving the hospital. Sitting in warm water with added sea salt or Epsom salt can help you feel whole again. Birth can leave you feeling like a train wreck but a sitz bath plants you firmly on the path of recovery.
Insist that you hold your baby as soon as possible
There was an odd post-partum moment where Urbndervish and I didn’t know where our baby was. “I thought you had her?” was the puzzled look we exchanged and shortly thereafter, she arrived in the clothes we brought for her. Though she was shown to me briefly after birth, she was wailing and bare. I had to reacquaint myself with a clothed and content baby. Had her round face not resembled my father’s, I probably would’ve fed the “baby swap” paranoia. No woman should have to deal with the mystery of identifying their child or their location. Hold your baby, know your baby, and don’t let them out of your and Daddy’s sight!
Bind your belly!
My mom told me this often after birth but I thought it was just a Jamaican thing. Little did I know, wrapping your tummy helps your uterus shrink back down to size and supports your abdominal muscles. Also, from the perspective of pure vanity, a deflated jelly belly can be a discouraging sight. I started with a light sarong but it took my mother’s arrival and inspection to show me what binding really means. She wrapped me corset-style and I could feel and see the difference.
Make arrangements for motherly post-partum care.
Spouses are a great support but there’s something about having the feminine presence of someone who also gave birth to help you navigate your way through the womanly waters of life after birth. You always hear “sleep when baby sleeps” and “accept all offers of assistance”, but I would add have a mom, preferably your own around. Between mom-made meals, motherly wisdom, and loving encouragement, my post-partum healing began to accelerate.
Output = Input
In spite of Lil’ Z’s soiled diapers, I had to ask: “How do I know that she’s getting enough milk?” The nurse pinched me hard to prove my milk production and then assured me that she had enough dirty diapers to indicate her nutrition. I could’ve bypassed the demo by trusting my instincts. Ouch!
Breast milk is multi-purpose.
A doula friend and mother of three (you know who you are!) offered her generous presence and experienced advice (and delicious food!) to our family in the post-partum days. For every baby question, her response was uniform: Breast milk! Baby acne? Breast milk! Cradle cap? Breast milk! Diaper rash? Breast milk. The solution for world peace?…Just might be breast milk, too!
In spite of all the benefits for baby, there are selfish reasons to breastfeed too. If you want to get back into your pre-maternity wardrobe, a healthy diet and generous nursing is the way to go! Especially working moms who find little time to exercise, should at least make the time to pump. Not only will your baby benefit but you will too!
Air the baby out!
Lil’ Z was born in an Omani winter, which isn’t freezing but can get chilly. She was perpetually bundled from head to toe, shrouded from any molecule of oxygen reaching her body. Hats, socks, onesies, coveralls, and swaddled in a blanket- it took us six weeks to discover her birthmark! We would bathe her quickly because each bath made her bawl and then wrap her up once again. Even Lil’ Z started to resent our misguided diligence and would wiggle her arms free from her perpetual swaddle! A little bit of air and free motion does a baby good, especially for diaper changes. If you can get in the habit of letting your little one air dry after diaper changes, you can circumvent a lot of diaper rash woes. No one wants an accident but a little air will do that tender, little bum tremendous good. Also, air out those armpits and toes because they can get cheesy!
Water is all you need.
Don’t bog down your baby’s pores with a lot of baby soap or shampoo. Diaper changes can be done with a warm, wet washcloth. Baby wipes are not necessary. A weekly bath for a newborn is just for a refreshing rinse, not to scrub away dirt or filth. Thorough diaper changes are a must but the bath is moreso for protocol than actual cleaning. After the post-birth gooey-ness is properly washed off your baby, the first few weeks of bathing and hair washing are just for maintenance. Their hygiene needs are not yet like our own.
Entertain your visitors in leisure.
When I visit Omani women post-partum, there’s a spread of refreshments, a baby in a bassinet, and a mama in bed! She’ll sit up briefly to greet you, pass you the baby to hold, and lie back down glowing from all that yummy, extended family care and support. I was too shy to lie in front of my visitors but I was kidding myself, trying to be polite and sitting very uncomfortably for too-long visits. Either limit your visits or get comfy with your guests.
Warning: Their may be inconsolable crying!
In our parenting, we took the “attachment” route and kept Lil’ Z very close and nurtured. It was quite noticeable and apparent to us and others that Lil’ Z didn’t cry much because she really didn’t need to. We made ourselves readily available via co-sleeping, babywearing, etc. But, in spite of all of the attachment and loving care, there were a handful of times when Lil’ Z would wail inconsolably. It’s frightening and frustrating when your baby refuses to nurse and all of your comfort measures seem to fail. Sometimes it made me cry too!
On the rare occasions that this would happen, I would take a deep breath and try to keep calm. I would look for apparent signs of pain or discomfort- writhing, yelling when certain body parts are touched, tugging and rubbing a particular area, passing wind, warm body parts, sweating, shivering, etc. I would also check to see if there were any constrictions or annoyances caused by her clothing and if Lil’ Z’s elimination habits were normal. Amidst my examination and Lil’ Z’s persistent refusal to nurse, I would talk to her in a soothing, gentle voice saying: “What’s wrong, sweetheart? I want to help you. I don’t know what’s wrong. I love you sooo much.” I would say silent prayers and hold her close until she settled down, drifted to sleep, or accepted an offer to nurse. Once this wailing fiasco occured while Lil’ Z was home alone with Urbndervish. He called in a panic and by the time I reached home about ten minutes later, she had cried herself to sleep. We’ll never really know what happened or why she cried so. She’s a human being, albeit a little one, and can experience the complexity of emotions that others feel. What’s important is that we love her through what she’s experiencing and assure her that we are here. As she grows older, I’m sure that there will be problems that we can’t fix and heartaches that we can’t mend but we hope that our foundation of faith, love, and compassion will allow her to sail steadily through whatever she faces in the journey of her life.
What do you wish someone would’ve told you before your first birth?