what I wish I'd known about giving birth

Someone asked, "What did no one tell you about birth and postpartum that you learned the hard way?" I replied:

that both can be far simpler and easier than this culture tells us.

that it is not necessary to have an audience or to have anyone touch my body, and that those things can interfere with the normal production hormones that regulate the birth process.

that contractions don't mean birth is imminent, and that it is crucial to rest and sleep as much as possible in early labor.

that labor augmentation (even "natural" methods) can be counterproductive and even dangerous, and that I should have trusted my body to give birth in its own best time.

that directed pushing is also counterproductive, and that if we had been patient my body would have moved the baby out easily and efficiently on its own.

that putting a hat on the baby's head obscures the lovely baby smell that is a chemical part of bonding.

that having my baby taken away from me for even a few minutes after the birth would sever my instinctive connection to him.

that breastfeeding could hurt, that if it does there's something wrong but there so many things that can fix it, that lactation consultants don't always know what they're talking about, that not being able to pump doesn't mean that you're not producing enough milk, and that bras can hinder normal breastfeeding by harboring bacteria that cause infection.

that I didn't need all the "essential" baby products like crib and bassinet, changing table and pad, baby mobile, wipe warmer, diaper container, baby powder, baby nail clippers, butt thermometer, darling (and later to find impractical and uncomfortable) clothing, baby tub, hooded towel, baby shampoo and lotion, pacifiers, playpen...

that keeping the baby with me would help me sleep longer and better and that I should always sleep when the baby sleeps.

that my husband wouldn't just know what I needed from him after the birth.

that resisting holding the baby only makes the baby insecure so that s/he is more clingy and cries more easily.

that I had no duty to let anyone else hold the baby, not even for a minute.

that my hormone levels would drop off sharply after the birth, making me emotionally vulnerable, and that having visitors under these conditions would make me feel weird and emotionally out of control.

that I didn't have to have visitors.

sleeping with the baby

Eight years ago I was a newlywed visiting my husband's grandmother. She was working through her many years of accumulation and encouraged us to go through her books and let her know if there was anything we wanted. Her library seemed to consist mainly of old musty coffee table books from the 1950s and '60s, so I didn't take her offer very seriously. She was sure though that there was something I must need, and as I was leaving she insisted I take a book she chose for me. It was Carl Larsson's Home, a book of photographs of the interior of a Swedish artist's home. I wasn't initially impressed as I flipped through, but I thanked her and accepted to be polite. I still can't imagine why it was that she thought I would like this book in particular, as she didn't know anything about me at the time other than that I was (probably) to be the mother of her grandson's children.

The book sat on my shelf for a very long time. It seemed like the sort of thing I ought to like, as I am generally interested in architecture and interior design and arts and crafts, so once in a while I'd take it down and look through it. I did this again and again with a kind of irrational hopefulness, like when you keep looking in the refrigerator for something good to eat even though the last time you looked there was nothing there.

One of these times I noticed something odd that had escaped my attention before: while Carl had his own bedroom, his wife Karin (a textile artist) slept in the nursery with the children.

This struck me as strange and unfair. I had never heard of parents and children sharing sleeping quarters and it didn't occur to me that there might be a practical reason for doing so, much less that they might find it emotionally satisfying. I assumed that she slept with the children simply because there were only two bedrooms and the man of the house claimed the right to have one all to himself, leaving her no choice but to share a bedroom with the children. Or perhaps there were more bedrooms, but that the nursery was regarded as her place (as in, "putting her in her place.")

When I had my first child, we dutifully set up a bassinet and crib, as all parents in this culture are told is right and correct, and though the baby didn't like either I kept trying to get him to sleep in them. Eventually I realized it was easier to keep him asleep if I didn't have to transfer him from my soft, rounded, warm body to a cold flat surface, so we exchanged the crib for a twin-sized mattress where I would nurse him to sleep then carefully roll away and go to sleep with my husband. Who I didn't actually care that much to sleep with as I'm a light sleeper and he snored. Yet there was this idea in my mind that it was the baby that was the burden.

When I became pregnant with my second child I began to hear some stories from other mothers. This was the dawn of the internet for mass consumption; for me this meant access to voices I hadn't had previously. At first I looked for support and information, but soon found myself fascinated by the extreme radicalism (as it seemed to me then) of some of the practices I was coming across. One term that came up over and over again was "attachment parenting", based in the idea that babies are wired to gain the most optimal physical, neurological, emotional, and social development via early physical contact with the mother. It involved staying as near to the baby as necessary to satisfy its needs, and the claim was that mother and baby would both be happier together than apart, and that the mother would get more sleep as she wouldn't have to get out of bed and fully wake to tend to the baby.

True, I was tired of having to get out of my warm bed at 2:00 in the morning and not be able to go back to sleep until the baby was asleep. So when my second was born, I didn't put him away. I kept him with me and slept in a recliner with him in my arms. And by the time I was ready to move to the bed we were so much a natural unit that I could not imagine putting him anywhere else.

It took a little time getting used to nursing in a prone position, positioning myself in a way to both accommodate the baby and stay comfortable myself, but once I figured it out it was vastly preferable to what I had been doing before. It was a lot like learning to ride a bike -- there's an understanding, a knowing, that your muscles have to have for it to be easy, and once you've got it you can't imagine not knowing how.

A very common question is, "aren't you afraid you'll roll over on the baby?" No. There is a mechanism in the brain that paralyzes the body in deep sleep, and in lighter sleep there is a body awareness that keeps you from lying too long in the same position or from rolling off the bed... and from rolling onto the baby. Mother are especially wired to be aware of their babies in relation to their own bodies.

Infant mortality is higher in "co-sleeping". But these rates include mothers who sleep with their babies while intoxicated, and who sleep where a baby can become wedged in a tight space and not be able to turn its head for air. There is no differentiation made; it's all lumped in together. No one knows the real incidence of mortality in various types of sleeping arrangements. However we do know that physiologically babies do better when their sleep patterns are regulated by their mothers', and when their mothers are close enough to be able to sense unusual changes in breathing, and therefore able to do something about it. Science and common sense are not in opposition to the baby being with the mother.

A less serious objection concerns supposed disadvantages to mother-baby attachment and is in two parts: "The child will not be able to sleep alone when s/he needs to, if s/he gets used to sleeping with a parent" and "Parents need time alone with each other, and the nighttime specifically should be devoted to that." Both are examples of things that people believe because they want to believe them, not because they are true.

First: Children and adults are different things. When I was a child I wanted a lot of close physical contact with my mother; I don't anymore. She didn't have to push me away for that change to occur in me; natural human development took care of that. In other words, I grew up. I've seen it happen in my own children: I hug them and hold them and sing them to sleep. I brush their teeth and comb their hair and hold their hands when we cross the street. I console them when they're scared or hurt. I watch out for them and protect them in all kinds of ways. And then, one day (though not all at once, of course it happens gradually) they do not need these things from me anymore. They can, and want to, do them by themselves. Forcing it on them earlier than they're ready for might stunt their independence; but allowing them to move into it when they're actually ready, allows for a foundation upon which to build something strong. 

And frankly, I trust the child. I trust what nature has done with her and every child before her. Her instinct is to be as close to me as possible. She won't always feel that; it will naturally fade as she grows. It is only by the fulfillment of the needs specific to a developmental stage that one is able to move beyond it to the next. Anybody who really believes that a baby will always have a child's needs unless you force them out of them has a serious lack of understanding of how humans progress developmentally.

Second, there are countless ways in which lovers can connect with each other.

I have four children now, and they all sleep with me -- the baby and four-year-old in bed with me, the six- and eight-year-olds in their own beds in the same room. Bedtime battles are nonexistent at our house. They have no reason to resist going to sleep when they're tired because they get what they want, which is to sleep near those they love and the security that comes with that.

It's come to be what I want too. I don't mean just because I believe that it's a good parenting practice, but because it feels good. This is because the more intimate physical contact you have with people you love, the more you produce oxtyocin, and the more you produce it, the more receptive you become to it. Oxytocin is known as "the love hormone"; in addition to being instrumental in the processes of sexual arousal, birth, and lactation, it induces maternal behavior and attachment and is associated with reduced physiological and psychological stress. And that can't be anything but good for my relationship with my children.

The book of photographs of Carl Larsson's home has a permanent place on my bookshelf now, as a reminder to me that there was a time when I could read about a mother keeping her children near her in the night and not understand, and as such, in comparison to what has since been revealed to me, a reminder also of the transforming power of the biological process of becoming a mother.