After 12 hours of labor, 36 hours of being awake, and a major surgery to boot, it was 10:30pm and I was exhausted. My son, my prize for enduring it all, was huddled in a bassinet next to my hospital bed, where he would remain for the rest of the night, for the rest of my stay in fact. I could barely move for the epidural, my husband had been sent home, and I was left alone with a new baby and a buzzer by my hand to ring for a midwife who may or may not be available. Sleep was unlikely.
In the UK, this set-up has become standard. Keeping the baby in the room with you is a right which was fought for, fiercely, by the National Childbirth Trust in their ongoing effort to promote best practice for breastfeeding success. There are no nurseries in the non-private hospitals in this country. For us, these are the stuff of movies: magical places to which newborn babies are whisked away and lined up in cabbage-patch like rows of pink and blue adorableness. Places where babies are watched over and fed by, wait for it, people other than their depleted, sleep-deprived mothers. Hollywood indeed.
Life in the maternity ward here is trial by fire in the best and worst way. Worst because it can feel scary and lonely and many women emerge from their time at hospital exasperated by the lack of help they received, especially overnight. The treatment I got with my twins was appalling in this respect and were it not for a lone Florence Nightingale of a nursing student who took pity on me through the wee hours and held the fussy baby while I breastfed the other one, I might have gone quietly insane.
But then you leave the hospital and, however much you cursed the NHS while you were there, you suddenly realize that you can actually do this baby thing. They taught you the basics of how to feed him, how to burp him, how to change him and how to bathe him, but you took the lion’s share of responsibility for yourself, you had to. And with that responsibility came a newfound competence and an unexpected confidence.This is the best part of the trial by fire: confidence is the most important weapon in a new mother’s arsenal and it is the most difficult to come by.
And you need it in spades where I live because, once you part company with the NHS, you are on your own. They will send a team of community midwives to your house to weigh and check on the baby for up to 10 days post birth (or slightly more if the circumstances indicate), but after that virtually nobody here has live-in help in the form of a baby nurse or a night nurse. Not even in those treacherous first weeks where the argument for them is at its strongest.
In contradistinction to almost all of the women I grew up with in New York, most of my friends in Glasgow don’t even know what a night nurse is or where one would possibly look to find such a mythical creature. A person who sleeps in the room with the baby so that you can rest and recover from birth? No! They don’t believe it. It’s not that we can’t afford them, some of us can. It’s not that the idea doesn’t sound appealing in theory, of course it does. It’s more that it is just not a part of our parenting culture. In so far as there is a ‘philosophy’ underpinning this fact, it would be something akin to wanting to experience for ourselves the entirety of a new baby in all of its dichotomies: the day and the night, the dry and the wet, the calm and the crying, the clean and the dirty.
It’s impossible to say without sounding self-righteous, isn’t it? And, hand on heart, maybe there is an element of that: self-righteousness seems forever to be lurking in the midst of struggle, especially struggle by one’s own volition. Perhaps it is a natural reaction to seeing someone doing the same thing you are but having a much happier time of it because they opted for what you perceive to be the easier route. A friend of mine called it cheating when she saw the new mother across the street jauntily strolling her two week old about, looking as fresh as a daisy because it was the grandparents who were on night duty with the bottles. The baby nurse doesn’t have to be paid, you see.
Lisa Belkin has just written a brilliantly satirical ‘letter’ to Marissa Mayer, new CEO and parent alike, touching upon just this emotional response. Warning her that we, the rest of the first-world middle-class mothering population, don’t want to hear that her baby is ‘easy’. Mayer’s comment was most likely made off-hand and no doubt reflected, at least in part, the fact that she got one of the good ones. But it also highlighted the reality that easiness in babies is a relative concept: they can always be easy when the hard parts are tended to by somebody else.
There are so many factors that work together to define our early experience of being a parent: the resources available; the extent and willingness of the support system; the kind of baby that comes out of the box; the way that baby is fed. Some of it is luck, and some of it is choice. I was far too much of a control freak to have had a baby nurse myself, but that was my choice. And I was lucky to have had the resources to make it a choice at all. For both of those reasons, I will try my best not to begrudge the perfectly well-slept new mom down the road who did it differently from me. The harder way is not necessarily the better way just as motherhood need not be synonymous with martyrdom.