Motherlife Interview #5 Part 2.
All mothers in this Motherlife interview series are anonymous and have been given nature names as their super heroine pseudonym. The nature names have been chosen from the list of nature words that have recently been deleted from a well known children’s dictionary.
This is Motherlife Interview #5, Part Two.
Mama Hazel, age 69.
Was 28 when her first child was born, she had her second baby at 31 and third at 37.
First child was born in 1977, and her three children at the time of this interview are ages 41, 38, 33.
At the time of her first child’s birth, she was working full time as a psychiatric social worker.
Sophie: Can you remember how your body felt after giving birth?
Hazel: Tired. Sore. I had an episiotomy.
I was there at the hospital for quite a while and it was wonderful. I was looked after for a whole 10 days.
Were you?! Was that common then?
Because now people leave the hospital very soon after giving birth.
Why did you stay for 10 days?
I think it’s because my episiotomy was infected or something. I can’t really remember. There was some reason.
Oh that’s right, I hemorrhaged. I lost a lot of blood so that’s why I stayed in hospital.
So did you have a transfusion?
No. They were about to give me one but then my blood count started to go up. But that’s why I was exhausted when I started motherhood, because I’d lost so much blood. And there was no discussion about that. So I had no insight as to why I was so exhausted.
So you didn’t know your exhaustion was related to the loss of blood?
So you hemorrhaged after birth?
As the placenta was coming away. And then I had retained placenta. Maybe that’s when it happened. I don’t know. She removed the placenta that was stuck on the uterus manually. Because I didn’t want to be doped up. So it was a bit painful as she got all that out. But I think I hemorrhaged before then.
So is there anything that would have helped you adjust to motherhood better or differently?
I personally think I had prepared myself really well. What would have helped is if other people had supported me in that. It would have been helpful if I’d had some sort of empathic support close to me.
And did you expect that would happen, or had it not occurred to you that it wouldn’t happen, so how would you prepare for that or what would it look like?
Well I asked for it from my husband. And I guess he gave it to the degree that he knew how. I got some support perhaps from my sister. She did look after my baby a bit. But she was also pregnant. There was nothing from my mother or father.
But you said you see your son looking after his wife in a way that you seem to think is quite good. Is there something that you can identify that you see him doing that you would have liked?
Well he anticipates and he picks up the baby. He changes the baby’s nappy more than she does for starters. And asks her what she needs and is there anything else he can do. And he takes charge. He doesn’t wait for directions. He takes charge of the baby and spontaneously changes the baby’s clothes if they need changing. And he spontaneously makes a cup of tea or brings out a snack or doesn’t expect her to get up or will sit next to her when she’s breastfeeding or bottle feeding. So I see him as being much more in tune.
So you’re saying in terms of you feeling alone, you actually were quite alone. So no one would bring you a cup of tea or sit next to you whilst you were breastfeeding. Or no one would change the baby for you.
No, no they wouldn’t. Not unless I asked for it. If I asked for it it would happen.
And was this right from coming home from having been in hospital for ten days and having the hemorrhage, so you were expected to be immediately back to normal?
Yes. Up and running.
So there was no concept of that postpartum healing window.
Absolutely no concept at all.
So did you have a six week check, which is what is standard these days?
And did you see anyone in between coming home from the hospital and the six week check?
The clinic nurse would have come around for a home visit. But of course my views were very different from hers.
And how did you go with breastfeeding?
I struggled. I had sore nipples and had to do a lot of expressing. But there weren’t pumping machines like there are now. I hand expressed. But I got it established within about eight weeks.
So you didn’t feel as though you were comfortable with breastfeeding once you left the hospital?
Well I thought I was but then I was expected to run the house because I was at home “doing nothing”. And some days I couldn’t even get dressed. And I didn’t want to leave the baby to cry. So if I had a shower for instance, I’d take the baby in the pram into the bathroom. So I was all about meeting the baby’s needs.
So in the early weeks babies will often breastfeed for what feels like all day, which is normal.
Yes so I felt like all I did was breastfeed and change nappies.
So did you feel like that was normal but you didn’t have the support you needed, or did you feel like you should be getting more stuff done?
I thought it was normal. I felt it was normal. My sense was it was normal. But it was inferred that I was feeding the baby too much.
So your husband was at work?
He must have had three weeks off I think. And he was supportive in the way that he knew. And he was very good in all sorts of ways but it was that empathic connection and care that was missing. I used to say that women need to be surrounded by other women.
You had a mum and a sister but you didn’t seem to have a lot of friends that would support you.
I had no friends who had babies. I was all alone when I had a newborn. In fact I was really quite lonely when I think back. I was at home most days all alone.
Did your mum come and visit?
No, I think they were away, they used to travel a lot.
Did your sister come and visit?
Sometimes she did. But I was expected to go there. We lived out of town and everybody thought that was a long, long, long way away.
If we’d stayed living in the city it would probably have been easier for people to visit. I had some other social worker friends.
So postpartum is often considered to be the first six weeks. But, how long after giving birth until you felt comfortable in your new role as a mother?
I really don’t know. I feel like I’m a mother now. But I think I was a mother then too. I’m not sure how easy it is to become comfortable with a small baby and a child. Because it’s so much about them and not about you. And I felt capable and comfortable being a mother. And I felt confident in my own ability. And I continued to forge ahead and parent the way I wanted to. Sometimes I gave way to other people’s views later on. But I was pretty strict and adhered to it for the first three years of my first child’s life particularly. So I don’t know what I’d say about being comfortable. I had to get comfortable and be ok with what I did. And I never did get comfortable with the criticism. I have to split that out because that’s what made me uncomfortable and probably still makes me uncomfortable.
I’m not sure if that answers the question? Probably when I became more comfortable with breastfeeding, that made me feel more like a mother. Though I felt like a mother, I was totally in love with my baby. I think I felt pretty comfortable by the end of the first six to twelve months. It was a growing and evolving process. I don’t think I’d call myself a born mother. It was an evolving process and I had to feel my way into the shoes of being a mother.
And what about your physicality? How long until you felt comfortable in your body after giving birth? Obviously your body changes a lot through pregnancy, birth and postpartum. So how long until you felt comfortable and recovered?
Probably never! Although I would have thought maybe by the time the baby got to about two. I felt like the episiotomy had properly healed. And after I finished breastfeeding I felt like I got my body back again. It developed a new normal.
Did you get any help or support to help rehabilitate your body after birth?
And did you have issues with leaking or incontinence?
And did you ever talk about it with a GP or with anyone?
No. I just assumed it was normal. I thought if I kept on doing pelvic floor exercises it’d get better.
And did it?
A little bit. It got better when I did Pilates which was many years later.
Did you talk about it with your friends?
Yes with my friends and some of them had it worse and some of them had it less.
What about the nurses or midwives?
They just told me to pull up my pelvic floor. Which I had no idea how to do of course.
Did they teach you how to do it?
Did you ask them?
Possibly. I think they assumed I knew. And what I read was to just clench them, not pull them up.
And how did you nurture yourself as a new mother?
Read, had baths. Told myself I was doing a good job. Went to sleep when the baby was asleep.
What do you do to nurture yourself now that you don’t have young children?
I swim. Read. I work. I love working. Walk in the park. Sit on the deck and listen to the birds. Talk positively to myself. Use essential oils. Go to Pilates. Watch mindless TV. Sometimes I surf the net. Have coffee or lunch with friends.
So if you could give yourself back when you had a little baby some advice or wise words is there anything you’d like to say to her?
Find a good group of women who can support you. Don’t have expectations that family are going to have the same view points. Accept yourself. Don’t worry about getting approval from anybody else, although that’s pretty hard. Get yourself into some good therapy where somebody can regularly support you. I guess I had that in my work, though I was the person leading it, but it was quite a supportive process really.
It does seem interesting because someone else that I’ve interviewed who has young children now, said her work is her saviour too. I think it’s interesting that even back in the 70’s when it must have been less usual for women to work after having children, you found your work so supportive.
Oh that was the other thing, I was heavily criticised for working. But I had to work. If I hadn’t worked I would have totally lost my identity. Having the identity of ‘Mother’ was not enough and never has been enough for me.
So you found work supportive because?
It helped me with my identity. It helped reinforce my viewpoints, it was running along in parallel with my beliefs about birthing and little children and parenting. Because in my family situation I was living in an alien world that nearly totally disagreed with me. How weird is that.
Regarding birth, my mother only ever talked about what a nightmare it was and my mother in law said you just get over it. You don’t want to pay it too much attention. So the two people who could have been helpful, weren’t.
That’s so interesting isn’t it that your mother in law and mother said you’d get over it and it was terrible.
I think it is also an alone experience in some ways.
Well yes, you have to do it yourself, but you don’t have to do it alone. I think you can definitely have support.
I think that because of the nature of our culture we expect a lot more from the father than any other culture has expected. And lots of men are more supportive now than they were. But not necessarily. In his way, my husband was very very supportive. Particularly when my first baby was young.
But I still think that in birthing and young mothering you need women to support you. So where are the women that support you? It sounds like you didn’t have a big swarm of women come and support you like in traditional cultures. In my postpartum doula group a lot of women talk about how they studied to become a doula because they felt alone in their early mothering.
Well that’s why I say that birth is a normal life crisis. It is a crisis in your life and there is potential for lots of growth and change but like any crisis you need support. But also the sort of support that was being offered to me I didn’t want. And I knew that it was dangerous to be supported by my mother in law. And in hindsight I look back and wonder if I made that up? But I don’t think I did.
It’s just so interesting that considering all the women that have given birth, we live in such a patriarchal culture where all the womens wisdom is not nurtured, even by women.
No it’s not, it’s discounted. And I even discounted it. I even doubted my own truth alot. Because I was expected to go to their place. I was expected to do this or expected to do that.
So there wasn’t a sense of them inviting you over to take care of you?
Oh no. No way. If I didn’t get up and help I’d get in trouble.
So who would look after the baby while you were helping?
I’d be holding the baby and doing stuff. Sometimes my husband would hold her, but he was drinking. There was a lot of drinking going on in that era. A LOT of drinking.
Thank you SO much to mama Hazel for talking to me about her experience of early motherhood.