After a difficult birth, I was alone with twin infants for six hours. One was in a sling, the other nearby. The days (in fact, the first two years) were a blur. I collapsed on the couch wearing a calm baby while the other one slept. When I awoke, startled by one of the babies' cries, 15 minutes had passed. That was my only chance to sit down for the day.
After that, my husband and I decided that nobody should be alone with our twins for more than three hours. Everyone needs to sit down sometimes or use the washroom. New moms may need breaks the most, but they get the least.
Giving birth is life-altering. Modern medicine has improved things dramatically. Now, when you give birth, you and your infant are likely to survive.
This hasn't always been true. There are still women who die in childbirth and babies who don't make it. Our society, however, forgets how scary this experience can be.
Many deal with childbirth without family and community support. Newcomers to Manitoba cannot always expect help when a baby is born. Although parental-leave policies exist, there are situations when the mom's partner cannot take time off -- leaving her alone to recuperate and care for a newborn -- and possibly older children.
At best, a woman has a short, easy labour and birth and a healthy, full-term newborn. Even so, recovery and newborn care can be hard.
Somewhere between one-fifth and one-third of all babies are born by caesarean. These surgeries are sometimes planned, but many are emergencies. Then, a mom is recovering from major abdominal surgery while also managing a newborn that may have special needs as a result of the caesarean.
The public health nurse was my lifeline to the health-care system. My obstetrician was quick to encourage me to return to my family doctor after an emergency caesarean -- too quick, as I had to return to the hospital for more surgery due to complications. While I was pregnant, my family doctor left his practice. The practice's other doctor had a full roster and no intention of taking me on. I was left without a doctor when I needed one most.
It took six months to find a new doctor, even with the advocacy of the public health nurse. I juggled my twins' health issues along with my own. Recovery was slow. New to Canada, we leaned on local friends and house guests, but lacked basics that many people take for granted.
What should we do for new moms? Here are a few suggestions to start the discussion.
-- Put resources behind better patient care: Fund more midwives in the province and more support for women to choose their birth plans and be respected for their choices. I felt pressured to be induced, to be constantly monitored and to take drugs I didn't want. In the end, my birth experience was botched, requiring a second surgery to correct a dangerous mistake. Some people find their babies' births meaningful -- I found it traumatic.
-- Doctors should notify their patients directly when they leave their practices so new moms know to find new doctors when it matters -- right after giving birth.
-- The province must help new moms and infants. At present, the Family Centre of Winnipeg helps some families with special needs but is unable to keep up with demand. Public health nurses are great but cannot meet some moms' needs. A potential system might be based on the model of the postpartum doula. She's a knowledgeable person who comes into the home to help with nursing support, baby care, laundry, meals and basic cleaning. Our postpartum doula was a lifesaver. She helped us a few days a week until our twins were five months old. We couldn't have managed without her.
-- Every family affiliated with a place of worship should be able to draw on organized support from that community. Every church, temple, mosque and synagogue should have a "helping-hand" committee alerted to the community's pregnant women and their due dates. That committee should help with whatever the family feels comfortable -- with soup or hands to hold a baby or two. We wish we'd had such an organized endeavour. Friends offered us assistance, but it was hard to organize it to be helpful on one to three hours of sleep at a time.
-- Manitoba must get a better childcare system in place. We, like others, have been on countless wait lists with no hope of a good placement. One of our preferred daycare options told us we were 156th after 18 months on the waiting list. This is a recipe for disaster. If the province is serious about generating revenue, they must find a way to help women get back to work promptly after maternity leave. If there is adequate licensed child care available, women return to work. The province taxes that income, providing provincial revenue. Licensing more childcare providers makes jobs and tax revenue available. There is no downside to providing an improved childcare infrastructure in Manitoba, especially for children younger than three.
-- If you know a neighbour or friend is giving birth, see if you can help out. Suggest a visit, bring a meal or walk the dog. Consider reaching out, as an individual, to help others. These visits are signs of support from the community to a new mom.
-- New motherhood is not all cute baby skin, good smells and roses. It's hard work, mind-numbingly boring and isolating. Many moms enjoy every moment with their newborns, but many of us don't. Please don't make perfectly competent new moms feel bad by offering unneeded advice about what worked for you as you got rest and support, felt like a million bucks and were joyous 24 hours a day. Some of us miss our careers and our old lives and need help coping with this transition.
Don't make new moms feel bad if they can't enjoy this. Many people never do. Some just get through it.
This is in memory of those who don't make it. We can't know what goes on in the minds of moms who can't manage. But many of us struggled and imagined the worst. Please reach out to help new moms.
Joanne Seiff is the author of Knit Green and Fiber Gathering. She lives in Winnipeg and has twin two-year-olds.