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How to Care For a New Mother: Lessons Learned From Immigrants

The New York Times published an interview with Claudia Kolker, the author of a new book called,”The Immigrant Advantage: What We Can Learn From Newcomers to America About Health, Happiness and Hope.” The interview focuses almost entirely on how other new mothers are treated in other cultures.

Kolker talks about the “cuarentena,” a Spanish word that sounds like quarantine, and refers to the practice in traditional Hispanic culture (and many others around the world) of mothering the new mother for the first 40 days postpartum.

The mothering mostly involves all manner of support for moms– cleaning, cooking, helping mom adjust, massage, pampering and healing– so that the mom can focus on her baby and adjusting and healing.

Kolker points out that in the U.S. these days, “We attach a lot of ritual to the time before the baby, with baby showers and foods to eat or not to eat during pregnancy and coddling the mother. We don’t really have a prescription for after a baby is born.”

But it’s worth noting that so many other cultures have developed strong rituals to support the mother. And they are incredibly beneficial to the baby, the mother and the community.  “There is something called the immigrant paradox that actually shows an immigrant advantage in terms of longevity, infant health, mental health…”

So what’s mom’s role? “The mother is supposed to rest. She only has two jobs. One is to cuddle and enjoy her baby. The other is to learn how to breast-feed from experts. Nobody says ‘wing it’ or ‘nature will take its course.’ People will help you. There are no expectations that this is easy or spontaneous.”

As an author of a pregnancy and baby guide and a certified childbirth educator I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about and reading about what’s best for new mothers. And one thing I’ve found over and over again is that the period of time with a new baby (the “fourth trimester”) is not meant to happen in isolation. It may be the most “natural” thing in the world to have a baby and take care of it– birth is a basic bodily function, our milk comes in, the baby knows how to suck, etc.– but it’s also something that benefits from community effort.

It’s natural, in other words, to have a culture of support for moms.

These days modern women hire people (like me) to stand in for the role of the Village Wise Woman or your experienced aunty who can look over your shoulder and tell you whether the baby has a good latch. It may seem weird or artificial to get that kind of (often paid) help, but support is as normal as giving birth itself. The idea of seeking support may be new, but the idea of getting it is ancient.

Still, it can be a revelation: “One of the things I learned is this idea of permission — permission to take care of yourself, to ask for help. This felt very revolutionary to me. It also entails giving help — stepping up and being there and not just sending an e-mail or gift basket, with the understanding that you will be helped in the same way. It’s the power of a group of people getting together at their best to do difficult things. With a cuarentena, you’re not alone. It’s difficult being a new mother. To be surrounded, to have other people on the team, it’s a happy atmosphere. It helps you get through it.”

If you’ve had a baby what kind of support did you enjoy most (or wish you’d had)?

Read the whole interview here.

 

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