Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Lying-in: Rest, recovery, and bonding

This is another in a series of guest posts by other bloggers. Read to the end for a longer biographical note on today's guest blogger, Jessica from This is Worthwhile. She builds a strong case for the age-old but currently neglected practice of allowing mothers an established period of rest and recuperation after giving birth.

Guest post by Jessica from This is Worthwhile

A typical lunch in our house in the first few days.

In September of 2006 I was minding my own business checking out at Whole Foods. I looked up and saw Mothering Magazine. At the time I had two best friends 1200 miles away both expecting babies in 2007, so I grabbed two copies and went home, never having heard of the magazine before, and not even a whisper of my own pregnancy in my ears for months to come.

I started flipping through the pages and was overwhelmed by the sense of community I found there. Up until that moment, my idea of pregnancy, birth, and child-rearing was a foggy ideal based on my mother's methods (no spanking, lots of nursing, lots of educating yourself), not so unlike what I found in those pages. But what really struck me was an article about lying-in, a concept that really struck a chord with my cultural anthropological background and with my feminist beliefs, written by Katherine Gyles, called "At Rest in the Arms of the Mother."

What Is Lying-In?
Lying-in is loosely defined as a period of rest postpartum by the mother and babe anywhere between 1 week to 3 weeks and even more if feasible by the family. The mother is to be waited on and to remain on her back as much as possible to accomplish a number of physical and emotional goals. Physically, it allows her organs to reposition themselves and generally affords her more rest. Emotionally, it allows her to focus all her attention on the new infant at her breast, to bond, and to set the tone for the rest of the family to follow suit.

It is also called confinement or doing the month.

It is a time of quiet, reflection, and calibration. There is to be no fussing by the new mother over dishes, chores, or bills. She is to rest. Period.

Why Rest and Lying Down Is Critical
The uterus needs to shrink back to regular size and get back in position, there is lots of bleeding (I bled for 6 weeks), the perineum will need extra special attention as it recovers from the brutal stretching and pressure it endured (and any possible tearing), and women's legs and feet may become swollen in the couple of days after birth. Being off your feet will release any pressure felt in your bottom, give your guts time to reposition, and allow blood to flow freely. These physical changes are critical to our health and shouldn't be brushed aside for daily chores or lunches with well-wishers.

Culturally Speaking
I'm sure some of you are thinking, "There is no way in hell I could ever pull this off," and I understand that. That's the Western paradigm talking, the go-go-go, must do-do-do because I'm responsible for everything and I like it just so.

Lying-in requires that we let it all go and truly rely on our partners to pick up the slack. The idea to slow down and listen to our bodies is such a distant ideology from the nuclear family model that it's no wonder women struggle back to their routines whether ready or not. When everyone is relying on you to perform, it's difficult to resist the expectations and it's difficult to think of it in terms other than "I'm letting them down." But a woman who takes the time for lying-in isn't letting anyone down, she is being there for herself, her babe, and her family. Just as we should all take special care to do things we love as an individual in order to remain healthy and happy as parents, same goes for our physical health during the postpartum time.

The whole point of lying-in is to honor the incredible changes your body and mind have just gone through. Giving birth is not status quo: it is sincerely one of the most profound physical and emotional experiences a human body can experience and we should be careful to understand it and give it time to recede naturally and healthily.

Other cultures have been doing a lying-in period for generations; Taiwan, India, China, and Malaysia to name a few, get to experience a period of rest and rejuvenation for up to 6 weeks. Whole families or communities pull together to allow mother and child time to recuperate, rituals are performed, and the mother is generally allowed to re-enter her old life at a more leisurely pace.

How to Have Your Own Lying-In Period
Set limits with family and friends
Before my son was born my husband and I told everyone we wouldn't have visitors for at least 2 weeks. Our goal was to do what was outlined in the Mothering article I mentioned at the beginning of this article. Five days in the bed, five days on the bed, and five days around the bed.

What this looked like for us was five days of my husband making all my meals and doing all the laundry. He fielded the phone and the door. My mother came over, but only when we felt up to it. No friends visited, though I know they were eager to meet our newest edition.

The second five days I was upright, on the computer, reading, and talking with my husband.

The last five days I was walking around the house and by then I felt emotionally ready to see friends who had set up a round-robin dinner delivery for us.

Those fifteen days were some of the most profound of my life. I felt closer to my husband and better able to deal with the raw, raging emotions I was feeling due to hormones and the intensity of my new motherhood.

Include your older children
If you have older children there are ways to enfold them in the process as well. Toddlers can have special new-baby boxes of toys and activities waiting for them, they can spend more time with trusted adults away from mommy, or they can even participate in the quiet bonding experience if they're old enough by holding the baby, helping to clean her, or just touching her.

Play games from your bed and design a little "big brother/big sister" fort in the room complete with favorite or new videos and books so she can be near the new family, but not disruptive. Set boundaries prior to the new baby's arrival, practice being quiet in mommy's room, and then rely on your partner to run interference if need be.

And remember to relax and restart if you feel that things are getting out of control. Despite what anyone might think, there really IS a reset button on any given day.

Arrange for help and don't turn it down when offered
As I mentioned before, my friends organized dinner deliveries for us. That meant we had leftovers the following day and didn't have to think about dinner that night. It was an enormous relief. We also stocked up on frozen dinners and plenty of healthy snacks prior to my son's birth.

Your friends and family want to help and will most likely be happy to take direction and be given a responsibility. Your best friend can be in charge of laundry, your sister your grocery shopping and errands, your mother can return phone calls. It definitely takes a village, after all.

If you aren't near family and friends, or are without a partner
I don't think it's impossible to have a meaningful and recuperative time with a new family addition, but it's definitely a little trickier.

If you are isolated from friends and family, but have a partner, enlist him or her for meals and ask that phone messages be shared at a certain time or designated day after birth. Set up a diaper changing station within arm's reach of the bed so you don't have to get up to clean up baby. Aim for 5 days of this kind of care and renegotiate with your partner for the next 4 or 5 days, then again for the last 5 as you feel more energetic.

If you have no partner, but friends and/or family nearby, set up round-robin dinners and assign "chores" prior to baby's birth. Keep the diaper changing station close and plan for 5 days of bed rest, then little house trips for the next 5 days, and small chores, like making lunch, the last 5 days.

In either case, older children can still participate. Have new toys, videos, a fort, a special book, etc. on hand. These things will help engage big brother or big sister in the process and keep him or her safely occupied while sharing your space. Rely as heavily as you need to on kind-hearted babysitters.

Pre-planning is most important in this kind of situation. You will have to act as chief of your small village and get everything squared away before the birth.

Switch your brain off
Really try to remember that you are still just a human woman with physical needs (you are not a woman of steel) and that you must relax for at least a week or so. It's not too much to ask of yourself or your loved ones. Enjoy this time, for it's magical and won't be repeated in exactly the same way even if you have multiple births in your lifetime.

It's a Good Thing
The benefits are many and hard to quantify. Mainly, the mother gets the chance to recoup, the baby gets the chance to bond with his mother, and the new family gets to try out its sea legs in a cocoon of support and love. Physically, the mother's body is allowed to rebuild, and emotionally, she is given the time and space to unfold as a new person. She might even be at less risk of postpartum depression as this study discovered. Allow time to slow down for just a little while and watch all the pieces fall into place. Think only about yourself, your baby, and your family. There will be a lifetime of responsibility and things to do waiting for you at the end of this reprieve; enjoy the more gentle pace while you can and you might come out of it more centered, happier, and more ready for what lies ahead.

So, good luck and have fun! I wish everyone a happy, loving, safe, and magical postpartum experience such as my own.

:: This post is dedicated to a newly minted mother and her sweet-cheeked son: my little sister, Gabrielle, and nephew, Atticus.

:: :: Disclaimer: I'm not a doctor and I don't play one on TV. Please talk to your doctor and/or midwife if you have any questions regarding lying-in and its benefits or any perceived risks.

This Is Worthwhile logoJessica is a 34-year-old SAHM with a master's degree in counseling. She is passionate about cooking, imbibing, loving, playing, horses, and her family, and looks forward to leaving Texas for her home state of California where she can be as fruity and nutty as her heart desires. Baby number two is also on her mind, but not in her belly. Read more of Jessica's writing at This is Worthwhile.


Pam said...

My kids are 17 and almost 15. I wish I had read this before they were born. On another note, the hospital that my brother was born in was called The Lying-In Hospital. Now I know why. Also, back then moms routinely stayed in the hospital for a week after their babies were born. A "forced" lying in. Very smart. It's cruel that new moms are "kicked out" of the hospital after 24 hours now. Great post.

kitchenwitch said...

I wish this had been something I could do. The day I came home from the hospital wtih my fourth was one I will never forget. My house was trashed, the dishes were piled up-it was awful. Thirty minutes after I walked in the door I was on my hands and knees scrubbing the floor. It really messed up my recovery. I swelled up, was more tired, and bled longer than with any of my other babies. This sounds like heaven.

Olivia said...

What a wonderful concept. My husband and parents did a good job of taking care of the chores and letting me rest. However, we had two doctor's visits in the first week (oh for the days of home visits from docs), and because it was my dad's first time visiting us here, we took a two hour drive to see lake Michigan.

@Pam, I understand what you are saying about longer hospital stays, but I did not get rest at the hospital. Too many interruptions from staff, and I would rather have my own bed.

Lisa C said...

I really, really, REALLY wanted a lying-in period when my son was born. I even planned to bring a chart with me to my baby shower so that people could sign up for ways to help out after the baby was born. But I was too shy to ask, and no one offered any help! I have tons of family nearby, and no one offered. I had to specifically ask my mom and mother-in-law, and a friend from church to help, but even they were too busy to do much.

I read somewhere that in some cultures it is younger women and girls who don't have children yet that come to help out. They have more time on their hands and it gives them experiences with babies. I wish we did that in our culture!

Anyway, my postpartum period was a nightmare. There was no way my husband and I could have handled everything on our own for 15 days.

Kristine said...

I knew from seeing my sis breastfeed the first week that I'd want to be with just my husband and baby (had Mom on call just in case). It was so nice to have that week to hash out child-rearing details with the husband, and just relax while he took care of everything while I had the baby on the boob constantly. I told my friends I'd call them when I was ready for visitors. I made myself and the baby the priority and did not worry about anyone else. That sounds selfish to anyone who dies not understand that a newborn and the accompanying lack of sleep are like Navy SEAL bootcamp. And with granny undies and bloody pads and an aching perineum, it just was not the right time for me, and I imagine most moms, to be doing much besides caring for self and baby, esp if breasfeeding. That took me 5-6 hours a day at first (logged on iPhone).
Thanks for sharing great article and tips. So important for moms to stand up for themselves and their babies and protect that important, fragile (hello, weeping) first couple of weeks.

amy friend said...

I really wanted this too, and, like Lisa, didn't feel comfortable asking everyone to help - unless they offered something.

When we ended up in the hospital for 5 days, it seemed to give people "permission" to just show up at any time, and stay for as long as they wanted. Our space was completely invaded, and I had a difficult recovery, physically and emotionally. (The hospital that we were in did not encourage "healing" in any way. Quite the opposite!)
When we were finally home, the "help" that family had to offer really wasn't helpful. For example, showing up uninvited, talking, watching me breastfeed, offering advice, eating, leaving dishes, offering more advice... I finally ended up closing my bedroom door, and staying in there with my little guy until we learned how to be with each other...and I was able to breastfeed him successfully.

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