The maternal dilemma
"We need to respect the time parents spend with newborns."
In Manhattan, motherhood is seen as a disruption to a woman's real life - leaving Australian expat Julia Baird wondering if something has been lost.
In 2009, you'd hope mothers would have nothing to hide. The concept of confinement after childbirth has been decidedly unfashionable for some time. The idea of binding women to the home before and after they give birth, with all its connotations of female delicacy, and the need to hide swollen bellies or milky breasts from the world seems particularly retro today.
In the city that never sleeps, motherhood is considered a profession that must be worked at, achieved and proved.
Instead, women strut about in bikinis in their third trimester, rap in comedy skits (such as Amy Poehler aping Republican vice-presidential nominee Sarah Palin on Saturday Night Live), perform at the Grammys (like singer M.I.A.) and refuse to hide their bumps - even if most of us would be more excited by elasticised track pants at 39 weeks than performing for millions in a bra top.
Still, it's not the time before childbirth that needs rethinking. It's the time after, and it's given scant regard in Manhattan, where I moved to from Sydney two-and-a-half years ago. It's made me think that we need to honour what was once called the "period of confinement", as some cultures still do - not because women should be locked away, but because we need to respect the time parents spend with newborns.
Maternity leave is not generous in New York, averaging between six and 12 weeks, which is a root cause of the problem. The early days of motherhood are seen as something to sprint past; a woman's merit is measured by the speediness of her recovery from the disruption of childbirth.
Take the woman I met at a dinner in Brooklyn recently. Clad in black, she was heavily pregnant. She sighed as she walked into the room, lowered herself onto a chair and started talking about her exhaustion and birth plan: she had booked a caesarean, bought formula and hired two night nurses. "I go to bed at 11 and wake up at seven - that's it for me," she declared, stroking her round belly. "I'm hiring help. Otherwise I'll get too tired. I mean, I'm going to breastfeed, absolutely, I believe in it. For about three weeks. I'm having the baby in August, so I can spend that month in pyjamas. But by September, I want my life back."
The Manhattan Mother is a rare species, living in a city where comfort is paramount, perfection is thought possible and pharmaceuticals are de rigueur. If you listened to the chattering class here you might believe only the deranged would consider a natural birth, and only the depraved would breastfeed in public. In the city that never sleeps, motherhood is considered a profession that must be worked at, achieved and proved. At the same time, the act of becoming a mother is transient; you don't savour pregnancy or linger at the moment of birth. Women are lauded for working until the baby arrives - Kirsten Gillibrand, who replaced Hillary Clinton in the Senate, was given a standing ovation by her colleagues when she did so - then they are cheered for their speedy return.
Sarah Palin gave birth to her fifth child on a Friday and was back at work on Monday. In the past few months, I have heard of many mothers returning to work immediately after giving birth. The next day.
You can't judge women for returning to work when the recession has made all workers nervous (and dispensable). The stay-at-home versus working-mother debate has grown so rancid and divisive it is now stale. What you can judge, however, is a cultural compulsion to leave behind as quickly as possible what in many societies has been considered a sacred space between a mother and child. In our race to prove our brains still function while our bodies respond to infant cries, we trample on something deeper than we acknowledge.
It's not exactly the concept of confinement we need to return to, but it isn't far away. Previously, at least it was understood that we should respect the time around childbirth. Now we are supposed to admire all these tragic celebrity souls who pound away on StairMasters while their wounds are yet to heal, bind breasts so they don't produce milk, suck in their abdomens as they pose awkwardly in bikinis and talk about the horror of the maternal state.
It would be a shame to lose reverence for those gentle, maddening months after a child is born, when you are in a sleep-drained reverie, stitched to a baby's rhythms and sweet suckling; when you watch them unfurl, watch their eyes focus on the world, their lips curl into smiles, their startled limbs jerk and then grow strong. When you delight in the life you have created, it becomes a lot less important to get your own life back the very next day.
This story first appeared in Sunday Life magazine, in the Sun-Herald and Sunday Age.
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