In an age before antibiotics, rest and sanitary conditions were a new mother’s best chance at recovering from the physical upheaval brought on by childbirth. It made sense to support a woman’s healing through loved ones coming together to pick up her household chores, keep her and the baby clean, and allow her some time to rest and bond. In line with this wisdom, traditional cultures the world over have communal rites and practices that support a new mother’s need for recuperation after the birth of a child.
Traditional societies recognised that birth requires recovery, yet these rituals of rest and attendance to a mother and child may have also signified an ancestral knowledge that the skill of mothering does not happen in an instant. That there is no such thing as a magical, all-knowing ‘maternal instinct’ that just kicks in and makes everything all right overnight. That the move into motherhood happens in a series of small steps, and that we do not touch down gracefully on the landing pad so much as orbit in space a little while, burning through fuel and trying like hell to read our instruments.
These rituals recognised that while new mothers recover physically, they are also transforming psychologically. And that this profound change is probably best supported by a period of recuperation and compassion.
As Anthropologist Sarah Hrdy points out in her review of mammalian mothering, even in the animal kingdom. mothering does not ‘just happen’ after the birth of a child. Animals such as mice and sheep require the smells of their newborns to kick-start the complicated chemical and behavioural cascade of lactation, grooming and protection that the rearing of young entails. The ‘maternal instinct’ is less a guarantee than a gradual adoption of new behaviours. Behaviours that must be reinforced by practice, and that can be disrupted by challenges in the environment.
Human mothering is a much wilder card, with no universal behaviours that new mothers engage in across the species besides perhaps cleaning the baby after the birth, and gazing at its face and body. After that, the way we approach the birth of a child is as wide and varied as the customs and communities of the planet we inhabit. Mothering a child and learning how to seamlessly meet its needs is not hard wired. It’s a learned skill that requires time, space and patience to master.
As we learn to care for our babies, research has established that between 2-4 weeks and 3-4 months postpartum, our brains are increasing in volume in at least nine known areas. Neurologically speaking, this is a very big deal. Your postpartum brain is learning so much and taking in so many sensations and signals it is actually growing - and quickly.
But learning new routines is hard. It can feel lonely and chaotic and unclear at first. From a psychological perspective, it’s likely this feels tough because our brain’s favourite thing to do - recognise a pattern and stick with it - isn’t possible. Human beings are creatures of habit. To veer away from a habit and to figure out something new requires our brains to build new pathways, To literally re-wire. This uses up energy the brain would much rather apply to the millions of other tasks it must execute on our behalf. It’s tiring. And to work, it needs rest.
Today, in our modern towns and cities where so many mothers are away from their extended families, modern life means it isn’t always possible to pull down the shades and retreat from the world along enough to allow our brains and bodies the time they need to learn and heal. But that doesn’t mean we don’t still need the opportunity to do so.
So what to do?
It would appear those still dark, wee hours of motherhood have some lessons to offer.
While it is still dark outside (figuratively and literally), we are forced to accept that we can’t see as far ahead as we might like. We feel the need to find one another and huddle close for warmth. We aren’t running around, ticking items off of lists, and generally tiring ourselves out. We are resting. We are processing information. We are restoring our strength for what lies ahead.
The oxytocin response of new motherhood directs us to ‘stay and play’ with our new arrivals. It is our body’s signal to us that it is ok to slow down, to worry less, to connect with our new child and to hold her close. There is a deep wisdom in this gentle nudge, The closer we are to our babies in the earliest days - without the light and din of the outside world and all of it’s tempting, familiar pull - the faster we can learn the new patterns that motherhood has to teach us. The sooner we can heal. The better we might feel.
Wherever you can, listen to this nudge. Make the time to rest, recuperate and simply be with your newborn. Our societies may have forgotten the importance of allowing new mothers enough time and space to accommodate the enormous task of learning to care for our new charges, but mother nature has fail-safes. If we are not afforded time by others, we can make it for ourselves. By being conscious of the fact that motherhood takes time to learn, and that we deserve compassion and support from ourselves for this process, we can still benefit from this ancient knowledge.
The wee hours of motherhood are a time to recover, recuperate and learn. Enjoy the stillness.
Duhigg, C. (2014) The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do In Life And Business. Random House.
Hrdy, S.B. (1999) Mother Nature: A History of Mothers, Infants and Natural Selection. Chapter 7: From Here to Maternity. Pantheon Books, New York.
Kim, P., Leckman, J. F., Mayes, L. C., Feldman, R., Wang, X., & Swain, J. E. (2010). The Plasticity of Human Maternal Brain: Longitudinal Changes in Brain Anatomy During the Early Postpartum Period. Behavioral Neuroscience, 124(5), 695–700. http://doi.org/10.1037/a0020884