My baby daughter is sleeping as I open my computer to write. I had better not waste time because I know that the minute she wakes up, she will demand my attention. Alhamdulillah she is six weeks old now, and it is hard to believe that so much time has passed since I saw her first, born on a cold winter night in Leeds hospital. She has learnt so much since that day: to smile and to sit quietly for 15 minutes in her bouncer; she has learnt not to be afraid of taking a bath, and she has learnt not to fall asleep during feeding. And what about me? I have learnt that post-partum rest, and not necessarily confinement, is very important, and it is my right that I should not give up. It’s the first time I took it seriously and now, as my 40 days have passed, I feel I have had good rest, and I’m ready to take on my usual duties.
All of my three daughters were born in Europe and so I have also succumbed to the ideal of the super-mum, fit and fine just a day after. Well, I was not really fit and fine, but because I believed I should be, I felt that I was not up to standard and so felt stressed about having to rely on the help of my family. I tried to keep the house as clean as usual and cook dinner as always, not letting myself rest properly and not giving my newborn babies as much time as I felt I should and wanted. I did what I thought others expected of me, completely unaware that it was my right to take things slowly, and it was completely fine to let others take over the management of the household. It was only as I prepared myself for the birth of my third child that I learnt and realised the importance of the post-partum rest, and so far this has been my most relaxed and stress-free period. I let my mother cook all the meals without a shade of guilt, and I have not protested once about my husband cleaning the house. There are toys strewn all over the floor, but I don’t care any more. I’m happy and so are all three of my children.
In the family village of my husband in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, women are expected to stay at home for 40 days after giving birth to a baby, they don’t do any housework and they are cared for by the female members of their extended family. They eat what is considered ‘soft foods’ and are also given a special dish of nuts, grains and poppy seeds that is meant to strengthen their backs. Having inherited no tradition of post-partum confinement from my own Polish culture, I was happy to adopt the Pashtun way. Except the diet!
While preparing for childbirth, I read Sheila Kitzinger’s ‘Rediscovering Childbirth’. On post-partum rest, she writes about the forgotten tradition of ‘god-sibs’ – the women-helpers, who are supposed to assist a woman in the days preceding the labour and in the weeks after – the tradition perhaps re-emerging in the form of doulas. We read about the importance of building a sanctuary, in the literal or symbolic sense, around the mother and her newborn baby, and how it is still practised in some traditional societies, and how it becomes forgotten or sometimes reinvented in certain other cultures. Kitzinger writes about the disapproval of Western expectations towards new mothers by Asian migrant communities, who wonder how ‘women in the West can get straight out of bed after giving birth like hens laying eggs.’ We also hear complaints of some of the new mothers who dislike the restrictive diet that is prescribed for women in their post-partum period by their local traditions.
Yet it seems that in most developed, industrialised countries, this truth of the need for post-partum rest has been forgotten – women are expected to be back up on their feet just a few days after giving birth. They are also assumed to be able to care for their babies on their own from the beginning and be back in shape wearing their pre-pregnancy tight jeans just weeks after. Women’s magazines are full of pictures showing celebrities who have achieved just that, while on the other hand, the TV portrays new mothers as poor exhausted and misshapen creatures, walking around a messy house in stained pyjamas and avoiding the forever crying baby. The first weeks with the new baby are always a bit of a challenge, but don’t have to be a nightmare!
According to Islamic teachings, during the post-partum period lasting up to forty days we are exempt from the prayer and fasting, and we should also refrain from having an intimate relationship with our husband. Once the bleeding stops, we should take the ritual bath and re-establish our prayer. There are no specific instructions regarding home confinement or what we should or should not do during this period, yet the special role of a woman as a mother and the significance of breastfeeding the baby, as well as the importance of preserving our health, all support the idea of post-partum rest. It is also a custom among many Muslim societies for a woman to spend her post-partum period at home, being taken care of by her mother, mother-in-law or other female relatives, refraining from housework and focusing on bonding with the baby. Actually, it used to be the norm everywhere that women would spend the first weeks after giving birth resting and recovering. After all, the wellbeing of the mother is consequential to the wellbeing of the baby and should be treated with equal importance.
From my experiences, reading Kitzinger’s book and of course from my deen, I know that post-partum rest is my right, not my invented whim – and there is also no one way of doing it right. One thing is sure, you are already a Superwoman by bringing a new baby into the world – you don’t need to prove it by giving up your post-partum rest. This is the time to regain your strength and of course, enjoy this precious time with your new baby.
Klaudia Khan is a mother of three lovely daughters, alhamdulillah, trying to find the time to write whenever the three of them are asleep.