Lynette’s first baby was born at home and like her antennal period, in her first six weeks antennally she was attended by her knowledgeable, caring and ever-respectful midwife. However the visit by the local community health nurse heralded the start of a different approach.
I birthed my son on a swag on the living room floor on a Sunday afternoon. By 4 pm our midwives had gone home and a friend had already dropped a warm meal off for dinner. Our midwife Meryl visited our cocoon daily for the first amazingly blurry week with our little one. Monty was lightly jaundiced and didn’t feed properly for the first 24 hours. The care we received through the local Homebirth Service ensured that we felt comfortable with the choices we made during this time.
We were informed of what was considered 'normal' feeding, advised that there are many variances from the norm, and informed of what is not normal so we would be able to recognise it. The feeding sorted itself out. We waited for Monty to get more interested and attach properly. We waited without fear, with the knowledge that he was still healthy and may just need time, with the knowledge of the type of advice we may have received in another setting and with my confidence still intact.
When Meryl visited she would ask us about his colour - had it changed, was it better or worse? Again the jaundice passed without fear, not because we were passively told that he would be alright but because we were informed of what 'alright' meant. If Meryl came by when he was feeding, the feed was never disturbed for any assessment. His sleeping was respected and he was never woken to be weighed or measured.
Unlike my antenatal care, during this time it never even occurred to me to tidy the house for Meryl's visits. If she came when I was weepy with my boobs hanging out, then so be it. I am sure that this comfort came from having seven months of home visits where we had the chance to get to know each other and having her with me for the birth of my son.
I got mastitis in week two. After an agonising night I went straight to the doctor, came home with my standard script for antibiotics and called Meryl. She came around later with Robyn (another experienced midwife and breastfeeding expert) and they spent two hours of their evening in my living room talking us through all things breastfeeding. On leaving, Robyn told us that we would have a new baby in 72 hours. I thought this was a huge statement, but, sure enough, things changed. He fed more efficiently, was always full and satisfied, stopped getting stomach upsets and was more settled.
My mastitis cleared up (without the drugs) and we all got more sleep. By six weeks our life with Monty felt settled. By my last meeting with Meryl I didn't have any questions left other than the petty, "When will his rashy face clear up?" Although I missed our weekly catch-ups I felt confident enough as a parent not to have our visits anymore. It was at this stage that I was visited by the local community health nurse.
I was greeting her at the door when she stopped mid sentence, said, "What's going on in here?" and squeezed past me into my living room. I didn't understand, so I explained that I liked to have my son sleeping close by, which is why he was on a low futon in the living room. She was referring to him sleeping on his stomach. She began a SIDS-safe sleeping lecture before even asking me if I was aware of the risk factors for SIDS. I was gobsmacked that there was a stranger in my home who had assumed my ignorance and was now berating me. When she was done, we sat and continued the box ticking. Somehow I let her convince me to wake my baby so that she could perform a physical examination. He screamed the entire time and I was annoyed at myself for letting it happen.
I fed him while she handed me flyers about other services and fought back the tears while she imparted some anecdotes about improbable ways that she had heard of babies dying. I was relieved when she left. A month after my son's birth I began attending an informal group discussion of parents of babies up to eight weeks old, facilitated by two community maternal and child health nurses. I only had a few friends with babies and was lacking parenting role models. The explosion of information was overwhelming.
There was talk of 'dream feeds', 'expressing', 'settling techniques' and heaps of products and devices, none of which had ever occurred to me but seemed to be central to baby ca re. It was at one of these sessions where I first spied a disposable breast pad. I had been given a few lovely organic washable breast pads that I used when feeding and had taken to folding little squares of muslin in my bra when I was out. I was always leaking and when I asked people about this problem they would say, "Do you use breast pads?" and I would say, "Yes" . I was shocked at my ignorance but pleased with the discovery.
I walked out of these sessions with more anxiety about mothering, having heard so many different ways of doing what had seemed so much simpler before the influx of advice. Overall I enjoyed being able to meet other women who had also just become mothers. Although I found the manner of the community health home visit inappropriate, I appreciated having a local drop-in child health clinic close by. I used it a number of times in the first six months and attended a parent support program for new families there.
The sessions consisted of four different speakers from government and non-government organisations. I appreciated learning paediatric CPR from the ambulance service but I didn't need to hear his stories about horrible injuries that he has treated in infants. I appreciated the water safety talk and the five free swimming lessons (to be used when bub was six months old) however the DVD of distraught parents talking about their toddlers who had drowned felt unnecessary.
It seemed that every introduction to services that promoted safe parenting was preceded by a healthy dose of fear. In my vulnerable state as a brand new mother I found it overwhelming and confusing. Who were they trying to convince? My protective instinct over my new baby was more powerful than I could ever have imagined. I didn't need the horror stories to convince me to make safe choices for my new family. 1 was also highly emotional and found it distressing. I attended all six sessions.
I am quite analytical and sceptical about most of the services that I attended, it is in my nature and I am also training to be a health professional myself. When my husband came home from work I would say, "The maternal health nurses were handing out free dummy samples and talking about giving formula to fussy babies at six weeks." The services, in general, were pretty good, just probably not for me. Overall I found them invaluable, mostly because I didn't have anything else to do or anywhere else to go.
I had only recently moved to Darwin when I became pregnant so didn't have many friends and the way I used to spend my time was too hard with a baby. I felt pleased waking up on a Tuesday knowing that the program was on because I had something to work towards ... getting out of the house and being somewhere at a certain time. It sure beat staring at the fan going around. Being a new mum was isolating and bouncing around free services for new parents stopped me from going stir crazy.
Even though I am now secure and settled socially in Darwin I continue to attend many of the government and community activities for families. The morning teas and various events hosted by the Childbirth Education Association (CEA) and the Darwin Homebirth Group were an excellent way of meeting people and this is where I developed my wonderfully supportive friendship base. I feel lucky to have started my mothering journey in a place that is so supportive of new parents. I had access to health care when my son was sick, regular child health check-ups (if I had chosen to take him), a huge amount of early parenting support and information about other services if required. It was easy for me to get involved in a couple of active community groups.
As my son gets older there are more and more activities and events that are enjoyable for me and fun for him – Story time at the library, 'Fun bus' (free toddlers' activity sessions in the park), the local pool, kids discovery sessions at the museum, mums and bubs yoga at the CEA, the toy library. I know that this is unfortunately not the case for many families who do not speak English or do not live in town and for many other reasons. This is a shame because I know that having access to continuity of care though pregnancy, birth and postnatally, along with access to early parenting support, was essential for me navigating through the most difficult yet fulfilling time of my life.