Postpartum & Our People
By Fareeda Munir
Childbirth: A journey like no other from conception to delivery and beyond. The “beyond” meaning postpartum. Mothers deal with aches and pain from erupting a human being into the world:- the perineal stitches, caesarian stitches, the breast engorgement, sore cracked nipples, pelvic pain, muscle pulls, joints, neck, shoulder, back, vocal chords …bless mothers! So because mothers need a stress-free postpartum experience, everyone gets onboard to help out. Contrary to intention, the unsolicited advice is actually stressful. It is fine to offer help and leave it up to the mother to decide what works for her. But to impose one’s idea is a problem mothers have to unnecessarily deal with.
Well wishers know best.
Traditionally, when pregnant with few weeks to deliver, women go back to their parent’s home to give birth, because of the comfort of familiar faces for postpartum care. In modern times, women prefer to stay in their matrimonial homes, and rarely do they go home for the forty-day period called arba’in. After birth, we know how to show love! Hospital rooms get packed with friends and family and the crowd keeps trooping in long after mom and babe are back home.
Occasionally, some guests get a little pushy about what they think is best for mother and child. For example, even though the room is quite warm, a guest will ask the mother why the baby is not dressed warm enough and why a window is open. Before the guest leaves, she insist mother wrap the baby up in a thick shawl and cap. She will tell the mother that the breeze is not good for the baby. Guest leaves and another arrives. New guest will say it is hot and stuffy, and tell the mother to open the windows. Then new guest will take off the cap and get a lighter shawl because the baby might get heat rashes. Then another guest will tell the mother that it’s okay to turn on the air conditioner, while another will demand you turn it off. And it goes on and on.
Different eras & different opinions.
Yes. Everyone is entitled to the their opinion, but some also feel entitled to impose their opinion. Even when the opinion is from the sixties and the advice may stem from cultural views. Imagine the variation when there are over two hundred and fifty ethnic groups in Nigeria. What’s even more frustrating is when a mother is not allowed to express her opinion based on different cultural background (or lack thereof), reference to recent medical facts, or simply her own preference on how to take care of her child.
For instance, old school parents still insist that vaccinations should be done at seven in the morning and that the baby is given a fever/pain reducer before and after the vaccination. To state fact or even mention what doctors recommend TODAY is followed by criticism and a speech about how the young don’t listen to elders.
The conservative conversation.
Then enter the herbal/traditional guest who will always suggest the soaked barks and medicinal leaves. They will emphasize that their ancestors way is the way to go. Some will bring up aphrodisiacs and tightening herbs because at such a time, the husband comes first. (lol) (lol again) This is where it is suggested that the mother sit in hot water to “fix” herself, even when the mother tries to explain that doctors order was not to take a bath (sitting in tub of water) for six weeks. In most cases, salty water is preferred for “tightening” purposes. But should one dare to rebute such ideas, mother will be scolded for being too modern and stubborn.
I told a middle aged lady about perineal cold pads and she almost lost it. According to most, heat keeps you “intact”, so applying anything cold is a no-no. She asked to see one and she examined it with awe. She said that it was preferable to sit in hot water or apply heat to stitches. I’m like, whyyyy? Stitches already hurt. Why apply heat when you can have cool soothing sensation to numb the pain. She, of course, stared at me in disbelief. To her horror, I also told her it’s allowed to eat ice and chill in the AC, and I know she felt sorry for me. Again, it all comes down to preference. However, some doctors recommend sitting in warm water, and I met mothers who agree it relieved their pain.
Apparently, the baby’s feeding is everyone’s business too. The pro-baby friendly group will wag that finger and insist the baby is fed breast milk ONLY. The rival group, the anti-baby friendly crew, will say it is wicked to deny a baby water and make sure the baby is given a drink in their presence. The mother’s opinion? Nah, no such thing. In some ethnic groups, even the mother’s movement is restricted. It is recommended (or slightly forced) for mother to stay home for forty days, unless it was absolutely necessary to go out (medical, emergency, etc). A cousin told me she never followed that rule, because she had university exams shortly after giving birth to her daughter, and she was back on campus within a week.
Still on feeding, Mommy is fed lots of HOT food and drinks. All. The. Time. Every guest will remind you to eat lots of hot food. (This is sweet though. Whoever reminds you to eat is a sweetheart) Hot food, temperature-wise and spice-wise, is the recommended diet. Hot millet drink infused with high lake salt potash water is believed to make the mother’s milk come in a lot. Spicy food does something I cannot remember right now. But they say it’s good. These days using salt potash (kanwa) is discouraged because of the high salt content that could lead to high blood pressure. Some elders and traditionalists don’t wanna hear that though.
Hot Postpartum Baths
There is also the controversial “jego” bath, which is the very hot postpartum bath mothers are suppose to go through for forty to forty-two days. For some cultures, it is about five months. It is done in the morning and evening. There are two methods: towel bath and darbejiya leaf bath. A bunch of medicinal darbejiya or neem tree leaves on small branches are dipped in hot water and patted on the body.
The towel bath is the preferred method because it absorbs more heat and it’s easier to press on to the body so the hot water can “roast the bones” and “keep the cold out”. In this context, roasting is good. It is said to put the bones back into place. Any proof? Well, no. It seems like our people are not so big on written proof and research, so they just go by word of mouth. After all, their ancestors did not perish, so it’s legit.
Basically, you either hate jego baths or love it. Those who praise the bath say where a woman suffers from high blood pressure or burns, then the bath was not done properly. However, there are numerous cases of women fainting and hospitalized after jego baths. It depends on the intensity of the hot bath and whether or not a professional is administering the bath.
The hot towel is also pressed against the belly to help flatten the bump. I was told, by a lady who did jego baths, that men don’t like “tumbi” big bellies, and I replied, “Then how come they keep theirs?” Again, I received a pitiful stare and an awkward laugh followed. Jego baths vary though. Some families or ethnic groups use cool water for their postpartum baths. Some use lukewarm water for the baby’s bath. It really depends on the tribe and family. These days, young women opt out of wankan jego. The higher the literacy rate, the less likely a woman will agree to harmful traditional practices.
No pain, no gain.
Africans are the flag bearers of “no pain, no gain”. I. Kid. You. Not. Apart from being scalded by hot water, traditionally, the new mother will be confined to a warm room heated by coal. Of course the risks involve fainting and getting burnt, but according to culture, heat to the bones and keeping the cold out comes first.
But wait! Mommy is not the only one to get the heat treatment. In order to ensure a newborn will grow to be strong and healthy, that delicate cute newbie will be dipped in hot water to “strengthen the bones” and “also keep the cold out”. The word “gasa” roughly means to roast, which is suppose to heal or ripen the body. So forty days of baby “gasa” will ensure good health in the future.
Enter the umbilical cord patrol. They will keep asking if the cord has fallen off. As if there’s a prize awarded to the baby that drops it fastest. A spoon is usually heated then pressed around the belly button, in order to heal the stump and somewhere inside the belly. Some families use their fingers or rag over coal, then they press on the belly. According to tradition, this prevents belly ache in newborns. Newborns are also made to sit in hot water in a bucket, to heal the cord area. If only they understood that the cord always always falls off. Most importantly it is not a race.
Among other mai-jego gems: don’t pick up the baby when she is crying her lungs out, don’t always hold him or he’ll get used to it, don’t offend anyone by asking them to sanitize their hands, feed the baby with formula milk because breast milk is never enough, shave off her hair for better hair, don’t circumcise him now, wait when he’s older so he’ll know the pain, don’t disagree when your in-laws insist on a particular practice, don’t disagree with your momma, the reason you now have a baby is because she raised you, and what not… “it is the way of our ancestors”.
Something else I noticed, these postpartum debates usually stir up trouble between spouses. In most cases, the husband’s family feel entitled to dictate how the jego goes. The idea is based on the fact that a woman marries into a family. So in situations where the wife has different preferences, the husband may either choose to defend his wife and offend his family, or defend his family and offend his wife.
A friend’s mother narrated how her mother-in-law insisted that a concoction be applied to her baby’s fontanelle in order to fix it. It upset the mother-in-law when her husband stood by his wife. The small gap on top of a newborn is normal to ease the baby’s passage through the birth canal, and it will eventually close up on its own. But some cultures apply herbs or drink concoctions to “close” it up, thinking it’s a deformity. This is why education is crucial!
So the dear dear aunties and grannies will swear that they are healthier and younger looking because they went through wankan jego. Never mind that they won’t mention the eclampsia, hypertension, fainting, infections, and the occasional deaths due to wankan jego. Not once will anyone ask what the mother wants. Sadly, to disagree is to be defiant, no matter how politely you decline or how sweetly you smiled in silence with horror in your eyes. However, it turns out that today we have it good. We can nod and agree but go on to do what we want to do, or simply say no, with the risk of being labeled controversial or stubborn.
Back in the days, you had no say whatsoever. Your baby was taken away from you and brought back only for breastfeeding. Then you might receive a baby who’s belu (uvula) was removed or face marked by zaneh (tribal scarification). And because you’re not allowed to question what, when, where, how, and freaking why!!!, a lot of mothers do not even know the reason for unnecessary cultural procedures.
For instance, after birth, when the uvula is removed, the girl child has something removed from her privy. I’ve been asking around what exactly that “something” is, and up till today, no woman can specifically tell me exactly what that particular “something” is. Some say it’s female circumcision, some say it’s hymenctomy, and others will argue it is female genital mutilation. The Hausa procedure is called “chire belun gaba” or “angurya”. If I am guilty of being a pushover guest, this is the issue! “Don’t let anyone violate your daughter’s vagina!” In time, I will share what I learnt about this procedure that is shrouded in so much mystery.
There are more unnecessary harmful practices in other parts of the country depending on the tribes and region. Education is always an advantage for better decision making. We also need courage to speak up against what we believe is wrong. A cousin lost her baby in the nineties because “elders” insisted on herbal remedies for her sick newborn. She was not allowed to go against their decision. When the baby got too sick, they finally agreed to take her to the hospital where she was diagnosed with jaundice. It was too late for her.
I’ve heard about mothers contracting infections from sitting in hot water. I also once heard about a cesarean section patient who had been applying hot water on her stitches to heal it. Inevitably, she was rushed to the hospital because her stitches fell apart and her insides were coming outside. Perhaps there is some wisdom in the heat therapy, herbal remedies, and unsolicited tips. However, there should be limits when it becomes unhealthy, unnecessary, and unsafe.
As much as we are communal (because it takes a village to raise a child), please be less overbearing to a mother. No need to make mothers feel inadequate. Knock out the scowls, judgmental looks, the gossips, and let downs. Approach a mother with compassion and make her feel comfortable. Have a mature discussion and learn from one another: “Oh really? How fascinating? Is that based on the latest research? We had something similar when I used to have babies. Which scientific journal did you read? What’s your source? It’s working fine for you? How lovely. Yes, that was quite archaic. Oh how civil it is to learn, unlearn, and relearn.”
Like I mentioned earlier, the more educated a woman, the less likely she will be forced to do what she doesn’t want. As for me, I just stopped answering questions. I will change the topic or leave the room. I’ve also learnt to analyze in seconds how educationally exposed a person is before engaging myself in certain discussions. And when I hear something ridiculous, I really try to control my facial expression.
In conclusion, just smile and nod, ladies, just smile and nod. When everyone leaves, then do whatever the heck suits you based on reasonable logic and safety.