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I never sent my baby to the hospital nursery, and I’ve always regretted it

For years, my husband and I gave our pregnant friends one vital piece of (OK, unsolicited) advice when their due dates got within spitting distance: When the nurse asks if you’d like to send the baby to the nursery, say yes. If you don’t, you’ll regret it.

I was speaking entirely from my own experience. After a crazed gurney ride to the OR, an impromptu slice-and-dice, a case of the shakes and some fumbling over the whole boob thing, the day was winding down and a nurse came in to ask if I was ready for bed. I totally was, so I said yes. After that she asked if I’d like to keep my brand-new baby in her cozy Tupperware bassinet in my room.

Because she asked it in a way that made it clear it wasn’t really a question, and because I was woefully young and not at all practiced in telling people what I really wanted, I meekly agreed. It turned out to be a terrible idea. I didn’t sleep at all, my incision killed, and I was wracked with guilt for wanting a night just to curl up and die until morning.

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“It’s OK,” my husband told me the second night, while we were sleepily teamworking a clean diaper onto our infant as quietly as possible, both of us exhausted. “This will get easier when we get home.”

It did not.

If you have a child, you probably already know why: The learning curve is steep, fast and filled with booby traps. I immediately regretted not taking the time to rest when I had it, which is why I so often turned around years later to urge my friends to do it. It doesn’t mean you’re a bad mom or that you hate your baby. It just means you might need a little shut-eye after the phenomenal, kind of terrifying and physically traumatizing experience of giving birth. Take it while you can!

Obviously, I don’t give that advice out anymore, mostly because after watching said friends give birth — sometimes literally — I was clued into the painfully obvious fact that motherhood is not a one-size-fits-all experience. My regretting something didn’t mean someone else would feel the same way. Some people want to room-in, because everyone is different — and that’s OK (thanks, Sesame Street)! It’s nice to have choices.

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Which is why it’s so disappointing to learn that as hospitals begin to embrace the WHO’s Baby Friendly Hospital Initiative, they do so in a way that removes those choices.

Massachusetts, for example, is just one state of many that has been slowly restricting or shutting down access to hospital nurseries, because according to the initiative’s “gold standard of care,” babies must be in the immediate vicinity of their mothers in order to encourage exclusive breastfeeding. It’s this key goal that has also seen the disappearance of formula samples from nurseries and hospital supply rooms all over the country.

In the Boston Globe‘s piece on the way that hospitals migrate away from these once commonplace standards, there’s a particularly troubling glimpse into what happens when hospital staff attempt to arbitrate when moms should and should not be allowed to reject rooming-in:

“Hospitals say they do of course allow for exceptions, particularly for medical reasons and if a mother is so exhausted she can barely function. And the level of strictness varies.

Sometimes nurses struggle to ‘identify that breaking point’ when it’s time to take the baby and ‘avoid the meltdown situation,’ said Liz O’Mara, a nurse manager at Yale-New Haven Hospital, which delivers 5,600 babies a year.”

This is the gold standard of care? Being allowed to recover from a major bodily strain or even surgery in a hospital but only once you’re at a “breaking point?” It seems to me there are very few other patients in the rest of the hospital that would need to meet a baseline of “too exhausted to function” before someone gave them the care they requested and paid for.

That just seems wrong. There’s plenty of discussion to be had about what’s best for babies, about encouraging breastfeeding and allowing for closeness and being responsible when it comes to marketing formula. None of these things are bad on the surface. In fact, they can be great and should be easily available as options for the moms who want them.

But babies don’t appear out of thin air. They require gestation and delivery, and usually that involves another person: a mother. She is also the very same person who will be expected to hit the moving target that is society’s expectations of “good motherhood” and more than likely bear the brunt of childcare for the next 18 years of that baby’s life.

Shouldn’t we just check in with her really quick and make sure she’s OK before we tell her that step one in good mothering is relinquishing any sense of autonomy because she just doesn’t know what’s good for her? Do we not owe her just a little more than to be seen as a babymaking and feeding machine? And if she says, “I really need this one night to recover,” isn’t that worth listening to?

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I would not have a baby-free night for two whole years after I went home with my baby. I know because my entire life was made of numbers during the fog of her babyhood. Four days into my daughter’s life my milk came in. It was so painful I went through one bulk box of Puffs to stem the flow of tears and snot.

Two days later, I went back to four classes and two jobs — six weeks earlier than my doctor recommended. Ten days after that, I had 19 staples removed, numbers 20 and 21 having been torn out by accident the day before.

Two hours and 30 minutes was the average sleep time I got each night for three months, which were always divided into thirds: work, homework and baby. The number 692 is how many days I struggled with postpartum depression, and on the 728th day of my daughter’s life, I finally got a night to myself. The entire time, I could not stop wishing I could have had back those two little nights in the hospital.

Of course, the nurse who asked me that condescension-saturated question back when I most needed to be cared for and not judged had no way of knowing those things about me. But isn’t that the point?

I knew them, and I knew I needed a break that night. And while my refusal to take one is on me, it really sucks to know that if I had to go through it again now, there would be even fewer choices.

Before you go, check out our slideshow below:

Incredible birth photos
Image: Marijke Thoen

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