The Baby Matrix

15 Oct

Yesterday I was reminded again why the world needs feminism. Why everyone, men, women, children do. And how it is sometimes hard when you start seeing gender in everything and how it permeates so many facets of lives and absolutely every facet of reproduction and child rearing. And how difficult it is to make someone – who does not see the world this way – understand without him or her accusing you of exaggeration.

But let’s start at the beginning. Yesterday, I went to the hospital to visit a baby. Not just any baby, my boyfriend’s sister’s baby. Which, by extension, is something like my niece and I am very proud. She is the tiniest baby with the most hair in the world. As I stood watching her, it seemed like she was singing to herself while she kept touching her face, not understanding that her hands and face all belonged to her. She is incredibly cute and adorable, obviously. However, I cannot be sure if she was already, like I suspect, singing Yellow Submarine to herself because I didn’t hear any sounds coming out of her mouth. Why is that? Because I could only see the tiny human from behind a glass wall and I wasn’t able to touch her. Do I suffer from the Plague or any other contagious disease which could potentially be fatal to newborn beings? Not that I know of.

The hospital I went to look at the baby was a Hungarian hospital. Hungary has a pretty advanced health system in terms of the actual treatment, proven, for example, by the fact that gazillions of Austrians and Germans come over the border every year for dental treatment because it is good and cheap.

But when it comes to newborns, what I saw yesterday is this: the mother, after the birth, is normally put in a room with one or two other mothers in the maternity ward. The maternity ward is a no go area for anyone who is not a mother, a baby, a doctor or a nurse. This means that you cannot visit the mother in her room, for reasons that evade me. If you want to see her, she has to come out. I guess one of the reasons is that the mother can get some rest and is not subjected to strangers visiting someone else in the room when she doesn’t feel well. However, this means, that a) the mother is totally alone there with no family or support to comfort her (the mum I visited told me she couldn’t stop crying when initially she was totally alone in a room and that she appreciates the presence of another mother now so that she has at least someone to talk to) and b) for you to visit the mother, she actually has to come out at the maternity ward. Yesterday, there were about five other mothers standing outside the maternity ward in a hall which had two iron benches and a snack machine and lots of crude lighting. All of these mothers wore night or hospital gowns and some additionally carried around their urinary catheters in a plastic bag. Now that is the state in which you want lots of strangers to see a tube carrying your pee emerge from between your legs, right?

But even worse than that, for me, was that the mums were not allowed to bring the babies outside. So there were five little ones in tiny beds on wheels propped behind the glass door for relatives to watch them and take pictures and make baby noises. The most positive hospital memories I have (well, the only positive ones) are from visiting friends and family with newborns. You sit around their bed, you marvel at the tiny hands and feet and their funny grimaces. Everyone takes turns in holding the baby and remarking how much it looks like Uncle Michael when he came out. You might wipe away a tear when you witness older siblings seeing their younger brother or sister for the first time, carefully stroking their head and then doing it again for the camera. You help the new mum with adjusting to this new life a bit, by reassuring that you are there, that you will be there through all the poo and baby vomit and sleepless nights ahead and that her baby is indeed the best, cleverest, most beautiful, funniest human being on this earth, the bullet that killed Kennedy.

None of this was possible in this hospital. And the very worst part, the thing that just put me over the edge, was that it was not even possible for the dad. Indeed, the person who actually took part in making the baby was not allowed to touch it either! He was allowed to stay in the delivery room with the mother for two hours after the birth and from then on he could only see his newborn child through glass. If there are minor complications during the birth which cause the mother to be very weak afterwards and prompt her to need a lot of rest for a couple of days during which she is unable to care for the baby, the baby’s father is not allowed to stay with his baby, not even during the day. The baby is cared for by the nurses and will, in that case, have little physical contact with anyone.

For the sake of completeness, in this hospital, it was  possible to pay for a private room in which the parents of the baby could stay together. So rich dads get to care for their newborns. In this room, however, no other visitors could be received either.

This experience was disturbing on so many levels I couldn’t believe the gender stereotyping and the sexism that this system manifested. I was outraged on behalf of all the fathers that had to look at their baby through glass not being able to hold and fed them and sing to them. On behalf of the mothers who had to go through the humiliating experience of carrying around their pee in front of twenty people they had never seen before. On behalf of the baby who should be able to experience physical contact from both their parents, as it is proven to be important to their development and well-being, particularly right after the birth and during the following days. And on behalf of them both for the obvious institutionalisation of gender roles and ideas on how child rearing should be organised and who should have a say in it. Mum stays in and cares for the baby, dad goes out to celebrate the arrival of his child with a couple of drinks (because, what else could he do, not being allowed to be at the hospital?), showing up every day with flowers and good words but not actively being able to help. Now many people only spend two days in the hospital, but with complications, it can easily amount to more than a week in which a baby can only be seen behind glass. I was appalled by the paternalism this whole system reeked of, telling grown up women that it is their and only their obligation to tend to their babies needs and that they mustn’t let anybody else touch the precious offspring (offspring which were totally healthy and, if it weren’t for the complications because of which the mum had to rest a little longer in hospital, would long be home and cuddled by friends and family).

For me, this was such an obvious manifestation of sexism and symptoms of antique gender stereotypes in a country in which a man is entitled to a grand five days of paternity leave and in which the paternity leave can only be shared after the child turned one, the constitution calls the family the ‘fundamental framework for community, in which the pre-eminent values are loyalty, faith and love’, and Fidesz (the governing party) politicians refuse to call domestic violence by its common Hungarian name (translated as violence in the family) because the family is a cozy sacred nest of peace and cannot be besmirched by associating it with anything negative. A country in which a member of parliament for the government party physically assaults his wife in such a severe manner that she ends up in hospital and, when asked, explains to the bewildered nation that his wife tripped over the pet dog. And a country iwhere another Fidesz member of parliament claims the reason of domestic violence is the fact that women don’t make enough children in order to be respected within the family and calls upon ‘ladies’ to produce two, three or four children ‘as a gift for the fatherland’ before  they ‘can fulfill themselves and may work at different jobs’.

But I am told that sexism has no influence on this particular case, on how maternity wards are organised and on the rights and obligations of mothers and fathers there. I am told that the reason are practical issues, or maybe corruption (that the hospital wants people to pay for private rooms) etc. I see how it can be hard to associate a specific case with a broader, systemic issue of society. I am not claiming that other issues are not also at work here. But it is frustrating to try to explain something that is so obvious to you to someone who just totally doesn’t see it. It makes me feel like in the sexist matrix. And it is easy to be told or to even feel like a fundamentalist, to feel like the one crashing the party when everyone else just wants to admire the baby (from far away). But these things are interconnected. How should dads and mums get a sense of child rearing as a shared responsibility when a newborn baby gets cut of basically any contact between themselves and their father in the first days of their life? How should couples arrive at the conclusion that they both have to tend to the physical and emotional needs of this tiny person when one of them is prohibited from doing so by the same institution which patronises them and puts their baby behind glass walls? And how should new mothers not feel left abandoned to the child-rearing tasks in a place where they are physically, actually, alone? All these are leads for and expressions of greater societal persuasions, convictions held by a majority that see a division of household/child-rearing labour and gaining employment and financial support of the family for women and men. They manifest themselves everywhere in the world, on all levels, in law and policy, as well as in the cribs of tiny humans.

How are maternity wards organized in your country? Can dads come and visit or even stay overnight? Are visitors allowed to see the mum and  baby in their room?

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5 Responses to “The Baby Matrix”

  1. Leola October 16, 2013 at 8:57 am #

    Great article! In Costa Rica it depends on the birth. If it was a natural birth, the baby stays with the mom after the initial check ups (no more than an hour) and the dad is there during the birth and for the first hour after that. They will all ideally leave the hospital after 24 hours of the birth. During that time, dad, family and friends can visit the baby during visiting hours, next to her bed, one person at a time. According to my friend who is a doctor in one public hospital and works on this area, the main concerns are space (they are sharing rooms with other women), infections, and believe it or not, controlling things as people bringing illegal substances to the mother!

    If it’s a Cesarian or there were complications, the mom goes to recovery and the baby to the neonatal section. In there, the dad stays with the baby for as long as he wants. Once the mom is out of recovery and in the maternity ward again, the same rules apply as above. In both cases, for as long as the mom is in the maternity ward, the baby is always with her.

    So, still not great as the dad is treated as a visitor (except in neonatal) and not as the equal partner that should be there with the baby too. It’s probably, as you said, a combination of space issues and the unimportance given to the role of the father during these important first moments.

  2. Mahareth October 16, 2013 at 10:36 am #

    So this is what I heard from German public hospitals (might vary a bit from hospital to hospital, but I heard it from several people and it matches my experiences from when I visited friends with newborns): normally, you share a room with one or two other mothers but, depending on the capacity of the hospital. Given the fact that Germans are not overly enthusiastic when it comes to making babies, one might also be given a single room. You can also have a private room in which the father can stay with you if you have an additional insurance or pay for a so called ‘parent room’ (the figure I was given for a parent room was about 50€ per night but can vary). The problem is that it can not always be guaranteed that there are enough vacant rooms for the couple to get a parent room even if they want to, which sucks. The babies are in the same room as the mum by default and can be given to a nurse in case the mum needs rest and can’t sleep with the baby in the room. However, my friend said that in her case, she was told it should be an exception because the physical contact between the parents and the baby is so important. Visitors can access the room during visiting hours (there is no restriction on how many people can be in the room at once, I guess you can complain when you are sharing a room with someone whose visitors disturb you too much and then it depends on their goodwill and/or the authority of the hospital staff). The visiting hours also apply to the dad in case they don’t stay in a parent room and the rules might be more or less strictly enforced depending on whether the mom is alone in the room or shares it with others. If the baby is premature, the parents can be with the baby in front of the incubator (no idea if the father has to leave after visiting hours though). During both natural births and (non-emergency) c-sections, the fathers can be in the same room. After a c-section, when the mum cannot hold the baby immediately herself, the baby is put on the father’s belly/chest to receive immediate physical contact. Again, this might not be the same in every hospital, if anyone knows more or has had a different experience, that would be interesting.

    • LaLuz October 18, 2013 at 3:07 pm #

      What a fabulous article!! It’s hard to compare to the situation in the US bc the situation is so incredibly different state to state (and often hospital to hospital, even within one city). My personal experience was fabulous — private birthing room, private recovery room, grandparents and friends allowed to visit, children next to my bed unless I requested they be taken to the nursery (so that I may get some sleep). My husband slept on a couch at my feet the whole time — I didn’t have to get out of bed until I chose to. (Ok, fine, they made me get out of bed to get the circulation moving. But not because of a poopy diaper). I felt unbelievably safe and very… individual? The nurses new my name and the names of my children and an entire cadre of nurses from the labor and delivery side (not the recovery) stopped by to wish me, my husband, and our twins farewell before we left.

      That said, I know that we’re lucky enough to live in a medical-facility-dense area of the country AND that we have good insurance. I have no idea what the situation is in rural and/or poor parts of the country. A hospital near to the one I gave birth at is renowned for its incredibly good emergency response (I would have been forced to go there if I had given birth to the twins prior to 28 weeks) and that they give free care to the poor (one of the basic tenants that the hospital was created under) but it’s known for being caustic and business-like — in and out, a number.

      The babies-behind-the-glass thing was common in the 1960s and prior (maybe later in some areas?) but is unheard of now. My dad was allowed to be with my mom during the birth of all my siblings and me (ranging 1964 – 1980), though my mom did have to share the recovery room for everyone but me (but not the birthing room!). Creepily enough, though, my mom was given scapolamine during the 1964 birth — creates a walking blackout effect so my mom didn’t remember that she gave birth. She was never “asleep”, but has no conscious memory of the event either. Just woke up to a baby boy. And I think therein lies ANOTHER topic of discussion: the patronizing assumption that women are too hysterical to be able to handle childbirth. If that was the case, fellas, the human race wouldn’t have MADE IT to the 20th century when all this medical nonsense was created. Nope. We hacked in the backwoods brush, we can hack it in a plush hospital. It’ll hurt. But it will get done. (Says the chick who was medicated up to her eyeballs during the latter half of the experience…) I know the women-are-fragile-flowers assumption is shifting quickly here, and everyone is moving toward the “less medication is better” approach, but… it still exists.

      • Mahareth October 18, 2013 at 3:25 pm #

        That’s also fascinating, the expectations that society has on HOW women ‘are supposed’ to give birth. In Germany, I would say that there is a pressure to give birth with as little medication as possible and people might look at you funny if you insist on more meds or even a c-section (says the person who has never given birth). I just read an article about it on how many women allegedly pretend that they have some medical issues that require c-sections because they are so scared of a natural birth, but don’t dare to straight up ask for a c-sections (apparently only 2% of all pregnant women do) and how doctors need to be sensitise to talk to their patients about their fears more. Someone should right a blog post on this… 🙂

  3. Dora Vargha October 19, 2013 at 10:15 am #

    this is a particular hospital in Hungary, I think I know which one it is. the funniest thing is (of course, not haha funny) that they advertise themselves as a “baby-friendly” hospital. I gave birth in a different one, where visitors were allowed to come into the ward, although out of respect for the roommate, we met on the corridor. theoretically visitors, including fathers could only come during visiting hours (two hours per day), but in reality, during the day fathers could be around however much they wanted to be. This meant that I could catch up on sleep, and my partner could spend time with the baby as well. On the downside, following a C-section I was secluded to the ICU ward for about 18 hours and I could not be with the baby. nor could anyone else, my son spent the first day of his life on a shelf. I kid you not. a shelf, where they keep the babies in the maternity ward when the mother is away. my partner (non-Hungarian) tried to visit our son and he was thrown out of the maternity ward – only I had the matching bracelet with the baby. the reasons why it doesn’t even come up to supply the father with such a bracelet is exactly for the reasons you mention in the post.

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