Hours after giving birth to Prince George, her first baby, in 2013, the Duchess of Cambridge found herself standing on the steps of a hospital clad in clingy light blue frock with a full face of make-up and a perfect blowdry, presenting herself and her new child to the world’s gathered press.
As the flashbulbs popped, what must she have been thinking? “I don’t think I can stand any longer in these heels,” perhaps (for the uninitiated, it’s pretty hard to walk in flip flops for the first few days after birth, forget four-inch court shoes). Or, “What if I drop the baby?” Which first-time parent hasn’t graphically imagined this tiny wriggling infant suddenly slipping from their grasp, falling five foot onto a cold, hard floor? Or, maybe: “Why won’t the baby latch on? I’ve tried every position on that damn breastfeeding video. It looked so easy in theory!”
Of course, Kate might quite reasonably have been wondering how long it would be until she could sack the royal stylist who decided a pastel blue dress was a good choice for a post-partum photoshoot – pastels! – or whether the camera angle would pick up the enormous pants made of netting and nappy-like pads catching the torrent of blood and possibly leaking urine going on underneath? It’s remarkable what feats of physical and emotional endurance that flood of oxytocin can get you through.
We were expecting to see the whole sad spectacle repeated once again this month. But we won’t, because Meghan Markle – who is likely to go into labour within the next fortnight – has turned her back on this pointless performance of parenting perfection.
Just days before the anticipated arrival of their child, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex have confirmed that they intend to keep the details of the birth private. So far, royal photographers have not been invited to capture the first moments post-birth. In fact, the location of the forthcoming event has not been revealed at all. Markle has decided against the famous private Lindo Wing of St Mary's Hospital, and there’s even speculation she’s may be opting for a home birth instead.
Well, good for her. Whatever she’s decided, her actual birthing experience will probably bear little relevance to the birth plan she’s lovingly drawn up. (Why NHS midwives still make first-time mothers go through this futile exercise I have no idea). But one thing the Duchess of Sussex can control about this whole complex, emotional process is who she allows to see her new baby and when.
If she doesn’t want us, her royal subjects, to know anything about it for a couple of weeks, then that’s her right. And if she does decide to stay away from the cameras for some time, she’ll be setting an excellent example to future mums.
Those strange hours and days post-birth, when day and night blur into one drowsy amorphous mass, are discombobulating for both new mothers and their partners. It is stressful, exhausting, sweaty, grimy, tearful, awe-inspiring, wonderful and awful. It’s a bodyshock – and no amount of wealth or privilege can protect you from that. The best way to get through it all is to go to bed, feed the baby, rest and quietly start getting to know the new member of the family.
The problem is that our parenting culture seems to demand the opposite. OK, so very few ordinary women are expected to meet the paparazzi with a groomed face and gleaming barnet shortly after birth, but you don’t have to be a member of the royal household to feel the pressure to post polished Instagram and Facebook updates with cute “welcome” pictures and detailed birth stories; to share names, weights and first outfits; even to play host, welcoming guests into the home to meet the new arrival almost immediately. Performance parenting now starts while the umbilical cord is still throbbing.
An old fashioned term for the post-birth period, which still sometimes crops up today in legal documents such as those governing maternity leave rights, is “confinement”. When I first heard this term when I was pregnant I considered it ludicrous, archaic, even sexist. But confinement is actually exactly what new mothers need.
Many cultures protect this ritual. In China, for example, it’s known as the “sitting in month”, during which a post-partum woman isn’t expected to do anything apart from, well, sit. And rightly so. It might not look like a mother who has just given birth is achieving very much, but feeding a newborn and rearranging the organs of the human body back to their original place after nine months shunted up and down is work enough.
In Britain, as elsewhere in the West, we’ve seem to have lost our respect for that sacred period of quiet reflection and recovery. Celebrity magazines heap praise on film and pop stars for “bouncing back” after birth, as they are snapped out shopping or lunching with tiny newborn slung to their chest like baby kangaroos.
Families demand flying visits to “meet” an infant who may not even wake up during their two hour tea-and-cake pit stop; much less often are they able to offer real, extended support that would allow a mother to catch up on sleep. And although shared parental is available to anyone who is in employment, the reality is that the majority of that time is still taken up by mothers with new dads still taking an average of just two weeks paternity leave or less. Mothers may feel have no choice to put a brave face on it and present themselves to the world, even when they are not ready.
But they do have a choice. And Markle’s brave decision to shun royal protocol – if that's what she's chosen – in favour of slouching down in giant net knickers and tracksuit bottoms, nipples out and smothered in lanolin, is a great lesson in how to ignore the pressure to perform.
Giving birth is hard enough. Thank goodness someone has had the guts to tell the royal household that they won’t be playing along with the pretence that it’s effortless too.
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