“When I had my 1st, we were told to have him lie sideways, my mother said rubbish! By the time I had my 3rd 5 years later, science had caught up with Igbo traditional wisdom, and I was told to have him sleep on his back! I am a big believer in science but science is constantly evolving, it’s not perfect.”
Omugwo is the Igbo term for traditional postpartum care, where the mother of the new mom, or a female relative, comes to take care of the mother and her baby.
Chika Unigwe had shared a brief story on Twitter, about her mother’s support before and after the birth of her children. So, The Body Conversation spoke to the writer and professor about postpartum care, family support and motherhood.
The images document her journey from childbirth to recovery: we see her protective mother caring for her and watching over her first baby; the last photograph shows her and Unigwe’s third child, five years later. Many Igbo families have pictorial records of such important moments, while others exist through reflections and memories.
The Body Conversation: The other day you shared an incredible story about how you were supported by your mother during and after the birth of your first child. My favourite part of that story was how she stood on guard during your son’s birth, and how she wouldn’t let you do a thing! Considering the stereotypes of motherhood many new moms are expected to perform—this idea that a mother must care and attend to her newborn and must put his needs first before hers; did you, at any point, feel any sort of guilt when your mother took over with caring for your baby?
Chika Unigwe: No. Not one bit. I was glad for the help, and it made her happy, so it was a win-win. In Belgium, you spend 5 days in hospital if you have an uncomplicated vaginal delivery. My mother (and husband) were there every day and at night, the nurses took over so I could sleep (all I had to do was call, if I needed help). My mother always says that a woman who’s just given birth has only just returned from a trip to be ndi mmuo and one who’s crossed the figurative 7 rivers and 7 seas to visit the dead and come back alive deserved rest. I didn’t feel an ounce of guilt, at all. She made me traditional Igbo soups, tied my stomach with a towel etc to help with returning the uterus to its pre-pregnancy size. When I returned home, the pampering continued. When she left, after 3 months, my parents-in-law who had been waiting impatiently, took over. S had a cot at their house, bottles, baby bath, clothes. By the way, she didn’t just do this with my 1st. She took her omugwo duties very seriously.
TBC: Ndi Igbo still practice the Omugwo culture, and the presence of mothers and mothers-in-law help many women with their postpartum mental healing. However, some women sometimes slip into depression and our mothers, some of whom have limited understanding of the condition couldn’t do much to help, despite all the domestic and moral support they offer. Is postpartum depression a thing in Igbo culture? Do we have a word for it? How would you describe postpartum depression in Igbo?
Unigwe: I cannot think of a word for postpartum depression in Igbo, and I have often thought of it. Our culture is one that cannot conceive of a new mother not being happy, especially one whose circumstances are ‘ideal’: husband, supportive family, financial well-being etc. It must be confusing to both those who suffer from it and those looking after them who are ignorant of it and who cannot imagine that it’s a thing. You know, a lot is made in the west about bonding with your baby in the first few minutes or whatever of life. In Igbo culture, that bonding is expected to be innate. The fact that you carried that pregnancy means that you’re expected to be happy and joyous and grateful. And when depression manifests itself, and what people around you see is you being sad, it is confusing for them.
Igbo, for all its sophistications, tends to lose its ability to be nuanced when it comes to describing emotions. It becomes very much like biblical language: you either love or you hate, you’re either happy or sad (there are no gradations, no grey areas). A lot more work needs to be done, urgently and intentionally, to get more nuanced about emotions and create spaces where we can name (and thereby acknowledge) postpartum depression and other mental health challenges.
TBC: In your Igbo Conference talk, you mentioned that your mom described the novel coronavirus as Alu kwo nwa n’azu, a well-known Igbo saying.. I still can’t get that powerful description out of my mind, particularly because it literally means “a curse with a baby on its back” and figuratively as double trouble. What do you think that saying portrays of the Igbo sentiment towards mothering and child care?
Unigwe: I don’t know that that saying is the right one to illustrate Igbo sentiment towards mothering and child care because I think that there are lots of other proverbs that speak more directly to the role and responsibility of mothers in Igbo traditional life. For example, a well-trained child is a compliment to the father, an ill-behaved one is the mother’s; the only one that knows the true father of a child is the mother and so on. These proverbs point to the fact that in Igbo traditional worldview, raising a child is considered as primarily being the mother’s duty. Fathers were supposed to hover around in the background, hopeless at changing diapers and feeding the baby. Thankfully, these days, men as much as women are putting in the work needed to raise their children.
TBC: I often think that many men would be more supportive post-childbirth if they witnessed the birth of their children. They would understand the woman’s possible mood disorders if they have an idea of the toll childbirth takes on the body and the mind. In Aba, where I lived, nurses do not allow men into the maternity ward until after the woman has put to birth. Do you agree that men participating in the child bearing process would affect how they perceive mothering and how they treat mothers?
Unigwe: I am shocked to hear that there are places, even now, where men are not allowed to witness their partners giving birth. Why ever not? I cannot imagine a new father being denied that. What I have heard—and I also struggle with it—is that some men don’t want to be present at the delivery of their children for whatever reason.
However, I do not believe that one needs to have witnessed a birth to be supportive of a new mother, particularly if you are in a relationship with that mother, particularly if you witnessed the nine months leading up to the birth, particularly if you are the father of that child. Men are not Thomas that must touch the wounds of Jesus to believe. One is supportive because one cares not because one has witnessed the mother of his child scream through hours of labor. There are many who do not feel the pain at all because epidural keeps them pain free. Do their partners think they need less support? I think the men who are not supportive post-childbirth are not influenced by the fact that they were not included in the last hours of a multi-month process, they are just insensitive, selfish, ignorant, or douchebags (pick one 😊).
TBC: One of the things I always looked forward to after the birth of my children was the elaborate meals my mother prepared for me—the ofe nsala packed full with chunks of meat and azu mangala, pounded yam, palm wine, even roasted chicken. But there were limitations to the other things I was allowed to eat, lest, as my mother said, they affect my babies’ metabolism and spoil something inside them. Did you observe all those rules, or do your people have a different perspective to postpartum healing?
Unigwe: As a bad and reluctant cook, I look forward to eating food made by people who cook well. I often joke that that’s why I married J. J He’s a brilliant cook. One of the perks of having my mother visit was that she took over the kitchen and I ate more Igbo food than I would usually have. She made me ofe mmili oku with ingredients that simulated uterine contractions and got me back to my pre-pregnancy shape pretty quickly. She also made me soups to “wash out the womb.” I ate whatever she gave me, and I didn’t miss what she didn’t. I remember dropping in on a Nigerian friend during one of my pregnancies, and this friend had made jollof but she apologized that I couldn’t eat it because it was “too peppery, enough to induce a pregnancy.” I also know that the postpartum soup my mom made me isn’t to be eaten during pregnancy because of the contraction-inducing spices
TBC: And then, there is this rule that a mother must sit on a low, wooden stool for three months. The idea was (and, I think, still is) that this posture would help gather the pelvis together. Also, the lower belly is massaged with hot water to help in her postpartum shedding, so that her uterus will heal and return to its previous position within the pelvis. Are you aware of these? I am interested in what other Igbo women think about this practice.
Unigwe: I have a lot of respect for our traditional methods because I am a living testament that they work 😊. Seriously though, like I said in my tweets, my mother raised 7 children, loves us all unconditionally, and so I trusted her. I ate what she swore was good for me, allowed her to take care of me and my infants, even when her ways clashed with the opinions of the society I was living in. It’s been a vindication to see that society begin to catch up to her ways. When I had my 1st, we were told to have him lie sideways, my mother said rubbish! By the time I had my 3rd 5 years later, science had caught up with Igbo traditional wisdom, and I was told to have him sleep on his back! I am a big believer in science but science is constantly evolving, it’s not perfect. In the areas in which our ancestors’ mothering and childcare methods have persisted and have been shown to have no adverse effects, I am happy to stick to them.
My mother had me squat in the bathtub every morning while she pressed my stomach with hot water; she tied my stomach with a towel or a piece of cloth everyday (I think I untied it to go to bed) and now, I see that stomach binding is a thing new mothers are encouraged to do in some American hospitals; she encouraged me to rest. When I couldn’t breastfeed. She told me it wasn’t a big deal, what mattered was that the baby was getting fed.
TBC: Any advice for pregnant women as they begin their life at mothers?
Unigwe: Do not be afraid to ask for help. Talk to your healthcare provider, your partner, your support network.
Accept whatever help is available and is on offer. You will be a parent for a very long time, you will have all the time to bond with the child, so take whatever time you need to rest and recuperate.
Do not work yourself into a state trying to make everything perfect, babies don’t need perfection. They thrive on love (they don’t care that the dishwasher is not loaded; that the pram is second-hand; that the windows are not cleaned).
It is normal to be afraid. I was so overwhelmed by the idea that J and I, both in our 20s, were going to be responsible for another human. How could we when we slept through alarm?. I remember thinking, what if I was left alone with S and I forgot to feed him? It is normal to question, no one has all the answers.
Most of all, remember, ogadimma. Everything will be alright. All the new parents you think are doing a good job are also mostly winging it.
Chika Unigwe holds a PhD from the University of Leiden, Holland. She is the author of four novels, including On Black Sisters Street and Night Dancer. Her short stories and essays have appeared in various journals including The New York Times,The Guardian, Aeon, Wasafiri,Transition, Guernica, Agni, and the Kenyon Review. Her works have been translated into many languages including German, Polish, Hebrew, Italian, Hungarian, Spanish and Dutch. A recipient of several awards, she sat on the jury of the 2017 Man Booker International Award and is the director of Awele Creative Trust, an NGO she set up to encourage creative writing among young Nigerians.
Her collection, Better Never than Late, is available here.
Images © Chika Unigwe.
Author photo credit: woman.ng