New-Mom Guilt Starts the Second the Baby Is Born

A baby
A baby Photo: Photographer:khunaspix/suriya silsaksom

The question of whether to “room in” with your newborn — to keep the baby in the hospital room with you overnight, or send it to the nursery — is the latest battleground in the mind of the American parent.

It’s a debate that swells up every so often and is back in the news now that some U.S. hospitals are closing down their nurseries in an effort to “encourage” mothers to keep their babies bedside.  

Here’s a scene, a pretty common one: Less than an hour after my daughter was born via C-section (she was transverse; I had preeclampsia), my husband, our daughter, and I were loaded into the hospital room that would be ours for the duration of our post-op stay. It was a large-enough room, with a bed for me, a little pullout chair for my husband, and a rolling stand for the baby to sleep in, which was fitted with a clear plastic tub that I can only describe as a salad-bar bin.

At no point during our extremely short stay — Zelda was little more than 24 hours old when we were discharged — did I leave her side. My husband and I made jokes about her being switched out with another baby. During our tour of the hospital a few months before her birth, the guide had explained their stance: At a “Baby-Friendly Hospital,” she said, “parents are encouraged to ‘room in’ with their newborns rather than sending them off to the nursery.” Sounds great to us! I thought. But this was before I knew about the C-section. I was, it turned out, slightly worse for the wear when Zelda was taking her first look around.

I’ll never really forgive myself for two things that happened during that one-day hospital stay. The first is that we played Iggy Azalea’s “Work” for our daughter, making it the first piece of music she ever heard, and the second is that I never sent her packing to the nursery. Between my husband and me, we’d probably spent a total of three hours between us with an infant our entire adult lives, so every single diaper change, every snort and hoot from her corner was a two-person job, at least — sometimes, in the case of swaddling, we needed backup from the nurse. No one got any sleep, and when we went home the next day, we were exhausted.

Only a few months later, once the smoke had cleared, did I really begin to wonder why I hadn’t opted for the nursery. It’s not that anyone told me not to use it, but American mothers place high demands on themselves. This is part of the reason behind the vigorous and, let’s be honest, sometimes vicious debates over things such as sleep training, breast-feeding vs. formula-feeding, making our own baby food vs. buying it, organic vs. non-organic, and yes, even whether it’s okay to send our newborns to the nursery so we can get some much-needed rest. Because let’s be clear: All of these debates boil down to the tension between what’s best for the baby and what’s best for the mother — and when it’s framed that way, the mother almost always loses. It’s an especially American (i.e., non-French, non-European) way of sacrificing self for the better of others.

Does this kind of self-sacrifice really pay off? The evidence is mounting against it: American parents are some of the most unhappy in the world, and studies suggest that our children are suffering in some ways, too. We don’t have a crisis on our hands quite yet, but it’s worth considering that our way isn’t the only way.

For now, the CDC reports that “rooming in” is the norm in only about half the hospitals in the U.S. And no one is arguing that the practice isn’t a positive one — if it’s what the mother wants. But we can and should continue to argue on behalf of freedom of choice, rather than simply replace one top-down, one-size-fits-all approach for another.

Every baby is different — that’s what you hear when you first become a parent. And that’s also true of every mother. But what most of us have in common is that we place a lot of pressure on ourselves to put our children first. We probably don’t need the hospital to do that, as well.