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'golden month' book summary

I bought this book a couple of years ago, on a weekend when I was feeling a bit low about the lack of support women were getting postnatally. My immediate postnatal ‘Golden Month’ journeys had long ended, but I continue to hear from women who just aren’t getting the support they require.. Sometimes even the most basic aspects. 


I wasn’t feeling particularly full of energy myself that weekend either, so got some comfortable and cosy clothes on, snuggled up on the sofa and while my husband took the children out for a run around, I made one of my huge mugs of tea and sat and read… and read… and read. I found myself nodding away and loved what I was reading.


I revisited this wonderful resource again recently and thought I'd share my thoughts with you all, so that you can get an understanding as to why I think it’s such a valuable read.


The author, Jenny Allison, explains that ‘the care of mothers after childbirth, is of considerable importance (…) it is the key to a fulfilling Motherhood, parenthood, family and community life. (p.7) Rest, nourishment, support and positive regard for a new mother builds a strong foundation and prevents a thousand ills.’ (p.8).


In the introduction (p. 13-21), Jenny talks about what ‘Postpartum’ is: ‘a unique period of transition, a rite of passage, a period which is crucial to the mother’s health and wellbeing and can have long lasting benefits not only to her health and relationship with her newborn, but more widely to her family and community as well if she receives the right support and care.’ 


The ‘Golden Month’ is explained further with examples from cultures around the world, where women see ‘postpartum care of the mother as a right, not a privilege’. 


Following my own lived experience, work I have done with couples over the past several years and ongoing research into this field, I have come to realise that postpartum care is somehow still seen as a luxury instead of something which so many other countries around the world see as essential to a woman’s immediate and long-term health both physically, emotionally and mentally. 


The author confirms this when she states that ‘the care of the mother has become a neglected aspect of postnatal care in Western society and that the postpartum has been called the ‘Cinderella period’ by midwives who are concerned at the current lack of awareness of its importance.’


Before going into more detail of this period, Jenny explains that ‘a key message of this book is for women to listen to their own needs - emotional and physical after birth. [However,] It is not easy to do this in a society with time and performance pressures.


In Chapter One, (p. 22-35), Jenny talks more about modern biomedicine and Chinese medicine in the postpartum journey. ‘Postpartum’, the author explains is ‘sometimes referred to as the ‘Fourth Trimester’ - something you will have heard me talk about over the years - she goes on to explain that it’s ‘an important phase whose culmination is the woman’s return into society as a mother.


Some interesting information on hormones is also mentioned in this chapter, including:


  • The brain’s ability to uptake serotonin is decreased after birth, and it can even take a year or more to return to normal (…)

  • Prolactin and cortisol initiate milk production (…) Cortisol is produced in the adrenal glands. It is a useful response to danger but if it remains high after the birth (…) while the body is still weak, it is as if the body still perceives danger to its survival and keeps over producing ‘fight or flight’ cortisol. High cortisol is associated with blood clotting, memory loss, weight gain, poor immunity and an increase risk of depression.

  • Oxytocin is a neuromodulating hormone which produces feelings of calm, trust, connection and generosity. It can dramatically help enhance feelings of wellbeing (…) it also enhances the efficiency of the mother’s digestion and helps her to absorb nutrients well. 

  • ALL of these hormones, serotonin, dopamine, cortisol and oxytocin are disrupted by stress.


‘Structurally, the body is changed after birth, whatever the means of delivery.’ (p.25) This is SUCH an important fact to understand. However a birth happens, whether vaginally or with a c-section, a woman’s body changes. If women don’t realise this or understand why, how on earth can they  know what support they need and deserve? How can they know where look for that support  either? Here are just a few of the changes Jenny mentions in this chapter…


  • Ligaments around joints are still soft due to progesterone.

  • Fluid balance, blood volume and flow, which depend on the heart and kidneys, need up to six weeks to normalise after birth. The heart can take up to several weeks to reach its pre-pregnancy output. 

  • During pregnancy, blood flow is faster and the heart is pumping more blood to maintain blood flow to the placenta. After birth, the mother maintains only her own circulation (…) which means a lower blood volume resulting in sometimes making them vulnerable to circulatory problems (…).


In Chinese medicine, ‘it is important to pay attention to the whole body and mind as one.’ Body and mind working together is something I also talk about in my birth preparation and birth refresher sessions, using KG Hypnobirthing.


The author also discusses 3 concepts in Chinese medicine which are described as ‘The three treasures of health’: Jing, Qi and Shen. Some keys points from these three points are listed below:


  • Jing: The deepest source of energy which runs through generations and is therefore very precious. Stored in the lower abdomen and relates to the kidneys, adrenal glands and the reproductive organs. A classic way to rebuild lost Jing is to rest without thoughts (meditation, mindfulness). 

  • Qi: Creates warmth, movement and flow in our bodies. To avoid cold invading the body, including the joints and digestive system, a mother needs to avoid cold water and cold food and being exposed to cold wind and draughts. Qi is also necessary to build blood. Blood is the foundation of breast milk. Two circulatory pathways pass across the breast, the pathways of the stomach and liver.

  • Shen: Manifests as the shine in our eyes. The spirit, intelligence or consciousness. 


In Chapter Two, (p. 36-43) the author discusses the benefits of good care of the mother including it giving ‘a sense of wellbeing, strength and pride in herself.’


‘Investing time and effort in [a mother’s] recovery benefits the family dynamic in the long term and helps to create a healthy family culture of respect and regard for motherhood.’


Jenny brings up the term of ‘bonding’ and quotes Mary Gordon from the book ‘Roots of Empathy’ where Mary says: “The development of the baby’s brain hinges on a complex interplay between the genes she was born with and the experiences her parents surround her with. In the first three years of life in particular, there are critical periods during which her brain is “wired” through the sensing pathways of touch, vision, hearing, taste and smell…


‘Healing’ is another key term Jenny talks about and says that it is ‘one of the “three golden opportunities” in Chinese medicine, when women can actively improve their health in the long term. The other two are menstruation and menopause.’ (p.41)


In Chapter Three, (p. 44-80) the ingredients for good care are discussed, which include rest, massage and warmth, social support and food. Below are some key aspects for each of these essential points that are mentioned in this book.


  • Rest: Giving birth is sometimes compared to running a marathon. (…) but birth has unique demands on the body and mind that go beyond a marathon. When the body needs to recover, resting with not cause weight gain. On the contrary, it is the chronic stress that comes with not resting enough that causes weight gain, due to abnormal cortisol levels and adrenal fatigue. A lack of rest during the six-week recovery period of the postpartum creates physical stress on the mother. This means the adrenals cannot normalise after the birth and the body stays in ‘fight or flight’ mode.


  • Massage: Massage stimulates a mother’s circulation with no energy needed from her. In some countries around the world, mothers are massaged daily in the postpartum. Massage s always applied with warmth and can help remove the sensation of ‘emptiness’ after birth and restore a feeling of strength.


  • Warmth: Warmth stimulates the release of oxytocin while the cold stimulates adrenaline and suppresses oxytocin. When the body is depleted after labour, it becomes easily chilled. 


  • Food: Focus on nutrient-dense foods as there is an increased nutritional requirement during recovery and breastfeeding. Foods should be warm not cold in order to support the circulation and the movement of blood to areas which need healing. When digestion is devitalised by cold, there tends to be bloating and sugar cravings. 

  • Importance of protein = a building block for the body and mind and also an ‘emotionally grounding’ type of food.

  • Bone broths are a one of the primary postnatal foods.

  • Good quality carbs are the basis of cellular function giving energy and help to raise serotonin ( a feel-good neurotransmitter).

  • Other postnatal essential minerals are iron, magnesium, calcium and zinc.

  • An increase of sugary products showed a correlation with higher rates of postpartum depressive symptoms. 

  • Fats and cholesterol are important in the manufacture of hormones as well as in brain health.

  • During the golden month, the benefits of a meal cooked and served by caring friends and relatives go far beyond its physical nutritional value. 


In Chapter Four, (p. 81-92) Jenny talks about the concept of ‘Mothering Mothers’ which is a vital aspect of postnatal care.


The author states that ‘it is well known that social support is one of the biggest determinants of public health in general’. (Wilkinson & Pickett, The Spirit Level p.277) ‘This is especially true for the health of new mothers (…) and social support after birth may be even more important than the outcome of the birth. 

On page 83, the author talks about two Anthropologists, Gwen Stern and Laurence Kruckman who, in the 1980’s, proposed that there was a correlation between certain components of the social support women receive after giving birth, and improved mental health. Recognising the mother’s new status lowers their stress response which normalises cortisol levels and strengthens the nervous system and the immune system. Therefore, this becomes an obvious strategy for healing and emotional transition. 


The author continues in the pages that follow on this topic of support by saying that if the support feels imposed in a way that the mother feels constrained and she feels in conflict with the rituals of her tradition, then it is not useful support. 


p. 88, The father or partner’s support is crucial to the success of the golden month. The golden month is an opportunity to strengthen all relationships in the family and the community around it. 


‘Being able to depend on others when in need is just as much a virtue as being independent. (p.90).


In Chapter Five, (p. 93-130) we can read more about mothers’ experiences from around the world and it definitely makes for an interesting read. Not least to make us realise how much more targeted, bespoke support there is for women at this transitional time of entering into motherhood, compared to what we have sadly become accustomed to in Western society.


Examples of stories from other countries included:


  • Mali: Wash the mother and baby with traditional herbs, massage the mother with shea butter and traditional herbs for the first 40 days, eat honey to cleanse the stomach, chicken soup, fish soup and eggs to be eaten.

  • India: Massage and a special sweet dish called ‘panjeeri’ for the first 40 days. Men’s role is to give emotional support as well as practical support.

  • Romania: Stay warm, keep out of draughts and eat chicken soup.

  • Samoa: Family support, chicken soup, wrap a ‘lavalava’ around the mother’s waist tightly, this brings everything together and brings the ‘bad blood’ out. 

  • Druze (Northern Israel, Lebanon and Syria): Postpartum tea with warm walnuts, cinnamon and other warming herbs.

  • Colombia: keep warm always to conserve energy after the birth and to keep a good blood supply. 


In the final chapter, Chapter Six, (p. 132-138), Jenny speaks of the Postnatal challenge we have today and explains that the purpose of the golden month is for mothers to benefit from the care of the family, community and health system so they can recover after birth and re-enter society in good health. However, she goes on to specify that in order for this to happen, the postpartum needs to be recognised as a critically important time for women and their social, physical and emotional health.


To end this book summary, I’d like to say that navigating motherhood isn’t easy, at any stage of the journey, but what can make it easier on some days, and more enjoyable, is having people who ‘get’ you around you, people you can lean on, laugh with, cry with, people who know and understand you and who understand the journey you’re on. 


We need to find the balance between an ever evolving world where everyone wants everything ‘now’ and the traditions of caring for ourselves during vulnerable and transitional times. Becoming a mother is one of THE most important, pivotal and life-changing times a woman can experience. Why would you want to go through it alone? Why not let others who have come before you share their knowledge, experience and traditions to make your experience as good as it can be? As good as it should be. As good as it must be. 


Becoming a mother is all encompassing, it changes us to our very core. Yet, if we don’t understand these changes or we fight against them, how can we flourish in our new identity and demonstrate the value and importance of motherhood to our children? Children who are watching and learning from us from the very beginning of their lives.


We all have a duty to talk about motherhood, learn from one another, share our strengths and struggles openly so that those coming after us will realise what an utterly incredible rollercoaster of a ride motherhood is.

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