Saturday, February 23, 2013

First embrace

DURING one noontime lull, I watched people on the streets scurry to shelter from the sun.

Summer is here. When I was a teen, summer always meant surfeit: oversleeping, overeating, overreading.

During one school break, though, friends taught my sister and I how to ride a bike. Scared of losing balance and falling, I was encouraged by the observation that once learned, biking can never be unlearned.

My current research at Cebu City health centers seems to indicate that this summer will be teaching another life skill to many Cebu City teens.

I wonder if, like biking, parenting is a talent learned for life.

Many of the mothers I interviewed at the health centers of Basak San Nicolas Brotherhood, Basak-Pardo, Labangon and Tisa are not yet out of their teens, with the youngest giving birth at the age of 15.

Nearly all of the teen mothers interviewed are not married to the fathers of their babies. Many of the teens who were in school continue to live with and are supported by their parents. Out-of-school girls usually cohabit with their partners. If their partners are jobless, teen mothers find work.

In-school teen fathers continue with their studies. Many meet other girls and move on with their life.

Motherhood, though, makes a high school student cross, willingly or not, prepared or not, the threshold dividing girls from women.

Even if her parents can afford to provide for her needs and that of her baby, motherhood alters the rhythm of a young mother’s hours. If she has dutifully gone for pre-natal checks and immunization visits with her baby at the nearby health center, a teen mother will know that she ideally should exclusively breastfeed her baby for the first six months.

That means that for the first half of her baby’s first year, a mother is the sole source of nutrition for her child. No water, no vitamins, just milk from her own breasts that she will nurse with, express, pump, store, hoard and give her child whenever and wherever the baby feels hungry and demands. In the mall, in a crowded jeepney, while hearing mass. This is the first perfect equation: a hungry infant, a mother and a pair of nursing breasts.

This total dependence of another human being on oneself can overwhelm even a woman who is older and more mature. Yet I heard several teen mothers say they will resume their high school studies only after they have exclusively breastfed their babies for six months. One said she will choose night high school with its shorter hours so she can continue to breastfeed her son during the day.

When students of mine got pregnant, I always questioned the school policy to let the student go on leave, to return only after she gave birth. I defended an expectant mother’s right to continued access to education, specially as she will soon be solely responsible for another person who is even more helpless.

Yet, I now see the wisdom of a teen mother’s decision to take a leave from studies to focus on being a mother. It is not only the first six months after birth that is crucial for mother and child.

According to the government’s Essential Newborn Care protocol, initiated in 2009 to improve infant survival by as much as 50 percent, a newborn must be placed prone on the chest or abdomen of her mother within the first three minutes of its life.

This is called “Unang Yakap,” the skin-to-skin contact that is for both their “first embrace”. This continued contact can cue the newborn to latch on and start sucking a nipple. The teen mothers learned during visits to the health center that the “watery” milk initially produced is colostrum, unmatched by formula milk for its richness in antibodies. They also learned that the more they nursed their babies, the more milk they produced. This is the second perfect equation.

This coming summer, the teen mothers I met won’t have endless days to go out on gimmicks with friends or learn a skill like riding a bike. I don’t suppose they are missing much.

( 09173226131)

*First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Feb. 24, 2013 issue of the “Matamata” Sunday main op-ed column

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