In her latest movie Tully, the normally glacial Charlize Theron plays a new mother driven to distraction by lack of sleep, support and sanity.
In an attempt to be the best new mum-of-three she can be – a directive that comes from outside as well as in – Theron’s character Marlo eventually withers to a wild-eyed, exhausted husk.
That is, until her brother gifts her with a night nurse (Tully, played by Mackenzie Davis) whose job it is to look after the baby so that Marlo and her husband Drew (Ron Livingston) can get some sleep.
It’s a critically-lauded film with an interesting twist, and it’s brought to light a service that’s not widely used by Irish families.
"I'd never come across the service before, and no one I know had ever had a post-partum doula," explains Yvonne McMahon who lives on the Navan Road with her husband, Conor, and three-month-old daughter, Alison.
“Because I planned on feeding her myself, I felt I probably wouldn’t get the full benefit.”
Yet, when Debbie, a doula from DoulaCare Ireland arrived for Yvonne's first 24 hours at home with Alison, the extra pair of hands soon proved invaluable.
“She helped us unpack stuff and get organised,” recalls Yvonne. “I wasn’t having the best experience with breastfeeding so she helped me get in touch with a lactation consultant. It wasn’t easy to find these things out on my own so the recommendations were great. I was able to shower and even get a few naps in, and she would send us off to have a cup of tea or a sandwich.”
Gillian Barry can also relate to Theron's overwhelmed mother. The Dubliner was working as a sales/marketing consultant when her second son Ollie (now 3) was born. As he grew older, he developed silent reflux, a distressing condition that made lying down for the infant difficult.
“We had a lot of sleepless nights until Ollie was 14 months,” she recalls. “We didn’t really have family support either that we could rely on in Dublin. And with the eldest (Matthew, now 5), we realised that if you’re exhausted as a parent, you’re a bit more snappy with him and get gets less quality time.
“Even if you’re not working, being up for 14 or 15 hours during the night can take a toll on someone and on a relationship. So we looked into getting a little bit of help two or three nights a week, depending on how demanding work was.”
Gillian called the Belgrave Agency in Rathfarnham, Dublin and met with Suzanne Lawlor, a maternity nurse with several years' experience in paediatric and maternity hospitals. At Belgrave, a maternity nurse for a single baby is €15-17 an hour, or €18-22 per hour for multiple births.
“Not only was she used to babies with reflux, she was also a hive of information, in terms of what helps,” says Gillian. “Yes, it was an expense, but an essential one at the time. It made us able to do the other nights, if anything.”
As Suzanne explains, maternity nurses often do shifts from 9pm to 7am. Much of the work involved is helping babies establish a sleep routine. If Mum is breastfeeding them, a bottle of milk is either expressed last thing at night, or Suzanne brings the baby to Mum for a feed during the night.
And, of course, much of the role involves offering reassurance to anxious new parents.
“[New parents] are kind of frazzled and constantly doubting themselves,” she says. “Mostly, they want to know they’re going in the right direction. Older parents have had a totally different life, and now everything has been turned upside down. And with younger parents, their friends are out partying while they’re at home with a newborn.”
Mary Tighe is the co-owner of DoulaCare Ireland, an agency that dispenses postpartum doulas around the country to mums in the first few weeks of parenthood. The service costs €30 an hour plus a €10 travel fee.
“We differ from a maternity nurse in that our focus is to enhance the connection between mum and baby,” she says. “So we would sit with mum while she feeds baby, bring her nourishing foods, and when baby has finished feeding we would indeed let mum get rest while we change baby and settle them to sleep. We try as much as we can to help mum to get a good night’s sleep. We help by making sure there are no other tasks mum will need to do (cook dinner, put a wash on, tidy house) by doing that for them.”
Many of DoulaCare’s clients are couples who aren’t from Ireland and have no family support, or older couples whose elderly parents are unable to help with child-minding.
“Usually Irish women – well, we like to be polite, so I hear a lot of ‘I don’t want to be putting you out’, but our doulas really prefer to get stuck in.
“We remind parents that a new-born isn’t hard-wired to sleep through the night,” she adds. “So many parents believe that if their baby isn’t sleeping all the way through, they’re doing something wrong. But they feed little and often, and this is okay.”
Gillian used the service to exact some balance: “It was really important for us to have relationship time,” she says. “Some nights, we even just sat down and had a glass of wine together.”
A restorative 'date night' might feel indulgent at best, and anathema at worst to many new mums (want evidence? See how Kylie Jenner was pilloried online for going to the Coachella festival a few weeks after the birth of her child).
Perhaps bogged down with the ages-old conceit that the traditional Irish mammy is an entirely selfless and self-sacrificing creature, parents have previously been slow to uptake the services of a maternity nurse or postpartum.
“I think we are very bad at asking for help as new parents,” concedes Gillian. “There’s that typical mum guilt, and ‘oh, I should be the one looking my child’, but we just put such crazy expectations on ourselves rather than admit we need help. And I was a much better mum when I got the sleep.”
The pressure to look like a born natural, via social media or among other mums, she notes, is a real one.
“It’s a pity there’s not more camaraderie among new mums, and it would be great if we could stop that crap of ‘we can all do this’,” she adds. “Women who lie about their children sleeping through the night – why are you making it harder for everyone else?”
While hiring a maternity nurse might seem like a luxury that’s the sole preserve of the very wealthy, it’s fast catching on with stressed mums and dads desperate for a full night’s sleep.
“I’ve noticed lots of people, like friends and families, now clubbing together to give new parents a few nights with a maternity nurse,” says Suzanne.
“While a lot of clients are people who’d have the money to take on the service, others are just average people saying, ‘we’re not going on holiday this year, so we might as well invest in ourselves’.”