Our culture loves BIG EVENTS. Graduations, weddings, the birth of a baby, even funerals to some degree. A big event has meaning and typically marks some kind of important transition. Big events are rituals that mark a change from one time in your life to a new one. And there’s nothing wrong with that. However, in our rush to partake in said events, we often forget that major life transitions aren’t specific events but extended periods of life – often weeks, months, or years – that require extra support and understanding.
This is a big reason why I became increasingly interested in focusing on women beyond childbirth. I had clients and friends who had great, empowering birth experiences only to go on and develop postpartum depression that lasted months. Which isn’t to say that a positive, empowering birth experience isn’t important; it absolutely is. But it’s not the end of the story – it’s the beginning.
I – and a lot of other people – have come to the conclusion that in the United States we’ve forgotten how to take care of women in the postpartum period. There is a lot of hype around pregnancy and even birth, but as soon as the baby is out attention shifts to him or her and Mama is left to process an entirely new world full of different roles, social expectations, everything. And one-third of them in the U.S. are doing so while also recovering from major abdominal surgery.
I believe people want to be supportive, but it’s one of those traditional practices that somehow got lost. There is a great article from the Daily Beast titled “Why Are America’s Postpartum Practices So Rough on New Mothers.” The article gives a brief history of postpartum practices in the United States:
“For the length of the “lying in” period, as it was called, the new mother would rest, regain her strength, and bond with the baby as her womanly attendants kept up the household. Several of these ladies would be relatives, and others not; none were paid, and all expected to be similarly cared for following their own deliveries. Then, in the 19th century, the last free land was settled, and everyone retired to her own room.”
And this type of support continues to this day in a lot of other cultures, in one form or another. In more traditional cultures it’s often similar to the model above, but some European countries provide support through public nurses that make regular house visits in the postpartum period. I don’t know exactly what it would look like in modern America, but we need something. Currently, 1 in 7 new mothers in America experience postpartum depression, and it’s not just stressful for mothers but for their babies, partners, and any other children they have too. The problem is so widespread that new updates were just released last week suggesting increased depression screening during the perinatal period.
Since we don’t have a tradition in place right now, I think we simply have to ask, “What do you need?” Some women are touched out and need you to hold a baby for an hour while they catch a hot shower and eat a warm meal. Other women just want to snuggle their babies but would love an offer to pick up groceries so they don’t need to leave the house. (No joke: The best baby presents we ever received were toilet paper and dish soap.) But I’ll tell you what postpartum support should not look like: A new mother having to host a never-ending party of visitors playing pass-the-baby while mama runs around trying to refill coffee mugs in between loads of laundry. And I’ve honestly heard stories of women having just that experience. Unacceptable.
There are also increasing options for moms in the United States with postpartum doulas. Postpartum doulas are a great option for some women, but I don’t think that postpartum doulas are a complete support team in and of themselves. First of all, most postpartum doula services cost $20 or more per hour, which is not financially viable for a lot of women. Second, I think it’s important during this postpartum period for women to be establishing their support system of friends and family that will follow them into motherhood, and postpartum doulas offer services for a limited amount of time postpartum. So while postpartum doulas can be a great resource, they do not replace the support of your long term sisters.
So, I’m trying to be a better sister to the women in my life as they welcome new babies into their families. Life is often hectic with two kiddos under four, so I oftentimes drop the ball, but at the very least I try to drop off a meal. Meals are wonderful support for new moms. A meal is food that they don’t have to 1.) grocery shop for, 2.) prepare, and 3.) clean up pots and pans after. I typically just do a double batch of something that I’m making for my family, so it’s really minimal work on my end. I was planning on taking a meal to a friend with a one-month-old baby yesterday, but I was finally struck with the cold that my boys have had for the past week or so. And if there is one solid rule to postpartum visits, it’s “Don’t visit when you’re sick.” But the shepherd’s pie, rolls, and curried lentil soup are packed carefully away in the freezer, waiting to be dropped off once I’m feeling better.
Lastly, better support for postpartum mothers is a cultural issue that is far reaching. I don’t want this blog to be just about motherhood, but I think this issue is relevant because all of us, whether we’re personally mothers or not, know many women throughout the course of our lives who do choose to have children and could therefore benefit from wider social support during the postpartum period. I would love to hear how you were supported during your own postpartum experience or how you’ve supported the women around you.