I was chatting with my friend Ashley about her best friend’s wedding. There were parties to organize, dresses to buy, rehearsals to attend, registries to fill, and Ashley was feeling guilty that, due to her busy schedule, she wasn’t able to be more helpful to the bride.
I couldn’t help but contrast the level of support moderns brides expect with the support most new mothers receive: a lot versus none. Why should this be? Don’t get me wrong. I love a wedding, but it’s a party. New motherhood, on the other hand, is one of the biggest transitions a woman can experience.
The evidence is that American and British women are not doing very well with this transition, either. It estimated that 20% of new mothers suffer from postpartum depression, and only 36% of mothers breastfeed successfully in the U.S. In the U.K. that number is even lower.
According to Kathleen Kendall-Tackett, Ph.D., IBCLC, in her book Depression in New Mothers, cultures in which breastfeeding success is nearly universal and postpartum depression is rare share some common traits. They acknowledge postpartum as a unique time, deserving of special recognition and support, and they provide it with abundant practical and emotional assistance to the new mother.
In a previous post I wrote that culture, not biology, is what makes postpartum so hard for new mothers. Cultural values and expectations of independence and control prevent many moms from embracing continual contact with their infants, which is the physiological basis for the thriving of both mother and baby. The good news is we can change our culture into one that is at least as supportive of new mothers and babies as it is of brides-to-be.
Following Dr. Kendall-Tackett’s summary of the traits of healthy postpartum cultures, here are six suggestions.
Postpartum Is a Unique Time, Deserving of Special Recognition
1. Drop the idea that the woman is “having a baby,” as if she were simply adding something to her life. Embrace the idea that she is becoming a mother: she and her life are changing fundamentally. Mothers are not women with children anymore than butterflies are caterpillars with wings.
2. Drop the imperative to “bounce back” or to get “back to normal,” and embrace postpartum as a time of transition. Plan for the dissolution of the old life and the disorientation and confusion that come with transitions by organizing support before the baby is born.
Provide with Abundant Practical and Emotional Support.
For the first six-to-twelve weeks postpartum:
3. Feed Her. Organize a person or a group of people to deliver hot, healthy, home-cooked meals to the new family. Being fed is fundamental, fulfilling not just a physical need but an existential one. She will be spending most of her waking hours feeding the baby. It creates a beautiful economy when her community nurtures her in turn.
4. Run Her House. Allow a person or a group to be responsible for the normal activities of daily living, such as tidying, laundry, and help with older children. Household mess can feel like an indictment: It’s too much. I can’t keep up. Well, darling, you were never meant to. Only in the last few hundred years have mothers been expected to take care of themselves, their homes, and their new babies all by themselves. With others responsible for running – not just “helping” to run – the house, mother can focus on baby and rest.
5. Run Her Errands. Infants greatly hamper her freedom of movement. New babies are unpredictable and long, unbroken expanses of time will be very hard to find, which makes planning difficult. New babies are also easy to over-stimulate and may appear to sleep through errands, only to be fussy or cry the rest of the evening. It’s kind to mother and baby to let others to do the running around for them for a while.
6. Sit with Her. Every day, in person, on the phone, or video chat, she needs someone to talk to. It’s common for a new mother to feel isolated, disoriented, unsure of herself, somewhat displaced, and slightly embarrassed: What’s happened to me, she wonders. I used to be so together. Other mothers who have recently been where she is now can reassure better than anyone that everything is normal and she and baby are okay.
With a bit of preparation and help – less than it takes to plan a wedding! – new mothers and babies can get the support they need to thrive. They deserve it.
If you’ve already had your baby, what support was most helpful to you? What would you do differently next time around?