Everywhere I look, including my own home, I see mothers struggling. Exhausted, depressed, anxious, at their wit’s end. I hear the words “How you feel right now is normal. Most moms feel this way.” And while I agree that these feelings are the norm, I’m not sure I agree that they’re normal. The more I read about postpartum practices in other cultures, I see quotes from different studies about how postpartum mood disorders, including the expected baby blues, are practically non-existent in cultures that have strong postpartum traditions that care for the mother. These cultures recognize and honor that it is the mother that needs to be nurtured by the community during the postpartum period. She is expected to rest and bond with her baby while everyone else takes care of everything else. Not only do they take care of the household needs and other children, they nurture this new mother, bringing her healthy nourishing foods, teas, providing daily body massage, herbal baths, the works. The extreme life change and physical changes that motherhood brings are recognized and cared for. They do not look at this type of care as a luxury, but as a necessity to bring healing and vitality to the mother after all her body has been through. They recognize that a thriving mother equals a thriving family.
Now what do we do here in the United States? Families often receive support in many ways. Meals are brought or sent over, visitors come by to help with the baby, families show up and often help with other children and housekeeping. However, nurturing the mother is rarely the primary focus from the stories I hear. Often I hear new mothers say they have been overwhelmed with visitors, or that they didn’t know how to get visitors to leave sooner so they could get the rest they needed. They watched visitors hold their crying baby wishing they could have some time alone to work on establishing breastfeeding. They watched visitors hold their sleeping baby, wishing they could be sleeping too instead of entertaining visitors. The meals brought, while helpful, are often fast foods or foods not often eaten by the mother so they could actually cause some gastrointestinal discomfort which is more likely immediately postpartum. This was highlighted for me when I received a phone call from a postpartum mom with shooting pains in her belly. After running through her symptoms and ruling out anything serious, we came to conclude that the problem was just gas and constipation, likely due to all the fried and unhealthy foods well-meaning friends had been dropping off for her. All of these families want to help, the problem is that our culture has lost the wisdom of how to truly care for mothers in the postpartum period.
We live in a world of efficiency and productivity. Postpartum mothers struggle to slow down, rest, and be ok with not being productive. They may have only a short window of six weeks or sometimes less before they are expected to be back to work. Many countries have paid maternity leave, sometimes for as long as up to a year. Imagine how much more our mothers could rest and take care of themselves and their babies if they weren’t up against a clock.
With my first baby I had six weeks of unpaid maternity leave. I quit breastfeeding after 2 weeks of struggling to get through the rough patches because I knew I was going to have to pump when I returned to work anyway. I didn’t want to spend my whole maternity leave struggling to bond with my baby while we stressed over eating, so I skipped the breast and went straight for the pump for the next several months. With my second baby, I had eight weeks of unpaid maternity leave, but would be taking her to work with me for several months. We spent six hard weeks getting breastfeeding to work and at the six week mark, I marveled at the thought that most moms were returning to work at this point because breastfeeding was just finally smoothing out. It makes perfect sense why so many moms give up on breastfeeding. We just don’t have time to give it a fair chance before returning to work. And with both babies, my return to work also signaled the beginning of a period of depression and anxiety. It’s no wonder as it is so difficult learning to balance the demands of a newborn with work and pumping, all while being sleep deprived.
So yes, these feelings of loneliness, overwhelm, exhaustion, inadequacy, depression, anxiety, fear, hopelessness are all common, but I don’t buy into the idea that they are normal. I think we are feeling these things because our culture is missing the mark in a big way when it comes to caring for mothers. We are missing a village and we have lost the wisdom of how to nurture new mothers. I often day dream about living in a little village where all the kids are just running around and all the moms are hanging out together caring for the babies and supporting the new mothers. I think we struggle so hard partially because we are so isolated. Living in a big city, my closest friends and family are at least a fifteen to thirty minute drive away. I don’t know any of my neighbors, because I have moved so many times. I imagine how different life would be if I could just walk out my front door to talk to another mom friend when I need to not be alone with my baby all day. Our society is not set up in a way that supports families.
The best shot at a solution I have found was when reading the book Seven Sisters for Seven Days: The Mothers’ Manual for Community-Based Postpartum Care. In it, the author Michelle Peterson talks about preparing for postpartum by setting up seven people to help care for the mother in the six weeks after the baby arrives. These people are set up in advance with the intention of nurturing the mother. Each person volunteers to take one day a week for six weeks to bring a meal, do a chore for the mother, or serve the mother in some way. They are not there to hold the baby or chat with the mom. They expect that some days they might not even see the mother or the baby as they are intended to be in bed resting often. This set up makes it effortless for the mother as she is not having to ask for anything. People are readily checking in with her and have a plan for how to support her before she is in the depths of postpartum struggles.
One thing people keep telling me during my postpartum period is to ask for help, but if you have ever been in the throes of depression, you know that reaching out for anything feels nearly impossible. And while I might ask someone to help watch my kids, I would find it extremely difficult to ask someone to come over and make me a specific meal, clean my house, or make me some tea while I’m resting in bed with my baby even though at times those were the very things that would have helped me the most. In countries where postpartum rituals are a part of the culture, these mothers aren’t having to reach out and ask for things, those things are being readily brought to them by neighbors, family and friends, because part of the cultural belief is that mothers need to be nurtured so that they can nurture the baby. That is not our current cultural belief, so it has to be set up intentionally in order for it to become a regular part of our postpartum lives. The mothers I have talked to that set up the Seven Sisters in advance had a postpartum period that they described as healing and nurturing. Those aren’t words I usually hear used to describe this difficult period of time. These mothers had learned something very important: just because they could do some of these tasks themselves doesn’t mean that they should.
I am a midwife that has grown weary of seeing so many mothers struggle quietly, thinking that is just the way it has to be. It’s not the way it has to be and I am working in my practice to promote a change in how my clients experience postpartum. My hope is that we can help mothers thrive during their postpartum days instead of just surviving them.