Why (and how) we need to make the postpartum period better

How many times have we heard the saying, “At least your baby is healthy. That’s what matters”? I feel like it’s a no-brainer. We all want healthy babies after birth. But how the mom is feeling and how she is supported (before, during, and after birth) matter, too, and we just don’t do a good enough job of this.

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The very early days (minutes, hours…). We’re still in Labour & Delivery here.

I’ve been thinking about this more because I’ve started a course for postpartum professionals (which I’ve since completed!). My latest lesson included a reading that compares how other cultures treat new moms compared to American culture. I’d say Canadian culture is pretty similar to American, but hopefully we’re making strides to include ideas from other cultures.

Some examples of how newborn mothers are treated in other cultures:

  • the postpartum period is recognized as a time of sacredness and healing;
  • protective measures are put into place for a new mom’s vulnerability (ritual bathing, belly binding, massage are just a few);
  • seclusion and rest (visitors are those who don’t need to be entertained: they will do your dishes, hold the baby if you’d like to take a shower, and you don’t care if they see you naked or breastfeeding);
  • functional assistance (see above: help with the dishes, laundry, meals, older children);
  • social recognition of the new role and status as a mom.

In North America, most of the focus is on the baby. Mom is likely discharged from the hospital within a day or two and no hospital staff is likely to ask if she has help. Since families are spread out more, she may not have any help at home. Dad is likely going back to work right away, so she is alone to recuperate from birth, learn how to breastfeed and be a mom, on top of everything else that needs to be done around the home. People often want to come over and see the baby and shower the baby with gifts. There *are* resources for her, but she’s likely too overwhelmed to seek them out for herself and doesn’t know where to begin.

This is not to say every mom experiences all of this or that some moms don’t embrace lots of visitors right away (we’re proud of our new babies and want people to meet them!). I’m obviously generalizing to make a point.Not every mom wants a stream of visitors through her door to fawn over the baby, and we need to find a way to respect that.

Why does this matter, you may ask? Check this out:

“As citizens of an industrialized nation, we often act as if we have nothing to learn from the Third World. Yet many of these cultures are doing something extraordinarily right–especially in how they care for new mothers. In their classic paper, Stern and Kruckman (1983) present an anthropological critique of the literature. They found that in the cultures they studied, postpartum disorders, including the “baby blues,” were virtually non-existent. In contrast, 50% to 85% of new mothers in industrialized nations experience the “baby blues,” and 15% to 25% (or more) experience postpartum depression.

Stern and Kruckman noted that cultures who had low incidence of postpartum mood disorders all had rituals that provided support and care for new mothers. These cultures, although quite different from each other, all shared five protective social structures (which is what I listed above).” (You can read more on the study here – the above excerpt is actually from a piece by Kathleen Kendall-Tackett, Ph.D., La Leche League leader. Check out more from her here.)

Looking back, I had (and continue to have) a great support network. We were in the hospital a few days, and our doula brought us a hot meal one day. A friend dropped off soup and muffins at our house. When we were discharged, my doula and husband locked me and the baby in our bedroom while they cleaned the house. Other friends brought meals. I hired another doula to teach me how to wear my baby and she also cleaned our house. My mom was around a lot as well.

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First night home. Got my water bottle, diapers, wipes a book, and it looks like muffins! And of course my sucky dogs.

It is too much to ask a mom to do all this on her own, yet that’s what we ask of moms! And then, because we ask this of moms, they feel bad if they can’t do it and ask for help or they just won’t ask at all. My baby is no longer a baby by society’s standards. He’s 22-months-old. Guess what? I still need and ask for help. There is no way I could get the small amount of cooking and housework done that I do, along with my other job, and now a course, without help from my husband, my mom, and friends. We need to not be afraid to ask for help, because in doing so, we are helping other moms.

As I was searching for positive post partum stories, I found an article about unexpected ways you can help a mom:

  • send food, but not just meals, so that the mom has healthy snacks for herself and older children if she has any (think fruit, muffins, nuts, granola bars, trail mix, cut up veggies and hummus);
  • call when you’re at the grocery store and ask what they need you to pick them up;
  • consider the company you keep (some moms want adult conversation, some moms want someone to hold their baby, some moms don’t want that, some moms might want to buddy up to go to the grocery store: you get the point. We’re all different, so consider and ask what kind of company a mom wants);
  • let someone else capture the moment (this one is cool! Snap some candid shots when visiting a mom and her new baby. Print it, frame it. She’ll appreciate it. Every mom wants to fill in that baby book, but it’s not high on the list of things that *need* to get done);
  • the gift of light reading (maybe even trashy reading…magazines, gift cards if she reads e-books, romance novels or whatever suits her fancy, because she might have some long nursing stretches in her future and wants a break from Netflix).

Just some ideas. The point is we need to do these little things and more to help new moms. It’s one of the biggest, if not THE biggest, transition in our lives, and we need support. The stats show it. We need to support and empower moms to ask for help. I hope I can be a part of that movement. I hope you will, too.

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