By Sarah Hartmann, trained doula
You have just had a baby. Congratulations! The journey you will experience is perhaps the most important of your life. There is so much to think about and do, so many changes to navigate, and so many questions and concerns that are likely to arise as you move through this time. While all of it is to be expected, many women don’t fully anticipate what their life and needs are going to be during this incredible postpartum period.
Postpartum Shouldn’t Be An Afterthought
In western culture, and American culture in particular, while there is great emphasis placed on pregnancy and birth, the postpartum period is typically an afterthought. The reasons to focus on the pregnant woman and her birth experience make great sense. With pregnancy comes the need for a different level of care to keep mother and developing baby healthy; with childbirth comes the added layer of safety, along with the important decision of how and where to deliver. Most women in our culture go to doctors for this prenatal care and give birth within the hospital system. Some choose the alternative route of midwifery and home birth.
Natural Childbirth Empowers Women
I know doulas who strenuously advocate for the use of midwives over obstetricians, and home birth over hospital birth. In a nutshell their argument is that our culture’s attitude toward childbirth has grown too medicalized, even intrusive, often disempowering women and robbing them of a more natural birth experience. They cite outcomes for mother and child as well as the tendency for hospital staff to intervene in the mother-child bonding process that often short-circuits the natural move to successful breastfeeding. These are valid arguments but as a doula with a moderate, common-sense approach, I can see reasons to give birth at home and at a hospital. There is a time and place for most things, which brings me to this: our culture subtly and sometimes not-so-subtly encourages mothers to overlook the postpartum period despite the body of research that says it is unhealthy to do so.
Support Is Lacking
Once the mother has had her baby, she is very much on her own. Yes, she will have several visits with her obstetrician who will see her through the medically defined postpartum period of six weeks. Perhaps, if she is lucky, her husband or partner will have a week off work to be by her side, and maybe she will have a trusted family member or friend who can give her the kind of support she genuinely needs. But many women find they have none of these things. To the rest of the world, her pregnancy and birth experience are over. Time to move on.
Postpartum Traditions Supported Women After Childbirth
History tells us that this is not how it used to be. In colonial times, a new mother could expect to be embraced by the community of women in which she lived. There were postpartum traditions and rituals that included caring for the mother, ensuring that she get rest, be fed and attended to so as to heal. A woman’s tasks were arduous then. This circle of women took on the new mother’s chores and always there were the wise women in the group who would sit with the new mother during this lying-in time to guide and support her, and teach her the ways of motherhood. This time to gather around the new mother lasted weeks, even months.
Postpartum Period Is An Intense Emotional and Physical Time
Today, our new mothers barely receive a lying-in period of two weeks, if that. They have been conditioned to believe that once that six-week period defined by doctors is over, everything is to be as it once was: their body, emotions, strength, and home life. But nothing could be further from the truth. Those first six weeks are only the first stage of postpartum, what is often referred to as the Fourth Trimester (comprised of three months). In the first weeks of this trimester, mothers experience myriad changes, both physical and emotional. It is a period of intense learning and withdrawal to their very core so as to heal and care for the new life now in their charge. It can be an emotional time and it is certainly an exhausting one.
Some of our cultural views are changing, thus the move to a more natural birth process and the use of doulas, but the sad fact is that too many new mothers feel isolated, alone, frightened and too tired to cope. While every cultural norm encouraged them to plan for their pregnancy and birth, nowhere did they receive the cues to do the same for their postpartum experience, which arguably will be the harder, longer, and more challenging leg of the journey. Indeed, there are many reasons for a woman to plan for postpartum care. At the very least she will need:
- Help with breastfeeding and/or bottle-feeding. Despite what our culture intimates, motherhood and breastfeeding don’t always come naturally or with ease. Bottle-feeding comes with certain requirements and takes time.
- Help with healing. Childbirth is hard work. Even a vaginal delivery will require some healing while a Cesarean section will require quite a bit more. It is important to note that, according to the National Center for Health Statistics, approximately one-third of all births in the U.S. are C-sections. The reasons vary, but the outcome is the same. New mothers are going to need a lot of help.
- Help with the new baby: — diapering, reading feeding cues, soothing, bathing, and tracking wet and soiled diapers to calculate how the baby is thriving.
- Help with household tasks. New mothers, even if they are physically healed, are exhausted and must be totally immersed in their new baby. Everyday chores like laundry, grocery shopping, tidying up, making meals for herself and the family, and caring for other family members must and will fall by the wayside.
- Help to become a confident mother.
- Help with emotional needs. Just the simple act of having a gentle guide to sit by her, listen and support her provides great comfort to a new mother. Experts agree that with the loss of social mothering and a family support system, has come the rise of postpartum depression.
New Mother’s Need and Deserve Support and Guidance
Mothering is a learned behavior and always has been. I can’t stress enough how important it is for mothers to plan and get engaged in their postpartum care, the sooner the better. I know it’s hard for a woman to think ahead when so many changes are going on in her body during pregnancy. But having that hands-on, gentle help, whether it’s a loving mother, an aunt, a good friend, or a doula will make a huge difference in how a new mother recovers and is able to care for her child.
Sarah Hartmann is a trained doula and member of LIDA (the Long Island Doula Association). As a mother and grandmother, she has been in the trenches and seen firsthand that new mothers need help now more than ever. She launched Sage Doula Care to offer affordable, gentle, experienced postpartum care for mother and child. Contact her at [email protected]