Water Buffalo’s are herd animals and are precocial, meaning they are up and mobile right from birth, as are their mothers in order to avoid predators. Although human mothers are mammals there isn’t exactly a lioness waiting for us in the tall grass across the street. Our infants are born significantly less mature than babies of other mammals and they require a lot more time to become active, mobile and independent in any way. Humans are considered ‘carry mammals’ as we carry our infants with us for a considerable time following birth in order for them to complete the development many other mammals complete during gestation. Our young are incredibly dependent on us for survival and so the hurried, on edge and migratory lifestyle of a water buffalo does not exactly jive with what a human mother and infant’s postpartum needs are. It is not what we were designed to do. So if the design and intention is for new human mothers and their babies to recover slowly, than why do so many mothers across the globe function in their postpartum period like they are water buffalo running from a lioness?
There is a great deal of pressure on for mother’s to get back to ‘normal’ as quickly as possible. Where that pressure comes from is likely different for every mother but it is not uncommon in North America to find mother’s up cleaning the kitchen, folding laundry, exclusively caring for their older children, cooking dinner for their extended family or even hosting a ‘meet the baby’ event days after the birth of a child.
Some women are blessed with an incredibly supportive circle of family and friends, other mothers and young families who go out of their way to run errands, freeze meals, bake muffins and mow the lawn all in the spirit of helping the new family adjust and this is incredible! In many cultures the postpartum period is seen as a special time that lasts for 30-40 days and a mother is expected and encouraged to rest and recover at home. I believe in Hindi this special time is referred to as ‘Jaappa’, and many Latina mothers refer to it as ‘La Cuarentena’ (as in quarentine) and they take it very seriously.
In our North American culture though we definitely lack any sort of tradition or ritual that provides extended support and nurturing to a new mother as a larger group and we also fail to see the postpartum period as a point in time that is separate from every day life and we are failing to meet the needs of mothers in the postpartum period.
For many women, once the baby shower is over and the flow of family and friends stopping by has slowed to a trickle she can start to feel a little forgotten. Her husband or partner has gone back to work and she is suddenly on her own to figure out breastfeeding, pack lunches and cart older children off to school, feed herself and worry about her baby’s output. The load is not lightened, there is not enough rest (let alone any extra), there are no other mothers there to mentor her or offer support and she likely has no idea what resources are available to her in her community and doesn’t even know to look. Her newborn is just 10 days old and although she may be going through the motions and living her life as ‘back to normal’, there is no question that she doesn’t feel back to normal.
Who is asking new mother’s how they are, I mean how they really are? We’ve all heard the comment ‘all that matters is a healthy baby’ but how much truth is in that statement? Is that really all that matters? Are the needs of a new mother not worthy of acknowledgement? Of course the health of the infant is important but the mother-infant relationship is interdependent and if the mother is not feeling healthy and happy, her infant will not be.
There is a great deal happening to a woman and her body following the birth of a baby. Her hormone levels are changing, there is a major adjustment to her blood volume, her uterus that was once the size of a watermelon when it carried the baby is continuing to contract itself and shrink back down to the size of a pear, and her body is creating milk. Her daily routine and sleeping patterns are disrupted as well and even the most educated and informed mother can find it very surprising to feel so emotionally and physically exhausted, overwhelmed and burnt out.
This burn out in new mothers is becoming more and more prevalent and the cost in the end is profound. The postpartum period is suppose to be a time of joy, happiness and elation and many families are finding it is just not as they race to keep up. According to the Pacific Postpartum Support Society, 8-12% of pregnant women experience depression and 10-16% of women experience depression in the first year after birth. While burn out cannot be the only source, I have a hard time believing it doesn’t play a major part and mother’s deserve so much better. Mother’s NEED their postpartum period to be so vastly different than all of this. There is so much focus on healthy mothers and healthy infants in pregnancy and that needs to continue into the postpartum period as well.
The postpartum period should be a time for rest, regaining strength and recovering. Women truly need a fourth trimester and they deserve to be pampered, nurtured, cared for and allowed the time to heal and transform and truly discover their newborn. They deserve companionship and mentorship from others who are there to help them feel comfortable, nourished, relaxed, appreciated, valued and respected. Someone who cares how many times the baby woke up last night and what colour his poop was this morning. Someone to hold the baby so she can have a bath by herself and someone to do the dishes and make her some lunch. Someone to be there to answer her questions, provide reassurance and encouragement and affirm her because she already knows what she needs to do. She needs validation. She needs time.
This is a monumental time in a mother’s life. She carried this child for months, worked incredibly hard to bring this child here and at the very least she should be afforded the opportunity to sit in that space and revel in it.
So What Does a Mama Do?
Thank goodness for grassroots movements and individuals that see the gap and seek to meet the NEEDS of postpartum women. I believe that we will see the day when extended postpartum care is the standard and norm but these things take time. There is still much we can do now in considering a mother’s need to recover and recuperate after the birth of a child and we will see a lot more healthier and happier moms as a result. Since we cannot rally our health system to make these changes overnight than what does a mother do? Here are some thoughts.
Savour Your Babymoon
The postpartum recovery period is a very special time. It is often referred to as your ‘babymoon’, relating it in a lot of ways to what a couple experiences on a honeymoon. There is so much build up to a wedding just as there is to a birth, and the short period of time after the big events are more often than not full of wonderful emotions, love, a sense of relief and profound gratitude and it is so worth it to embrace this once in a life-time experience and to savour it.
Make that Postpartum Plan
Set yourself up for success. Many families spend most of their pregnancy planning for the birth and the postpartum period does not get much more thought than the long list of baby supplies to purchase.
It can involve a little preparation but in the end it can prove valuable to consider what is important to you during this time. Keep your recovery and family bonding at the forefront and discuss anything you can do to make this time easier on you and the ones you love.
Consider how much time you would like together before you invite others around, whether or not you will have family coming into town and where is the best place for them to stay in the spirit of your recovery? Who will take care of the dogs? Run errands? Care for older children so you can rest? Who will pay your bills? Where will the baby sleep and how are you planning to feed him/her? How can you keep your relationship as a couple a priority?
It is so important to have realistic expectations. Plan to recover for a month. When you have that as your healthy expectation you are more likely to be gentle with yourself and do it versus trying to tackle too much too soon. Do what you can to try to gain an idea of what postpartum recovery might actually look like for you. Talking to other mothers you know may help you get some valuable insight and working out your plan and/or speaking to your partner about it will go a very long way.
You will Benefit From Staying In Bed
Stay in bed for three days. You either just participated in the most physically demanding event a human being ever will or you are recovering from major abdominal surgery. Either way, staying in bed promotes bonding, establishes breastfeeding and encourages rest and recovery.
Have someone you love bring you and the baby anything you need and don’t get out of bed except to use the bathroom. Utilizing calendula ice packs to reduce swelling and taking a shallow bath 2-3 times a day in epsom salts can aid healing as can using a peri bottle with calendula tincture. Consult your caregiver of course before using anything but these things are amazing. If you have had a Caesarean, keep your incision clean and do not lift anything heavy, take short walks and get some vitamin D (a.k.a sunshine).
Make Sleep a Priority
Think about how much sleep you need right now and make it a goal to maintain that throughout the early days of motherhood and beyond. Usually 8-9 hours a night is great, maybe a little more in the beginning. New parenthood has such a learning curve and doing what you can to maintain that throughout these early days of new motherhood will work wonders in the short term and long term. A lack of sleep can increase stress hormones, make you feel moody and affect your relationships. It can create less of a desire to engage in physical activities, it drastically affects your immune system and also increases your chance of depression, high blood pressure and heart disease.
There are many different approaches a mother can take to ensuring she is getting enough sleep. We have all heard the age old advice to sleep when the baby sleeps and very valuable advice it is. Some mothers will not get out of bed until they have reached their goal for hours of sleep. Regardless of how many times baby wakes or for how long, she will keep lying back down to sleep until she has reached her goal. Neither one of these approaches may be an option for mothers with older children of course and hiring a postpartum doula or other caregiver can be incredible. Having a mother, sister, cousin or younger babysitter come for a few hours a few days a week so you can have a nap can make a big difference as well.
Self Care & Time Away for Yourself
Take some time to just be yourself. There is so much to learn in new motherhood and it doesn’t take much to find yourself feeling as though your adrenal glands are taxed and you feel disconnected from yourself. Take some time to tune in and reflect on all that is happening each day and how you are feeling both physically and emotionally.
Although it can be challenging to step out of the house on your own if you are exclusively breastfeeding, even a walk around the block with the dog or 15 minutes undisturbed on the deck in the sunshine can work wonders.
Newborns love to gaze up at their mama’s from a yoga mat or snuggle up in the carrier while she reads her favorite book or chats with her best friend on the phone. Don’t forget to do things that make YOU happy.
See this Belly Bloom Article for more ideas on embracing Self Care; A Self Care Summit
Breastfeed If You Can
Breastfeeding, although seen more of a task or challenge for many mothers initially, over time becomes a relationship between mama and baby and while nursing, oxytocin (known as the love hormone) flows freely between both, promoting ‘feel-good’ vibes and overall wellness.
Breastfeeding forces a mother to slow down. For 20-30 minutes numerous times a day she has to sit and rest and relax and she gets to reconnect with her baby. Again and again and again. It truly is one of nature’s many ways of encouraging a mother to be gentle with herself.
Consider Your Relationships
Not every relationship is healthy, many are extremely toxic and others are just negative. In this postpartum time, accommodating visits and contact from people in your life that do not always have your best interests at heart or will honestly always take more than they give may not be the best choice in keeping your families overall wellness in mind. Simple comments can go a long way in keeping this time special for you family. Comments such as; ‘We are just taking this time to adjust here to life with a newborn and look forward to seeing everyone soon when we are feeling more ready’ or ‘thank you so much for getting in touch, once mom and baby are recovered and acquainted we’ll give you a call’ , or even ‘we are just taking one day at a time right now and we’ll see about being in touch when we’re feeling more rested’. You can deal with difficult relationships however you see fit after your babymoon.
Avoid Major Life Changes
Avoid making big changes in your living situation around the time of birth. Moving, legal transactions, changes to your relationship status or career changes are all best to be set aside until well after the postpartum period if at all possible. These life events are highly emotional most of the time and often stressful. It is best to avoid these changes for now and focus on recovery.
Find Community Resources
Who can you get in touch with if you find yourself face to face with a challenge you are not sure how to approach or if you have a question you urgently need answered?
Birth and Postpartum Doula’s are a gem in this sense. If they don’t know the answer they definitely know where to go to find it. Many doula’s are childbirth educators and/or breastfeeding counsellors and in addition to having such a knowledge base, chances are they have the contact information to a large number of resources in your area. Lactation consultants, mom & baby groups, postpartum depression support services, chiropractors, baby-wearing instruction, herbalists, pediatricians and much more.
Let Nature Nurture You
Get out of the house once you feel rested. A change of scenery, sunlight and just being in nature can provide an incredible boost for both your physical well being and your mental well being. It can combat mental fatigue, stress, concentration and promote creativity and immune health. We’re so lucky here that the Rocky Mountains are a quick 30 minutes away but even a walk in a nearby park or green space can do the trick.
Let Them Help!
There is much you can do to plan and prepare for mommin’ like a boss after birth but the reality is that it is SO hard to do it alone.
Many mother’s feel that in asking for help or in accepting help from family and friends they are being a burden, or asking for too much. Chances are during your childbearing years your parents are still working or caring for their own parents, your siblings work and may have their own young families as do most of your friends and so asking for favors can seem like a lot.
The truth is that most people want to help even if it isn’t easy to ask them. Especially if it is something so small most loved ones would love to know if there was some practical way they can make this new adjustment easier for you. Specific requests seem to be the most beneficial. Asking your mom to grab a few things at the store on her way, your brother to walk your dog before he leaves, your sister to stop by once and awhile on her way to work to hold her niece while you shower or your best friend to drive your son to kindergarten on her way for a couple weeks can change everything. It may seem like a lot when you add it all up but to each individual person it isn’t much and most are more than happy to help you.
Some families are so lucky in the sense that they have extended family very close by who pop in carrying a fresh lasagne and a bottle of wine, give you a kiss on the head telling you you’re doing a great job and leave carrying your dirty laundry which they will bring back clean tomorrow to then put away and head out back to mow your lawn. Not everyone is this fortunate however. Many people have families who live halfway across the world.
Seeking out the assistance of a Postpartum Doula can be everything for some families in getting off to a great start. Having someone there to support you who you do not need to entertain is amazing. She can support your breastfeeding, do your dishes, put your laundry away, listen to your concerns, hold the baby while you have a shower and make you breakfast!
Sometimes it is in everyone’s best interest to learn to let some things go. Getting to know your baby and learning to understand each other takes time and some other things will suffer. This can be a very difficult adjustment for some women but try to remember that at the end of the day color coordinating the baby’s outfits in the dresser drawer pale’s in comparison to another hour of sleep.
Be Aware of Postpartum Emotions
It can be shocking and scary for women if they find themselves feeling depressed or anxious during pregnancy or after the birth and often feelings of disappointment can accompany them as well. The expectation is that pregnancy and the birth of a child is a joyous time and for most women it is but that’s not everyone’s story.
Over 80% of women experience baby blues 3-5 days after birth. They will feel happy one minute and sad the next, feel helpless, worried, anxious, have troubles sleeping and cry for no reason. These feelings are normal and should disappear within 2 weeks of the birth.
According to the Pacific Postpartum Support Society, up to 16% of women struggle with postpartum depression within the first year of birth. 1-2% experience a debilitating imbalance with postpartum psychosis. Postpartum depression is the most common complication in childbirth and symptoms can start anytime during pregnancy or during the first year. A woman may lose interest in things she used to enjoy, sleep a lot more or less than usual, eat more or less than usual, withdraw from family and friends and lose contact with other people. She may cry for no reason, be restless or have little energy, find it hard to concentrate or make decisions, have thoughts that she is a terrible mother, feel guilty or worthless. She might feel very sad almost every day, feel angry, irritable, hopeless or overwhelmed and have frightening thoughts that keep coming back about her harming herself or the baby.
Many women who feel depressed will also feel very anxious. A racing heart, feeling on edge, too much or unrealistic worry, upsetting thoughts or visual images of harm to the baby. Some women may feel the anxiety without the depression.
If a mother experiences any of these symptoms at any point in her pregnancy or postpartum she should not hesitate to reach out for help right away. There are many incredible resources available and a Doctor can diagnose Postpartum Mood Disorders. Not all women can pull themselves out of a depression and may need help.
There is a stigma that comes with PPMD’s unfortunately. They are not something you choose, or can just ‘snap out of’. Many women experience these things and know that something is wrong but they don’t talk about it. They are afraid they will be judged or seen as an unfit mother. Families need to spread the word that it is a medical condition. Mental health is just as important as cardiovascular health.
Counselling, medication, support groups and self-care is usually suggested and some incredible resources for Postpartum Mood Disorders in Calgary include;
- Pacific Postpartum Support Society – http://postpartum.org/
- Families matter (403)205-5178 / http://www.familiesmatter.ca/
- Calgary Distress Center 403-266-HELP
Never Underestimate the Value of Coffee, A Good Sense of Humour and Staying Connected
Coffee is a beautiful thing (not too much of it of course) but the best part is not what is in the cup but who is there to share it with you. I hope it is someone who has a great sense of humour and with whom you can make light of your sleepless night, colicky babe or terrible hairdo (those postpartum baby hairs are brutal). Someone who will give you a hug as you cry, will do your dishes and get your toddler some cheerios as you feed your newborn. Never judging and endlessly encouraging. Often this person is your best friend, a sister, your mother, a great aunt or one amazing postpartum doula.
It doesn’t really matter who it is, or how long you have known them for or where they come from. Having them as part of you ‘Village’ is what matter most. It is so important to be able to confide your feelings to your partner and other mothers. If you don’t have a circle or a village you can absolutely create one. Join mom groups, attend La Leche League meetings or library programs whatever, just find a way to stay connected.
Take back your postpartum period, you are NOT a water buffalo and you are so worth it Mama.
What helped you through your postpartum period? We would love to hear.
Written by Jenn Dabrowski
Belly Bloom Birth Services