We used to do a better job of supporting new moms in those overwhelming early days.
Back when America was a group of colonies, it was understood that women would need significant time to recover from the physical strain of childbirth and that helping them do so was a community responsibility. Moms were expected to have a “lying-in” period of three or more weeks, during which they would stay in bed, rest, and get to know their babies while family members and other female members of the community brought them food and helped with household chores and infant care.
That was the era of “social childbirth,” according to Lying-In: A History of Childbirth in America by Richard and Dorothy Wertz, a tradition of female community support that was abandoned as hospitals and medical professionals took over the work of delivering children.
But not so in other countries. Today, all over the world, societies follow some kind of postpartum recovery ritual in which little is expected of a mom (often she is expected to stay in bed and be waited on), and much is given to her (meals, massage, even hair washing), all intended to help her heal. Some are just practices within families and communities, and others are more formalized, like home visits from health-care providers provided by the government. But all of them create an environment in which it is recognized that what you are going through is a really big deal and you deserve support—a lot of it—to recover.
Can you imagine if this kind of postpartum recovery period were standard not only for moms who had given birth but for any family that had welcomed a new baby? If it were understood that for the next month all you needed to do was meet your baby’s basic needs (nutrition, shelter, safety) with help from others and look after your own (nutrition, sleep, physical recovery) with help from others and that everyone else should do the rest?
If that were the case, you would not be feeling pressured to put this book down and clean the dishes before your sister-in-law shows up. You would not feel guilty asking your partner to handle the night feedings. You would not think you were failing at motherhood because the first few weeks felt like a struggle. But so many women do, and that’s because as a society we do not send the message that you should be cared for during this challenging transition.
“When I had my baby, a woman gave me a book about a village where the babies never cry, because they are always being tended to by someone in the village,” says Kate Lynch Bieger, PhD, a psychologist in New York City who specializes in perinatal mental health and parenting. “And my takeaway was that by myself at home, I should be re-creating this experience that thirty people in a village create. I was always carrying my baby, always nursing, always responding to every need and trying to keep him from crying. It was awful.”
It’s also completely wrong, as Bieger now readily admits. We cannot do it all by ourselves, and the failure to realize this lies in our societal structures and cultural expectations.
Having help and support is the way nature intended for us to make human beings. Read that sentence again and again and again until you believe it. Then start asking for (and saying “yes” to) help.
A Completely Inadequate Starter List of What Friends and Family Can Do for You Right Now:
• Pick up groceries / diapers / wipes, and so on (and maybe just leave them on the porch?)
• Bring or make dinner (if you haven’t already, ask a friend to set up a meal schedule through Mealtrain.com or Takethemameal.com)
• Fold laundry (or, better yet, do the laundry)
• Sweep and straighten the house
• Make your bed
• Be with the baby (and other children) while you take a shower, go for a walk, take a nap
• Give you a back rub
• Walk the dog
• Take any older children out for a few hours
• Take out the trash
• Mow the lawn
• Wash the dishes
• Pitch in with others to pay for a cleaning service visit
• Run errands with or without you
• Drive you to errands and appointments
Been There, Done That: Moms Talk About Getting Support After Getting Home
Next time, I think I will know better what the average visitor is capable of doing with relatively little instruction, and I would consider making a list on the chalkboard in the kitchen. If they want to help, “Well, there’s the list!”
—JAMIE, ATLANTA, GEORGIA
Whatever you need, ask for it, because you are worth it.
—AMBER, INDIANAPOLIS, INDIANA
Don’t be afraid to be up front with people and say, “It would be a great help if you can do the laundry / do the dishes / cook and entertain my toddler.” If they can’t handle helping, they aren’t the people you want visiting.
—NATALIE, HOUSTON, TEXAS
Don’t expect others to anticipate your needs. Ask them nicely for what you need from them. Good friends and family are always prepared to help if you just let them know!
—ANNE, ATLANTA, GEORGIA
Korean Americans have it different from Koreans in Korea. In Korea, moms can go to these spa-like centers where you can rest and someone will help you with the baby. For Korean Americans, there’s a really different attitude where you’re supposed to bounce right back into life.
—PHYLLIS, BOSTON, MASSACHUSETTS
I did not have a family support system, so I had to hire a part-time helper since I was having a very difficult postpartum period. My mom inferred that I was weak and just needed to “suck it up and deal with it,” but hiring additional help was absolutely the best thing for us.
—JENNIFER, ATLANTA, GEORGIA
I definitely find it hard to ask for help in general. I wanted to be everything for everyone all the time. News flash: you burn out. I would recommend establishing your “village” as soon as possible! Whether it is family, friends, neighbors, or random strangers recruited from the street, you need these people. They need you.