The post-partum period generally gets a bad rap in the press. New babies are seen as a bit of a nuisance – inconveniencing parents the world over with their refusal to sleep, their bawling and their disregard for your own timetable and neatly ordered life and ideas. Parents desperate for a return to normality invest in books telling them how to get their baby to behave, so they can go back to normal as soon as possible. But how healthy is this? Is life after a baby supposed to be normal?
This whole getting back to normal thing is something of an unhealthy obsession in our competitive and go-getting culture and there is great pressure for women to bounce back quickly and resume their former life at full speed. Even if that life was stressful, making her ill, or unsustainable. Women are expected to give birth then get back to normal pronto, slimming down as soon as they can, so they can pretend their bodies haven’t undergone this miracle, this transformation from maiden to woman, or mother to matriarch.
In 2015, our idols are not the curvy birthing goddesses we once treasured and aspired to be like in earlier centuries. In this mono-dimensional age, we worship and hold up the ideal of sexiness and womanliness as belonging only to young women pre-babies – the younger the better. Every billboard is an image of women either being slim and young, or if a mother, then being a slim, capable, strong, and multi-tasking one. It’s easy to see where the pressure comes from for women to bounce back quickly,and prove to the world that they are just as good as they ever were, often unaware of the extremely powerful new version of themselves they have become. They may feel raw and vulnerable and like they are anything but amazing, in much the way brand new butterfly, wings still wet, has absolutely no idea how beautiful it really is. The pressure for women to appear capable, multitasking, and non-damaged is made worse by the fact that women can be even more critical and judgemental of each other than the menfolk. The heat magazine culture of bitching at women’s post birth bodies rather than venerating their rite of passage and imperfect state doesn’t help.
Real strength and womanliness is often mistaken in these modern times. Women as primal, powerful, scarred and raw birthing goddesses are not the poster girls you will see on any conventional boards, and are not celebrated as the heroines they are, by the masses. Women are shamed from being raw, messy, bloody, scarred and primal. but isn’t this the very essence of a powerful, beautiful woman? Birth cracks open our shell, revealing hidden depths and vulnerablities. The ordeal women go through to have a baby transforms every woman into a goddess, whether others witness and celebrate that or not. So I think a rest is deserved, don’t you? Literally, metaphorically and on every level – we should give women a break when they go through the process of having a baby.
But all this obsession with the outer body is very shallow. Having a baby changes women and their partners in much deeper ways, fundamentally reshaping the inner and outer landscape of themselves and their life. Not honouring this and getting back to some kind of normal is to somehow miss the point entirely of welcoming a new soul into the world. It is meant to transform you. It is meant to bring chaos and throw priorities and choices into question. It is no less amazing than a caterpillar changing into a butterfly. There are no shortcuts. It’s all part of the process.
Having a baby is meant to turn everything on its head – for a while anyway. This is the very beauty of babies! It is their gift to us. To help us shake off our old life and step into a new one. It’s part of the fun. And when we try and rush women back into some kind of ‘normal’ we deny them of something really beautiful and soul transforming. Relationships take time to form. Mother and baby relationships are no different. The new dance the family must dance is one for which new steps must be learnt. It’s not like any other dance they have danced before, and it can take time for the rhythm and movements to feel co-ordinated and graceful! Gazing deeply into one another’s eyes, drinking each other in, is what makes the sleepless nights not only bearable, but absolutely worth it. The hormones of love and bonding work best when women and their babies are well rested, supported and loved from the outside. Establishing breastfeeding whilst rested can be tricky – but unsupported and without proper rest and time it can become hell, leading women to abandon it altogether. Mothers and babies need time to get it right.
Even if birth was smooth and went well, life outside the womb can be a huge shock for mothers, fathers, babies, and in fact the entire family. Everyone concerned needs time to recover and regroup and to find a new rhythm. A mother will feel physically sore for some time, she may bleed, feel weak, and delicate for a while. She deserves to be waited on hand and foot for a while – if not now, then when? What time could be more sacred than this? New mothers will feel tired, emotional and raw even when birth has gone smoothly. Babies can be very hard work in those first few days and weeks, as they learn to suckle, breathe and sleep – it takes some babies longer than others and this is something to be honoured and allowed for. Spending those precious few days and even weeks sitting around as nsked as possible, skin-to- skin are a vital part of the bonding ritual which help mother and baby recover and delight in each other. Baby’s first impressions of the world can be formed by and trans-formed by a mothers touch in those first few weeks.
If her baby’s birth was traumatic, and experienced it as an ordeal, a mother and her baby will still have all the above needs, but even more so. Her partner may also be traumatised or in shock. Now is a time for mega amounts of love, time, healing and nurturing to help all to regain their strength, confidence and feeling of autonomy. A mother will need non judgemental listeners to hear her as she processes, rages, and grieves for her baby and herself. She may need weeks, months or even years to fully come to terms with the experience. But in those first few weeks she will most certainly need extra loving arms, extra listening ears, extra time and space to heal.
Mothers are only as strong as the web that supports them. We are not meant to do the very intense task of raising babies on our own. It does take a village. In these times of fractured families who live spread out lives, women are more vulnerable and in some ways, lonelier than ever before. Thankfully we live in an era where it is culturally more acceptable for fathers to help out and be more hands-on. But in the absence of a loving partner or husband on the scene and without a tribal or community sisterhood to support us, we can feel the task of mothering to be too great, too hard, too much. It’s normal, even with the best support around us, for us to have moments such as this anyway. But for those mothers who are home-alone very soon after a baby’s birth, pushed to their limits of sleep deprivation and patience, it is no wonder so many women suffer from PND or PTSD.
So how can we support new mothers and babies? We can start by giving them a proper babymoon period and respecting their need to have time to bond with their new babies and fall in love with them as nature intended. The glue that hold them together is innate but needs time and space for it to be discovered and enjoyed. We need to pamper and fuss over mothers as much as they will allow us, and indirectly if this is more appropriate. We need to tell them how beautiful they are. How important this massive job is. How amazing their bodies are for carrying and growing a baby and for going through such a big transformation for their babies. We need to love them and nurture them, even if it is from afar while they are tended to by their very nearest and dearest. We can drop yummy foods on the doorstep or send a basket of cakes or some other foods that will keep. Do kind, thoughtful, practical things for them. Make them laugh. Offer to take on their menial jobs for a while. Be there on the end of the phone if they need us. Bring them chocolate and treats. Support in invisible, quiet ways.
This should be the priority of every support team surrounding a woman, a team that might be conventional or not, formally named as such, or not. It might be made up of her husband, and/or any other partners, doulas, sisters, friends, a mother (or mother figure), or other children she may have. Anyone who is in a position to help, should help. It doesn’t matter so much who is doing the supporting, just that some kind of team does. The team should support the woman’s own strengths, believe in her as capable and strong, and never use the support as a bargaining chip. It should be given unconditionally so as to raise her back up on her feet when she is ready, not push her down.
Women who feel truly loved, cared for, listened to and nurtured get back on their own feet soon enough. And when they do, stronger, wiser, more beautiful than before, you can be sure as heck, they’ll do the same for you in a heartbeat. Mum’s don’t need ten baby blankets or five teddies for their new baby. What they mostly need is unobtrusive support.
What greater role could there be in life than supporting one another when we can, and enabling a new mother to learn to dance with her baby, as they both go forwards, changed, irrevocably, in a new world that waited for them…. and carried on spinning in the meanwhile!
this blog is part of the #postnatalrevolution in honour of sheila kitzinger passing on to the light.
wysewomen workshops hold a very popular motherwarming workshop at different locations all around the country – the motherwarming workshop looks at different ways to keep mum, baby and family healthy in the immediate postnatal period – find local dates near you here
wysewomen are also involved in loving the mother – a week long journey for women to develop love for the mother.