by Sophie Grow
Eight years ago, I was excited to attend my first birth, the birth of my niece. Now, I realize that back then I had NO IDEA how to support a pregnant woman, let alone a woman in labor.
I was 24 years old and I remember I had just gotten my first iPhone. It was a generation 3 and I was really excited to take pictures of my new baby niece. I was young and hadn’t had children, but I had been a nanny for many years and was skilled in childcare. I thought I knew what a mother was experiencing. I thought she was just tired and a bit sore. She’s just tired, right?
I visited my sister-in-law in the hospital as a mere spectator. I didn’t know about supporting a mom with supportive words to bear witness for her experience. I never connected with her. I thought she had all she needed. I thought that since she was a strong independent woman, she didn’t need support.
She came home after an unplanned cesarean and collected her baby from the NICU. Knowing what I know now, this transition time is very critical for maternal mental health. Women and their babies need a support network of nurses, doctors, pediatricians, and county nurses to compliment family and friend support. If there are holes or delays in that safety net, mothers and their babies can suffer.
But I didn’t know that. I thought once they were home from the hospital, everything was fine with my sister-in-law, her husband, and their sweet baby. I made a mistake that so many well-meaning and supportive family members do: I made the assumption that my sister-in-law was too strong to struggle and that having a baby isn’t that hard once the birth is over. I was uninformed and ignorant of the complexities and scope of postpartum recovery. She didn't show me her vulnerability during that time because witnessing it was something I had not earned. I thought I was there for her, but in truth I was critical of her. Why does it look so hard for her? Why is she struggling? Isn’t having a baby such a gift? Why does she look so burdened? She’s so lucky. I was jealous she had started a family. I thought I wouldn’t struggle like that when I had my babies. I. WAS. WRONG.
Recently, after listening to my sister-in-laws tell her birth story again in her own words and reflecting on her postpartum experience as a professional postpartum doula, I now see the holes in the support I offered her then. (The details of her birth that are shared here are done so with her permission).
Now I know that birth isn’t just a physical trial, it’s an emotional and mental trial as well. The marathon of birth doesn't end at delivery of the baby.
If I could go back and support this woman who I admire, who is such an important part of my life, I would know the right questions to ask. I would listen, validate, and support her without judgement, and without making assumptions about her experience.
I would feed her more,
Let her rest more,
Help her breast feed,
Help her relax,
Help her more with chores,
And be there to help more with the practicalities of a c-section recovery.
I would know that physical recovery and adjustment to parenthood takes longer than 6 weeks. Most women feel it takes a full year.
I would pick up on the trauma in her story and acknowledge it. I would give her numbers for the county health nurse and contacts for postpartum mental health support professionals. I would encourage her to go to the mom and baby groups, knowing she is a social person and needs friends who are dealing with similar struggles. I would tell her about our perinatal group support meetings and encourage her to go, whether or not she felt like she had a diagnosable postpartum mood disorder.
I would tell her that she was doing a wonderful job. I would smile and rub her feet while she played with her baby. I would sit with her when she is feeling her lowest low. I would tell her she’s good enough and deserves love and light. I would tell her it’s normal to feel pain and sadness and loneliness. I would tell her she would be well soon with time and support.
Now, I know I can truly provide non-judgmental compassionate support for where the mother is in her journey without needing to change it or fix it for her.
I can work to provide peace of mind.
The truth is, new mothers DO know what they want and need from others. It's just hard to ask sometimes. Sometimes accepting help is hard, as well. As a postpartum doula it’s my job to help her pause long enough to recognize her own needs, and to help make them get met as best I can.
I bring a hot cup of coffee in a clean mug to mom while she sits on the couch and snuggles baby. I make sure her favorite nursing shirts and bras are clean and folded. The kitchen counters are cleared and sinks emptied. Her fridge is filled with prepped snacks and meals. Her stomach is full of nutritious food and her body replenished with fresh water. The baby’s diaper is changed and she’s bundled in a swaddle. Baby sleeping beside me while I fold laundry. Mom rests in her bed, or showers alone, or relaxes by watching her favorite show. I show mom and dad how to bathe baby. I make play dough with big sisters. I organize the outgrown baby clothes while playing Legos with siblings. I demonstrate how to bottle feed or breast pump. I help prep a back-to-work plan.
But most importantly, I listen to the mother. I listen to the father/partner. I listen to the siblings. I listen to the stories. I am present for them and model how to be present in the gift that is the moment rushing by us.