Supporting the Postpartum Parent
Bringing a child into this world is a miraculous and beautiful process, unique to every family. It is also fraught with many unknowns (what does this type of cry mean? Is my baby OK? When’s the next time I should feed her? Is she cold? etc, etc),. Not to mention the overwhelming responsibility of caring for a vulnerable being who is brand new to this world and has constant needs, none of which they can verbally communicate. Following the birth of the child, the focus is often times solely on the infant (for good reason), putting the mother in the backseat. But why does the mother also require care, attention and support during the postpartum period? I can by no need comprehensively cover this in a blog, but here are a few of the main highlights:
- Even in the best of circumstances, every birthing story has an element of drama to it. Even if everything goes perfectly smoothly, there are still curve balls. At the other end of the spectrum, a birth experience can be traumatic. Given the roller coaster of emotions and uncertainty of the birthing process, the mother has to have time to process her many emotions. Since everything happens to quickly after birth, not to mention attending to the many needs of an infant and whatever other circumstances arise, the mother has no time to process her story.
- A mother’s hormones, and subsequently brain wiring, change when she’s pregnant. This change doesn’t just reverse and go back to normal the instant she gives birth. Her hormonal levels stay elevated, and at times increase, during the postpartum period. This leads to a heightened sense of vulnerability, usually paired with more intense emotions for a certain period of time. And, as science indicates, a mother’s brain is permanently rewired (to an extent) after she has a child. In sum, her body and brain are enduring an immense amount of change, some of which is short term and others which are more permanent.
- The Postpartum body takes a while to heal, and in our culture we usually are rushed through the healing process. A mother’s body physically demands that she heals, which can be tricky when balancing the needs of all the other people in her life.
- Every new parent is familiar with sleep deprivation. It is temporary and the baby will eventually sleep through the night (even though some nights it may feel like that will not happen for a very long time). Sleep deprivation, even after a day or two, takes a toll on our bodies, brains and emotions, making us especially vulnerable. One thing a new parent really needs is rest, but this can be tricky to obtain with an infant who wakes up every 2-3 hours around the clock to feed.
- Parents experience a rush of emotions when they see their infant for the first time. But we often times don’t know what to do with the infant, or at least not exactly. After all, this person is a stranger. Even though the mother has carried this infant for 9 months, she’s never seen the infant nor does she know anything about the infant’s personality and temperament, and what he or she naturally reacts to. It takes time to get to know this person, and that means not always knowing exactly what this person wants.
- During the whirlwind of the postpartum period, parents rarely have time for themselves. As the baby grows and becomes more independent, this self-care time gradually comes back and larger and larger increments. In the beginning stages, having little time for the self-care that the mother was once used to can bring up various emotions and thoughts around identity (e.g., “who am I outside of a mother? Who was I before?”).
So how can you provide meaningful support to a mother in this stage? Here are some ideas:
- Try to be flexible and understanding. If the new mother makes plans to meet you for coffee, for example, and has to cancel, know that this is pretty normal. Just getting out of the house can be a major task some days. Offering kind and empathic words of support (after all, she’s caring for a growing and unpredictable newborn who changes day to day) will be appreciated. If she is ready to have visitors, you can offer to come for a visit during the times that work best for her family.
- If she is ready for visits, offer practical support when visiting. It can be hard for a new mother to ask for help around the house, but it’s often appreciated. Offer to bring a meal, do her laundry, or help with other children in the household. Even holding the baby while the mother takes a shower or a quick nap can make a big difference. Also know that your visit will likely be time limited.
- Offer a listening ear. If you can hold space for a mother to talk about her birth experience, the transition to motherhood, or any other feelings she’s experiencing, it can provide much needed validation and support. “How are you feeling?” “What was that like for you?” and statements that validate and normalize all of the feelings she’s experiencing can be very helpful.
- Offer her support so she can have some time to herself. If you both feel comfortable, offer to watch the infant while the mother gets out of the house to do something for herself, like go on a walk and get some fresh air.
- Refrain from offering unsolicited advice. If she asks point blank what she should do in a situation, offer nonjudgmental advice only if you feel you have had experience with that situation. It is best if the advice comes from a place of love, experience and most importantly, zero judgment. If you feel you have no guidance you can give to her when she asks for it, you can always be there to just listen, or you can help her find ways she can get the help she’s searching for.
- Check in with the father. Though the mother bears the brunt of the physical and emotional recovery, the father may feel left out our put on a back burner as all of this attention goes to the infant and mother. He has his story, too.
- If the mother does not have much of a support system, offer to be a support person who can attend appointments with her (i.e., pediatric newborn check in appointments). You all can talk beforehand about any questions and concerns she might have for her doctor, and if she forgets to address these during the appointment (usually because she’s sleep deprived and taking in so much information as it is, or may be distracted by the baby) you can gently chime in to help ensure that all of her questions or concerns are answered.
There is so much more to say regarding this topic, to be continued! I would love to hear your thoughts and reactions. Feel free to email me with those at: firstname.lastname@example.org. Thank you for reading!