What is sluggish, irritated, and round all over? Me! I am now in week 31 and wondering where the last 7 months went. As the big day (October 22nd) approaches, I can't help but think constantly of labor and birth. I talk about it with friends and family, watch it on television, and learn about it in depth every Tuesday at our weekly Lamaze natural birth class. I find perceptions and expectations of labor to be fascinating and I'm consistently surprised when I say no and mean it when people ask, "Are you scared?" Maybe I am naive, but I take comfort in knowing that women have been birthing children for thousands of years. My own grandmother gave birth 15 times! My mom talks about the birth of my siblings and me as if these occurrences were as routine and easy as getting her oil changed. I watched my nephew come into this world and it was by far the most beautiful and amazing thing I've ever seen. There was no screaming, sweating or drama. Just the miracle of birth. Perhaps if more people had a chance to witness the beauty and wonder of childbirth, they would feel a little less scared and quite a bit more amazing about what they were capable of.
My Lamaze class this Tuesday was plagued with questions about how bad labor and birth will hurt. Everyone paid their money just like me and have the right to ask whatever they want, but the truth is that nothing the nurse can tell them about how bad it will hurt (and it will hurt) is going to help them cope with the pain or make labor easier. After kindly answering all of the questions and doing her best to quiet concerns, the nurse read a story written by a doula about a Chinese woman she had worked with who approached the whole process with admirable grace and a positive attitude. When asked if she was nervous, the woman looked puzzled and replied, "Is there something I should be scared of?" Fear was not on her list of emotions during labor and she found it odd that a person might be scared of giving birth. I won't be so arrogant to say that I am just too brave to fear birth. I won't deny that I will probably be anxious when the contractions start or my water breaks. I know that I'll be nervous about the health of my unborn child, but I will never underestimate the power of a positive attitude. I am convinced that everything is going to be fine. Not perfect, but still amazing.
In closing, I wanted to post a lovely essay I recently read in a South Carolina publication called Skirt! by a local mother of four and postpartum doula named Jen Rognerud. I was quickly reminded of this story on Tuesday while the nurse read the above mentioned article. This essay focuses more on what happens after birth and labor, but the sentiments are real and true and should be considered throughout the entire process, from pregnancy to motherhood.
I hear about it all the time. It’s my job to hear about it. What I’m most often told is this: “It’s like a light suddenly flipped on.”
Women tell me of bluer skies and darker nights, of fluctuating emotions and unexpected, bone-shaking beauty. They tell me that they can smell the earth beneath the snow, taste toxins in the air and hear the phone ring before it actually does.
They talk of orgasmic pain, unbearable pain, or else they thank God for drugs. They are wild, angry, and soft. They are beautiful, beaten, and grounded. They love their midwife. They hate that one nurse. They have a little crush on the handsome doctor. They wonder if they will always regret the C-section with this much intensity. They wonder if they knew love before this. They wonder if they will ever sleep again.
They are all a little bit different. Only one thing is the same: They are a really big deal.
In many cultures, birth is still an animal act and the postpartum period an exalted affair. The new mother is revered as the most important being in existence, and the community makes sure she knows it. Her strength is commended, her tenderness protected; her worries and wounds are soothed. She is massaged with sacred oils. She is fed special soups, lovingly prepared by those who have walked the path before her. It does not matter if it is her first baby or her fifth. After each birth, she is pampered and worshipped, an adored queen.
While true parenthood begins in an instant, with new life’s first breath, the full transition from pregnancy to motherhood takes a little while. Around the world, 40 days seems to be the magic number. That’s 40 days of the mother lying in with the new baby, 40 days of bonding, breastfeeding, and embracing her heightened sense of being. The Latin cultures call it la cuarentena, but it is not an actual quarantine. It is a period of respect for the woman’s metamorphosis.
Some communities insist that the woman stay in bed, while everyone else works around her. Other traditions include quiet celebration, intricate ritual, and contemplative walks in the woods. Usually, female relatives tend to the postpartum woman - they feed her, clean her, and teach her how to nurse. While 40 days is the approximate time period for concentrated care, it is understood that the new mother may need a little extra help for the better part of a year.
In the Western world, the postpartum period is not a beautiful, celebrated time. In fact, it is often thought of as a time of chaos and despair. In the United States, we try to recognize a period of 40 days. Six weeks is often when a working woman’s maternity leave is up and it is when she goes for her final appointment with her obstetrician. That six week check up is our big ritual, and the main purpose of it seems to be to get the green light for sex and exercise (although most women don’t honestly feel like doing either until much later).
American postpartum support generally consists of a few casseroles, a present or two for the baby, and unsolicited advice from mothers and in-laws. The pregnant woman is fawned over and spoiled, but the postpartum woman is discarded in favor of her precious offspring. She has most likely had a clinical hospital birth, somewhat rushed and with professionals calling the shots. She is pushed from the hospital within 48 hours and once home, she finds herself isolated, overwhelmed and exhausted. I’m not speculating. This is the norm, and this is why postpartum depression is a Western phenomenon.
While Americans like to say that “it takes a village,” villages don’t exist. We have walls between us and thick social boundaries. Even in the tightest communities, casseroles are the standard in reaching out. Smart visitors might throw in a load of laundry or take older siblings for a walk to the park, but for the most part, the postpartum woman is expected to entertain her guests.
Our relationships with our own mothers are often strained. Families are fractured, separated by distance and tension. Close friends aren’t as close as they should be. New moms don’t feel comfortable expressing their emotions, which range from ecstasy to exhaustion, from sadness to rage. And somewhere along the way, we’ve written out quiet but persistent expectations for our postpartum women. They should put on their make-up. They should get out of the house, maybe just scoot over to Target for a bit. They should pull themselves together as soon as possible, because if they don’t, we’ll start to worry. And by worry, I mean talk.
Basically, we’re getting it wrong. Basically, it’s a mess.
That’s where I come in.
As a postpartum doula, I support new mothers in the month or so after birth. I cook, fold laundry, make tea, bake muffins. I give foot massages and hugs. I keep visitors in line and I keep Mama from writing thank-you notes if there are dark circles under her eyes. I offer to do it for her. It’ll be our little secret.
I am CPR-certified and overeducated on all things newborn. I know the signs of postpartum depression, postpartum psychosis, birth trauma, and mastitis. I know how to achieve a good latch at the breast, I can make a bottle with one hand, and I know several tricks for soothing fussy babies.
I honor birth stories, I shoulder anger, I dissolve guilt and fear. I do not judge and I do not try to do things my way. I teach, but I don’t give advice unless asked. I am a humble servant, I am a secret keeper, I am a baby burper. I am a mother to the mother.
To put it plainly, I give American women their 40 days - their much-deserved rest, ritual, and fanfare.
I didn’t go looking for this. This is not what I wanted to be when I grew up. As weird as it sounds, I was called to it. There is a need for this service, a deep and desperate need that I simply cannot deny. And I think there’s a quiet little need for me in particular, because I get it; because I believe in what I do.
Still, I’d be more than happy to be taken out of a job. I’d love it if our communities embraced the doula’s responsibilities, making my role obsolete. I’d love it if Americans could see beyond the split-second text message in front of them and realize that mothers, quite literally, make the whole world.
So yes, I’m calling us out, America. Come on out, aunties, bosses, sisters, brothers and friends. Wake up neighbors, grandmas, and book clubbers. Mamas need more than baby showers. They need more than maternity clothes and pre- natal yoga videos. They need to be cherished. They need love and support and time. They need those 40 days.
And P.S., when it comes to the casserole, they’re really sick of lasagna.
Jen Rognerud happily and clumsily juggles a family of four, writing, and postpartum work all over the Twin Cities. Sometimes she thinks she could use a doula of her own to help handle this lucky chaos.