7 Reasons Why Postpartum is Everyone's Business.
The days after a baby is born will be unlike any other life changing moment in your life. It will most probably come as unexpected and sometimes might feel like you got hit by a ton of bricks. And yet, very rarely anyone talks about what happens until they start thinking about having their own babies or someone close to them has babies. People need to be prepared for what is the reality they might witness once their relatives are in postpartum, or for when their own day to bring a newborn home arrives.
Women go through an extremely vulnerable period after childbirth, their vaginas are sore or wounded, some are recovering from a major surgery and have their breasts swollen, nipples dripping milk and sometimes blood, they have their bodies going through a massive transformation after 9 months of adapting to another human growing inside them. Their hormones have completely crashed after they lost the placenta which left a plate sized wound inside their uterus to heal, and they are experiencing the greatest physical, emotional, and social transformation in their lives.
So why on earth is this not being discussed in a matter-of-fact way before these things happen? When have we, as humans, detached ourselves from the substance of the very beginning of the human condition and the needs of the ones more actively engaged in its creation, the ones who give birth?
And why does this matter to you anyway?
1. Women you love will have babies.
Women around you that you love will most probably have babies and need your support as never before and possibly never again. And when they really need it, they will need you to step up to your very best. Your very best in a postpartum situation. How will you know if you never ever during your life thought about it? How can you be thoughtful and truly conscious about how to be helpful?
The secret is to be the quick useful presence, a listening ear, arms to cook, tidy and clean, and a zero-opinion protocol.
You might not always understand or agree with what is going on, but do not forget that now it's their time, it's their moment for taking in their new reality, they are adapting to a new life altogether, they need to figure it out. It is hard enough as it is, so offer support, do not make it harder.
Know what you shouldn’t be doing or saying. One of the musts of any good visit to a postpartum family is to mind your own business. Always think:
1. Why do you want to mention or ask it?
2. Is it kind or helpful?
If the answer is NO, keep it to yourself. Most of the opinions given come from a personal experience, often only for the sake of small talk and can come across as intrusive, unhelpful, and disempowering for a family who is figuring it out for themselves. If you have had babies already, always remember that just because you experienced a certain situation does not mean that everyone else will experience it the same way and therefore that it will be helpful for them. The best help is the kind presence that just IS and listens without judging or offering solutions that suggest that families should be doing things differently.
2. You might want to have babies.
You too might want to be a mother or a father and the true preparation for parenthood starts way before you decide you want to be a parent. It starts with how you are exposed to women and their reproductive health, with the stories you hear around childbirth and with the narratives and rituals after a baby is born. It is called education, the kind of education about human bodies, women's health and the psychology of relationships that should be learned at school and from your family.
How are babies born? I mean, how are babies really born, let's watch some videos together?
What is autonomy and what are my rights when I am being cared for by the health system? What are the choices I want to make for myself? If you don't know your options, you have none, and this is worth for childbirth, for after birth and throughout your entire life.
How are birthing people affected by childbirth and how can family and friends be as helpful as possible after a baby is born?
How can parenthood change the couple, the life of a family? I am not talking about financial burdens and childcare here; I am talking big deep identity shifts.
Not being educated about postpartum before having a baby is like getting on a plane to the other side of the planet not knowing where you are going and without any luggage.
3. You will eventually come home with a baby for the first time.
Now it's coming your way, you are going to be a parent. Are you really ready for the physicality of caring for a helpless newborn? To experience the emotional strain, the nights with fragmented sleep, the tiredness, the dirty house, the pile of dishes in the kitchen, boobs out, sore nipples, a half-naked person in disposable pants, soiled nappies, and the smell of spitted milk?
Or imagine the same scenery when you visit your postpartum sister and how alienated you might feel to witness that? Now you might ask, will you know it just because you prepared?
Of course not, learning from experience is the true learning, but knowing what to expect makes it tolerable, prevents many issues that might arise after the baby is born, like parental mental health issues, relationship challenges, and prepares you to ask for help and know where to go.
This is halfway through a positive start of parenthood which will serve for many years to come.
4. You will be emotionally involved.
Here is the thing, a baby who is born is not only a son or a daughter, but also a grandchild, a niece or nephew, a cousin, and a friends´ baby. And for every single one of the people peripheral to the family who just gave birth, to a greater or smaller extent, there is a process of adaptation going on.
In this matter I would like to start by the partner. Usually he becomes the first go-to person for everything, often however gaining only a third-generation beam of attention. We must be mindful that he is an intrinsic part of the family, and he is also in the middle of a transition to parenthood and going through postpartum after the birth of the baby. He also has his doubts, his fears, his expectations, and needs. He too needs to be heard and seen, and not only considered as the right-wing person in terms of postpartum support. As such it is important for you to think about the partner as much as you think about the mother or the baby. Ask him how he is feeling, ask him how the birth was, ask him if he needs help doing any of the house chores.
Moving on to the usual second tier of support, mothers and mothers-in-law. At some point many of you will become mothers or mothers-in-law. If you are going to be in the role whose ´little one´ is having a baby it is not uncommon, and to a certain extent, comprehensible, that you fall into a place of overtaking competencies, as after all, you have been through it and they are just starting to experiencing it. You must not forget that you might come from a generation where things were done differently, or information was not accessible or reliable as it is in the present time. Above all, now it's the time for them to tell their story, it is about their experience, their path, their autonomy to choose, and they will most definitely choose differently than what you chose for your children and yourself. That in itself can become quite confronting as if you are being questioned as a mother and your choices weren't the best for your children. As such, you become unconsciously defensive by becoming an intrusive and overtaking presence which will, as an effect, easily disempower and infantilise your daughter or son, instead of supporting them through this massive life-changing moment in their lives. So, here is a tip for the future (or present) grandmothers - Never say things like ´I have raised you and you came out alright'.
Lastly, let's talk about the more extended family and friends. There are two types of friends, the ones who already had children, and the ones who are still to become parents or do not wish to become parents.
The ones who are experienced often talk - a lot and sometimes only - about their own babies and experiences. This is quite alright at times, because peer shared experiences is a supportive way for new parents to navigate early motherhood. Where this gets a little tricky is when their active listening skills are blinded by motherhood. You might say 'I am exhausted, baby keeps me awake at night' and instead of staying with your experience and validating it, your friend might say 'Oh ... I don't know what that is, my baby as always slept really well'. If you are a friend reading this, please say something like this instead 'I am so sorry to hear that you feel exhausted. Is there something I can do to help you?'.
And then you have friends who do not have children. Firstly, it is harder for them to relate to your experience, there is a parenting-gap that might need to be filled with curiosity. Secondly, they represent the free life you had before. The freedom to go anywhere they want doing anything they want at any time they want is a reminder of a previous life that is not coming back. This might be very hard to deal with and trigger some difficult emotions. So, if you are reading this and your friend has just had a baby, know that your relationship is changing, and you will need to fill this gap with a sensible and gentle curiosity that will help your friend to navigate parenthood in a supportive way but will also be an important part of your own postpartum process when your time comes, if you choose so.
5. Notice your choice of vocabulary around women's bodies.
I believe that one of the most important things concerning postpartum (and everyday life...) is the urgent need to change the vocabulary around women’s bodies that might still feel uncomfortable to many. I am talking about sugar coating or pulling faces when hearing words like vagina, secretions, blood, breasts leaking, human milk, menstruation, amongst other words that frequently cause expressions of disgust and discomfort.
Women have for a long time been persecuted for... well, being women. They were made to feel ashamed about their bodies, about menstruating, about being too fat or too thin, beautiful, ugly, about gaining too much weight when pregnant, or not enough. They are pathologized during pregnancy, disempowered during childbirth, and totally abandoned during postpartum. They hide their breasts when breastfeeding because they fear being judged, and they are pressured to go back to their pre-pregnant state altogether.
This comes from decades of patriarchal power where men decided for and about women from a completely ignorant and experience lacking perspective. This is embedded in the way we think, feel and talk. And society is mostly not conscious of this fact. The way through this is to start changing the dialogue, and talking about sexual education, reproduction, and women's health as part of our everyday conversations. With ourselves, with each other, and with our children.
6. You are not entitled to visit the baby.
Babies are not to be exhibited. They are humans who are living the most vulnerable and perhaps scary period of their lives. They would still be inside the womb, but for evolutionary purposes, they must finish their gestation outside of the womb, hence the name fourth trimester. They are getting used to a new waterless world where they feed, breathe, hear, touch and move differently, and all of this with an extremely vulnerable nervous system to accommodate all of these changes.
Imagine that someone who you just met takes you suddenly for a ride to the bottom of the ocean, where you have encounters of the third kind with beasts you have never seen before and therefore do not feel safe. We know babies are safe, they don't.
Everybody is excited to meet the baby, right, I get that, it is an exciting moment, I get excited too. But honestly, what is the fuss all about? Is it the curiosity to see the baby's face, does it look like mother or father? Or is it the opportunity to ask questions and make their story yours, with all the should's and shouldn'ts of your own experience? It's like a fear of missing out effect when people want to see the baby right after birth, but unfortunately it is not about the baby, it is not about the person who just gave birth, it is not about the family, it is a desire that belongs exclusively to the one wanting to visit. And anyway... the baby's face will remain the same in 4 weeks’ time... and by then the family will be more recovered and ready to welcome you and everybody else.
So if you are one of those people who really feels they can't miss out on the first days visits, make yourself useful and focus your attention on the family's needs. Take a tray of food, do some light shopping, offer mum a back massage and, first and foremost, ask what the family choices are about visitors before you make your way to see the baby.
7. You can choose to take matters into your own hands.
I still find rather puzzling that everyone talks about how important it is to prepare for birth, but there is no such investment in talking about and preparing for postpartum.
Unless of course, you live in societies that are more mindful about the importance of taking care of the future citizens of the world. Countries for example, like Denmark or Holland. Both countries have midwife-led maternity systems where women are put at the centre of care. After the baby is born, there are dozens of visits to the families to support the infant’s development but also the mother’s wellbeing.
In Holland they have the role of the Kramzorg who is a mix between a doula and a maternity nurse, and visits the mother several times during the first weeks, cooking, cleaning, doing some light shopping, and helping with baby care.
In these two countries, it is embedded in the healthcare system the societal responsibility towards mothers and babies and the recognition that this is the way towards economic and social sustainability. This comes across very clearly when you look at the balanced and grounded societies these countries have, due to their values and capacity to build it from within.Why is it not like this in other countries?
Well, we do things a certain way because it has always been done that way. Sure, we don't know what we don't know. But we can question. We can look around. We can study.
There is a fair amount of unpredictability around childbirth and postpartum, sure. But there are things that you can control. You control the way you talk and the things you say. The way you talk about childbirth, where do these ideas come from? Am I curious enough to ask and listen instead of letting myself pour commonplace knowledge that might not be helpful for the couple at all? Does it validate their experience? Is it kind? Think about your choice of words, words matter a lot. They might be, although unwillingly, hurtful, and echo for a long time in the parents' mind, impacting their confidence in their new role as caregivers.
Take these matters into your hands and be like a Dutch Kramzorg. Ask what the couple needs, offer to help, order food for them, buy a home massage, get a voucher for someone to clean their house for a couple of hours and iron, or gift a postpartum doula voucher and provide the holistic support they might need. It is only when enough of us do this that it will start being embedded in our habits as a society.
To finish today's reflection about why postpartum is your business too, a last thing I would suggest is for you to forget about gifting all sorts of baby stuff people will probably not even use. The best gift you can get a new baby is the support you can get for his parents. Support the parent, and you will support the baby.
Do you want to learn how to support your baby after birth interventions?
In this masterclass, you will learn to identify three ways birth interventions can impact your baby’s development and specific strategies to help prevent future challenges for your baby