Monday, September 25, 2017

Here's How You Can Really Help Women in the Postpartum Period

In the two weeks following the birth of our baby, I spent every shower crying. My parent friends tell me that this is normal. For many of them, the stress and pain of the immediate postpartum period extended well into the first year of parenthood.

The phrases my friends use to describe their postpartum experiences--"Worst year of my life," "wanted to die every day," "still struggling to overcome my rage and trauma,"--don't neatly fit into the blissful postpartum narrative of easy motherhood most women are fed. In fact, I don't know a single woman who describes the weeks following childbirth as enjoyable or easy. Instead, they talk about childbirth recovery like a hellish crucible. 

I got through the immediate postpartum period, and I never developed postpartum depression. I was lucky. Many people I love have not been so lucky. Weirdly, none of them mention hormones--even though the popular press continues to blame vague "hormonal shifts" for years of postpartum suffering. Instead, their suffering correlates with very clear, very fixable needs: more paid time off, better pain management, more help around the house, greater understanding from loved ones, a chance to talk about their births. 

Every couple of years, another study comes out with the exact same finding: postpartum mood issues are common, many women don't discuss their symptoms with their doctors, and treatment is inadequate. We collectively shake our heads about this, as if it's some sort of mystery why women are struggling. We often do this while ignoring the clear and obvious needs of women recovering from childbirth. Mental illness happens for many reasons, and not all cases of postpartum depression are preventable. Yet all women--yes, all women--who have given birth need support. Very few get enough of it. 

So if you really want to help someone recover from birth, if you really want to increase a woman's odds of avoiding postpartum depression, here's what you can do. 

Address Her Practical Needs 
Caring for a newborn is overwhelming, particularly to a woman recovering from childbirth who has never cared for a newborn before. Yet women are taught to be selfless, and instructed not to whine about their childbirth recovery. So don't ask what she needs. Provide her with something most women need, or take stock of her needs when you get there. Some simple ways to help include:
  • Putting away dishes, taking out the trash, or doing some other task while talking to the new mother. Don't make her feel guilty about it. Insist. Make her sit down. 
  • Bringing her food in disposable containers that don't have to be washed. 
  • Making her a meal, and cleaning up the mess. 
  • Bringing her favorite books or movies so she can relax while she nurses the baby or the baby sleeps. 
  • Bringing her plush new sheets to relax in. 
  • Doing a load of laundry. 
  • Holding the baby while she takes a shower or nap--but only if you know her well enough for her to trust you with the baby. 
  • Walking the dog--or even taking the dog for a few days.
  • Bringing groceries, particularly protein-rich foods to help mom recover. 
Treat Her Like a Recovering Patient
Childbirth is painful, and the recovery can be long and difficult. Women who push themselves too hard in the weeks following birth are more likely to have long-lasting problems. Our society demands that women push themselves. They should clean the house, and entertain guests, and be perfect mothers, and lose weight, and cook dinner, and get back to work as soon as possible. 

Don't be a part of this problem. Even if she doesn't complain, assume a woman recovering from birth is in pain. Treat her like someone recovering from surgery--often, she is. Don't expect her to clean, to get up, to be nicely dressed, or to do anything you wouldn't expect from a sick person. 

Don't Stigmatize Negative Emotions 
Women hear that having a baby is pure bliss for their entire lives. So when the realities of sleepless nights, breastfeeding struggles, post-birth pain, and endless needs hit them like a ton of bricks, it's easy for them to feel inadequate. Do not make a recovering mother feel like she's abnormal for not being blissfully happy. Don't tell her how easy recovery was for someone else, or tell her to toughen up. 

Perhaps most importantly of all, don't blame everything on her hormones. Yes, women going through the postpartum period are going through hormonal shifts. So is everyone else! Human beings' hormones shift all the time. Yet only during the postpartum period do we attribute every emotion a woman has to hormones. New parenthood is tough. Women have negative or conflicted emotions for a reason. Don't stigmatize those emotions by blaming them on hormones. 

Praise Her Parenting 
I've written a lot about patriarchal motherhood--how it instills in all women a sense of shame, guilt, and inadequacy; how it treats mothers as objects for public critique; how there is no way for moms to avoid being shamed for their parenting choices. 

In the postpartum weeks and months, these critiques sting especially sharply. In the two months following Athena's birth, I slept 45 minutes each night. I then had to pump milk 6-10 times each day, nursing her in between, to get my supply up. We had to feed her with a tube--a process that took three hours. In between all of the moments of terror about whether she would starve to death, I tried to read to Athena, get her on a sleep schedule, and preserve my deteriorating sense of self. I did this all while recovering from a nasty tear, and trying to come to grips with my new body. This is a typical experience. 

I was killing myself for my daughter, yet no one seemed to notice. Instead, all I got were a few critiques of my parenting on social media. When you're already feeling vulnerable--as most women recovering from birth are--you need to know you're doing something right. 

Counter the depressing weight of patriarchal motherhood by praising her parenting. Really notice what she's doing. Don't just tell her she's a good mom. Tell her why. Two days after I brought Athena home from the hospital, my cousin came over to bring me food. She told me I was doing a great job and that it would get better. She admitted how hard it is, and continually praised me. 

I think that visit may be what saved me from  unraveling in the hardest moments following Athena's birth. Be the person who saves someone--not the one who convinces her she's inadequate as a 

Let Her Talk About Her Birth 
Birth is difficult, emotional work. Every woman has feelings about her birth. For some, birth is traumatic. These women need to process through their emotions. Some women face abuse during childbirth. They need to accurately name the abuse for what it was. And for a precious few women, childbirth is triumphant. They should be allowed to bask in their achievement. 

Ask her how her birth was. Then listen. My sweet cousin--a different one this time; notice a theme?--visited Athena and me a month or two after she was born. We looked at my birth photos. She talked about my birth with awe and reverence. I felt sheltered and loved, and our conversations helped me see my transition to motherhood as the powerful, transformative experience it was. Be that person for someone else. 

Don't Ask for Anything 
By now, it should be clear. In case it's not: don't ask for anything from a woman recovering birth. Now is not the time for favors, for advice, or for stress. Let her recover. Then she can be there for you again. 

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