I mean, we spend 40 weeks building an entire person inside our own bodies, and then in one fell swoop we push him or her out, along with all the physical resources we’ve taken from our own bodies to maintain the baby’s very existence. We’re emptied out, depleted of energy, strength, blood, nutrients, and God knows what else, but now the baby is in our arms and we must begin the task of building this tiny human on the outside, as well as replenishing ourselves.Go read Calah's account about how, with her firstborn daughter, she did the Christmas family tour with her newborn and husband days after giving birth and then was medicated for postpartum depression. "Looking back," she speculates, "I know that I was definitely suffering from depression, but I wonder how much of it was brought on by sheer exhaustion."
Is it any wonder that in most cultures, mothers are expected to stay in bed for a full month after the baby is born? Everyone pitches in to help, but it would be unthinkable for the mother to return to the kitchen a week after the baby is born, let alone mere days.
Her point is borne out by this article from a few months ago that suggests that postpartum depression is, at least in part, a societal ill in its origins. Claudia M Gold is a doctor who writes at Child in Mind, and posits: Is Postpartum Depression Really Postpartum Neglect?
That is, neglect of the mother: she observes that mothers are highly attuned to their infants' needs, and infants in turn are highly attuned to respond to their mothers: "These two evolutionary adaptations come together in the concept as described by J Ronald Lally of the 'social womb,'" she writes, but
"[t]he problem lies in the fact that in contemporary culture new mothers do not themselves have a 'holding environment' that supports caring for the baby in the way his immature nervous system requires."...
There is an evolutionary purpose to what in this country was once termed "lying in." During a period of 3-4 weeks mothers were able to rest and connect with their baby while a group of women helped with household chores and offered emotional support.Meanwhile, Elizabeth Foss wrote a post that popped in my news feed on the same day as the "postpartum as neglect" article. She told about encountering another mother in a restaurant who wanted to know how she should do it all—take care of a brood of busy kids and keep her sanity. Childbirth and recovery might be several years in the past in this scenario, but demands of a different nature have taken their place—the demands of multiple kids, with their multiple ages and interests.
Cultures around the world recognize the need for protecting the mother–baby pair in this way. Contemporary American society, with its unrealistic expectation of rapid return to pre-pregnancy functioning, is uniquely lacking in a culture of postpartum care.
We cannot go back in time to a period when extended family was available to provide a community of support. Nor will we be able or even want to return to a time when mothers stayed in bed for 3-4 weeks after childbirth. But some steps must be taken.
"You’re in the thick of it now," she told the woman. "You can’t be pulled in four directions all day every day without time to re-charge. Ask for help in order to be able to take care of yourself." She reflects:
I sat down with my own little brood of whichever of my children were with me that day and I pondered all the pieces of the hurried conversation. She was right. I’ve noticed the head-down-and-barrel-through posture that comes in neighborhoods where people work long days and then commute long hours.It reminded me of Jennifer Fulfiller's writing on the same issue of mothers' need for support. She's written several times about this topic. For example:
We are meant to live in community. We are meant to bear one another’s burdens and to connect in meaningful ways. Clearly, this lady was so starved for emotional connection with another woman that she would allow herself to be vulnerable in a restaurant in a town away from home. And I really believe that if we weren’t both far from our usual stomping grounds, I would have offered to be that leg up for her. What I hope is that she tucked my words into her heart and she thought about how to share that same vulnerability with a neighbor or a co-worker.
I don’t think it’s self-indulgent at all for stay-at-home moms to have help, especially those who have children who don’t go to school (e.g. homeschoolers or moms of babies and toddlers). In fact, I would say it’s closer to a necessity than a luxury.Her theory about social isolation rang true then and I have only seen it shared by other writers and confirmed in experience since.
When I studied anthropology in college, one of the things that stood out to me the most was the element of community: In pretty much every time and place outside of modern Western culture, people lived around family all their lives. The average person was surrounded by brothers, sisters, cousins, aunts, uncles, nieces and nephews. For women, the work of raising children was not done alone: Younger nieces and cousins would help with the little kids, the women would socialize as they gathered water or washed clothes, all the children playing together around them. This is the kind of life we were designed for.
In contrast, the average modern woman who is out of the workforce lives her life on a suburban desert island. The nearest family member lives miles (if not thousands of miles) away. She doesn’t know all the people on her street, and not many of them have kids anyway. If she’s like many Americans, she’s moved within the past few years, losing any sense of community she’d built in the last place she lived. Any opportunities for socializing with other women involve the herculean effort of packing up all the kids in the car to drive somewhere. She doesn’t even have the age-old mother’s release valve of banishing the kids outside and telling them to come back at mealtime, since safety concerns mean she has to keep them within sight at all times.
This is an incredibly unnatural way to live.
These are not the only things I've read recently about the need mothers have for both moral encouragement and material, tangible support. It's been on my mind, as I grow our family's next addition within me and think about how our family interacts with the world. But apparently it's on a bunch of other people's too.
Similar reading elsewhere:
Nurses, fathers, teachers, mothers. Why do we devalue someone the minute they care for others?
Torturing new mothers and then wondering why they get mentally ill.
A meditation on the shocking idea that maybe we're actually not just lazy whiners
Motherhood, Fulfillment and careers How we built our village