After the birth of my first daughter, I was in so much pain that walking to the letterbox was an agonising trek. Having had an emergency C-section and struggling with breastfeeding, I was bleeding from three different parts of my body.
When my baby cried, I didn’t have a clue how to soothe her so I just sobbed along with her. But instead of saying, “This is really hard, I need help”, I said, “What’s wrong with me? Everyone else can do it.”
I’d gone through major abdominal surgery, but I was expected to just get on with it and care for a baby. Like many new mothers, I didn’t consider myself a patient in need of care or time to heal and adjust to motherhood.
We celebrate mothers who are back at work — and the gym — well before their stitches have dissolved. And any woman who’s seen to be taking care of her own needs, rather than being totally devoted to those of her baby, is liable to be branded selfish.
As writes Hillary Brenhouse in a recent article in The Daily Beast about the US’s postpartum practices, “For the mourning or the injured, we will activate a meal tree. For the woman who is torturously fatigued, who has lost one-tenth of her body’s blood supply, who can scarcely pee for the stiches running up her perineum, we will not.”
Brenhouse points to some parts of Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and Europe, where new motherhood isn’t a brutal emotional and physical endurance test. Instead, new mothers have a period to convalesce or ‘lie-in’ where family and friends — or hired help if family is unwanted or unavailable — take care of the mother and her infant while she recovers. This time is also used to impart mothering skills and wisdom.
“With these rituals comes an acknowledgment, familial and federal, that the woman needs relief more at this time than at any other — especially if she has a career to return to — and that it takes weeks, sometimes months, to properly heal from childbirth,” writes Brenhouse.
Not only are new mothers not permitted to convalesce in private, we reject them from public life as well — which is one more harsh reality a new mother has to come to grips with.
We go from offering pregnant women our seat on the bus to snarling at them for clogging up the footpath with their prams. We make them feel uncomfortable for breastfeeding in public and want to ban their crying child (and therefore them) from aeroplane travel and cafes. And then for good measure, we shame them for not losing their baby-weight fast enough.
It’s hardly surprising that one in seven new mothers experience postnatal depression.
Daily Life’s counsellor and author of Becoming Us Elly Taylor says that most people underestimate the postpartum period of recovery — both physically and psychologically. And doing so is detrimental to relationships.
“When mothers think that all the other mothers are coping, they often start to blame their partner when things go wrong,” says Taylor. “They think that they’re struggling because their partner isn’t doing enough, when the real problem is the unrealistic expectations they’re putting on themselves.”
Taylor says mothers are pressured to rush to get everything back to ‘normal’ because we equate normal with coping. But this can undermine mothers’ ability to cope.
“We need to think in terms of the ‘new normal’ and to recognise that we still need the village,” she says. “A lot of couples make a birth plan. I advise couples to make a postpartum plan as well so they think about what sort of help they might need and how to get it.”
While having a plan might not solve the unrealistic cultural expectations surrounding childbirth and the postpartum period, it is at least an attempt to acknowledge the significance of a new life phase. The larger challenge is to appreciate the tectonic shift that is parenthood in a couple’s life, and to give women the much-needed space and time to adapt.