A new mother is in a state of tremendous transition for at least the first six weeks postpartum. She’s recovering physically from labor and delivery. Her hormones are dramatically shifting. She might be processing fear and/or trauma from childbirth. She’s learning how to breastfeed, which many women attest is the hardest thing they’ve ever done. She is emotionally raw, open and more vulnerable than she’s ever felt.
According to many ancient cultures, this transition lays the foundation for the rest of her life. And yet, so often in the U.S., the focus is on the health of the baby to the exclusion of the mother. Now is the time to celebrate, support and nurture the mother so that she feels whole, balanced and able to care for her newborn.
- Decide on the division of labor. While I was pregnant, my midwife was a big proponent of the “three adults for every infant” rule and strongly urged my husband and me to recruit a third person to help for at least two weeks after the birth of our daughter. As part of that exercise, we made a list of routine household duties, things like feeding the dog, buying groceries, taking out the trash, etc. to get really specific about who was doing what. My husband and I also did a rough outline of baby-related responsibilities and agreed on a plan for taking care of her. Once she arrived and we got a better idea of what worked for us, we adapted our plans and settled into a routine. What made sense logically in our planning process wasn’t necessarily what was best in practice. But more importantly, our conversation helped us prioritize (“Do we really need to dust our furniture for that first two weeks?”), ensure that we had enough help and set expectations about what each of us was responsible for. When you’re tired and overwhelmed, it’s easy for resentment to fester. Trust me….have the conversation beforehand.
- Give her time and permission to rest. It’s critical for a new mom’s mental, emotional and physical health to heal following childbirth. You can read more on the topic and find helpful resources here. This is a complicated time for new moms and she might feel social pressure to help around the house, entertain guests, look like her pre-pregnant self and generally seem “back to normal.” If this is the case, give her permission to put her feet up, relax and move at a pace that her body is ready for. You might also need to set boundaries with friends and family on her behalf. Ideally, she would stay in bed or close by it for the first two weeks postpartum, or longer if she has gone through a Cesarean birth. Giving her permission to rest also necessitates a little more attentiveness from you; she’s only able to rest if someone else is preparing food, bringing her water, making sure she’s warm and looking after her needs.
- Know the warning signs. Ensure that you’ve done your homework and that you know the signs of postpartum depression and postpartum anxiety. You will likely recognize a change in her before she sees it in herself. The Postnatal Depletion Cure is an excellent resource.
- Use meaningful words of affirmation. When I was creating my birth plan, my midwife said that she often asks her clients to write a list of positive phrases that they’d like to hear during the more difficult phases of labor to give them strength and comfort. I think that the same advice applies beautifully to the postpartum period, especially if “words of affirmation” is the new mom’s love language. Meaningful, heart-felt encouragement can go far during the emotionally raw and vulnerable postpartum period…and anytime for that matter.
- Take care of yourself. For fathers: As you prepare to step into your new role, remember that this is an incredibly transformative time for you, too. The old saying that a woman becomes a mom when she finds out she’s pregnant, but a man becomes a father when he see his child for the first time was definitely true in our case. It’s an emotional time that can be profound, stressful, beautiful and intimate…and it all happens in such a blur. Taking care of yourself is critical: try to get rest, find an exercise or meditation practice that grounds you, speak with a therapist to get ahead of anything that might come up…whatever will help you find strength, peace and the ability to be present in the moment. Those will offer mom and baby great security and will help create a positive, supportive home environment.
Ultimately, your unconditional love and support are the most important things you can give a new mom at this time. The care and comfort you show her are critical to her ability to look after the baby and heal herself, which are both cornerstones for a happy, healthy family in the long term.