My world was rocked after the birth of my first child. I wrote about it in an earlier post for DTI, Shifting the Culture of Postpartum Support. In summary, I was simultaneously navigating my emotions about an unexpected and hard birth experience and trying to figure out what it meant to be a mother to this new little life. Breastfeeding was challenging, with every nursing session looming over my head like an unwelcomed visitor. My baby cried more than I thought was normal, and only slept in my arms. Many times during those early days, I would find myself crying as I wished for my old life back. The guilt would come next, plaguing me and accusing me of being a terrible mother for wishing this away. And I kept silent, afraid to tell anybody how I felt. I needed help on a few different levels, but I didn’t even think to ask.
In the previous post for DTI, I talked about the importance of doulas helping the families they work with to prepare for the postpartum transition. I talked about the importance of encouraging moms to really open up about how they are feeling during this fragile time. I talked about connecting them to resources and letting them know that it’s OK to share their negative feelings. I also touched on the cultural ideal of the “strong female” who doesn’t need to ask for help and who can handle everything independently. I want to dive into that some more here, and talk about how we, as doulas, can support new parents to overcome this huge postpartum hurdle of accepting and asking for help.
The obstacles to asking for help are very real. The dominant culture in the U.S. values independence and the ability to succeed in spite of challenging circumstances. Many people feel like they can’t or shouldn’t accept help. And the village of support that used to be built into everyday life, when extended families lived and worked together, isn’t really a thing anymore. We are largely individualistic and this has the potential to really harm new families. The postpartum period is a time to think from a more collectivist mindset. It’s a time for families to think of themselves as part of a community working together to help them and their babies thrive. This means that they need to find people to help and they often need to make a point of asking for help.
It’s easy to encourage new parents to ask for help and to possibly even convince them that they will benefit greatly if they do. It’s much harder for them to actually go ahead and do it. As doulas, we can provide some scaffolding to get them from Point A to Point B. Here is an exercise that I walk through with new parents to help them acknowledge this hurdle and, hopefully, move past it. This can happen prenatally or during the postpartum period.
- Talk with the parent(s) openly about this cultural expectation and standard of independence, and the pressure to appear to be holding it together.
- Share examples of postpartum practices in other cultures and communities that might open their eyes to a different way. Sometimes I’ll share stories of times others have asked for help even when it was hard.
- Encourage them to think about how they might feel if a friend asked them for help. Would they judge, thinking their friend was less of a parent,
or be annoyed? Or would they be eager to reassure their friend, helping to put worries at ease and providing whatever support they could?
- Help parent(s) make a list of the top 3 things they need help with right now (if they’re not yet postpartum, they can anticipate their top 3 needs, knowing that they might change).
- Help parent(s) identify a person in their life to help meet each of those needs. Encourage them to think about the particular skills and strengths of people they might choose and match them to the type of help they need. Do they need concrete help like cooking or cleaning? Do they need a good active listener? Do they need help figuring out a particular infant feeding challenge? They might choose a different person for each of these things.
- Talk about the exact way that they can approach that person to ask for the specific help they need. Sometimes it’s valuable to even role play what they might say. Here are a few examples:
- “I haven’t been able to get my bathroom clean in 3 weeks. Can you come over and play with the baby while I clean?” OR, “Can you come clean my bathroom?”.
- “I need help with breastfeeding. Can you help me by finding a local lactation consultant that can come to the house?”
- “I’m having a really hard time right now. Would you be willing to just listen to me while I talk?”
- Check in with them to help them follow through and actively affirm them as they find the strength and bravery to ask for help.
I think this activity has the power to truly help transform a new family’s postpartum experience. Asking for help is one of the main focuses of my Peaceful Postpartum Online Retreat with New Mama Project. We go into even more detail about this, providing worksheets and community support to new parents as they work through their postpartum transition. I’m offering a giveaway for a free membership to the session that runs from March 6 through March 20. If you’re a new mama yourself, you will love the support, ideas, and community. And if you’re a birth professional, you can gift this retreat to a client or loved one who might need some extra support and encouragement right now. Simply comment on DTI’s Instagram, sharing one thing that a new family might ask for help with during the postpartum time period. You’ll be entered to win and a winner will be chosen at random and announced in this post shortly after.
Taylor Davis is DTI certified doula and educator. She is also the leader of her local ICAN (International Cesarean Awareness Network) chapter in New Hampshire where she lives with her husband and two young boys. She is the co-founder of New Mama Project, an online community offering support for postpartum mothers and space for real talk about the transition into motherhood. The site offers a social supports guide and self-care quiz for new mamas that can be found here: New Mama Project
Taylor will be teaching the next DTI2 Seacoast, New Hampshire training on October 6-9, 2016. Register here.