My oldest child just turned 5. It wasn’t until around his third birthday (which was also around the time that I completed my training with DTI and attended my first birth as a doula) that I began to examine and unpack my postpartum experience with him. On a gut level, I knew I was struggling when I was in the midst of it. But aside from a few spontaneous crying spells that I just couldn’t hide from my husband, I didn’t openly express how sad I felt and how hard of a time I was having. Negative thoughts would enter my head, but I would quickly dismiss them, telling myself I was an awful mother for not enjoying this time. There was exhaustion, layered with helplessness, and ultimately shame and guilt for not handling this transition with grace and joy. Why would I want to tell anybody about any of that?
There are a handful of factors that contributed to my challenging experience – I was recovering from an unwanted cesarean, breastfeeding was a struggle every single time, my baby cried way more than I thought he should, and I was so very exhausted. I’m sure that my postpartum hormonal changes contributed as well. Most mothers can probably identify with this list and many of these things are normal parts of the postpartum transition. However, I think there were a few more significant things at play here, and I believe that they as well affect many postpartum mothers.
First, my expectations before my baby was born were completely unrealistic. In fact, I distinctly remember one evening, when I was about six months pregnant and my partner and I were watching one of our favorite TV shows together, turning to him and saying, “just think, in three months we will be doing exactly this but with a little baby here!” I really and truly didn’t have any expectation that our lives would not be almost exactly the same. I pictured a quiet baby, not needing much from me, joining us in our evening relaxation time. Now I wonder why nobody warned me and helped me prepare for the postpartum period. And I don’t wish that I had been warned in a sort of, “you just wait, life with a baby is no walk in the park” kind of way. I wish that somebody, a friend or my doula, had sat down with me and lovingly talked with me about the typical postpartum transition and typical newborn behavior. If my expectations had been more realistic, I know that some parts of my postpartum transition would have been easier to cope with.
The second thing at play during my postpartum time was that I was dealing with these challenges while operating under the belief that every new mom absolutely loves motherhood the instant she finds herself there. I believed that I shouldn’t need to ask for help and I certainly shouldn’t admit to feeling sad or lonely. Strong females don’t ask for help and they stay quiet about the challenges they are dealing with. This is such a dangerous mindset to be in and our dominant culture needs to stop teaching this to girls and women. I wish somebody had given me some ideas about how to ease into my role as a mother. I wish somebody had let me know that there was a chance I might feel sad or helpless and that I should tell somebody and reach out for help. I also wish that when I was in the midst of it, somebody had asked me how I was really doing and created a safe space for me to speak my truth. This would have required a bit more questioning than, “how are you” or “how’s it going?”.
Doulas, preparing our clients for this transition ahead of time and supporting them afterwards is our responsibility. Not just postpartum doulas, but birth doulas too. As birth doulas, we’re often the only birth professional to walk the journey with them before birth to motherhood. As I’ve developed my practice over the past few years, I have found myself putting increased focus during prenatal meetings and email communications about postpartum expectations and preparation. I have a postpartum wellness toolkit available on my website and I make sure to sit down with clients and go through it. And recently I’ve become more comfortable creating intentional space for clients to open up about their struggles once their postpartum days are in full swing. Sometimes it can feel intimidating to ask a new mother to share her hard truths, especially because we worry about our “scope” and the fact that we’re not certified mental health professionals. But what if you are the only person to provide a moment for a new mama to tell you she’s struggling? If you don’t do it, who will? If we are afraid to probe just a little bit, or follow up on something that looks like it might be a red flag, perhaps nobody else will. If she opens up to you, you just need to listen. Listen, validate, and then provide her with information on the very best resources your community has to offer. And you never know what ripple effect you may cause. Maybe she will create this space for somebody else close to her in the future. And slowly, we’ll challenge this status quo of silence together, shifting the culture of how we support postpartum mothers.
Taylor Davis is DTI certified birth doula. 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