The last three clients who enlisted my postpartum doula services had something in common: their level of isolation as new parents. The first couple has moved here from out of the country and all of their family is abroad. The second couple hasn’t found friends since moving to a new location. The third couple also moved recently, haven’t had a chance to make any friends yet, and family is not nearby. (A few people from their church have offered to help but they don’t know them well and feel awkward taking them up on their offers). Two out of three of these families also had a spouse return to work after just two weeks. This made for some long and frustrating days for the mothers who were trying to figure out feeding issues, and/or longing for the autonomy they had before baby arrived, and/or dealing with sleep deprivation and powerful hormonal shifts.
They had something else in common, too – they all say they did so much planning and preparation for pregnancy and the birth process… and yet felt totally unprepared for what would come next: parenting an actual newborn.
While I’m so glad that each of these couples decided to reach out to a postpartum doula instead of pushing through the discomfort (sometimes desperation), isolation, and serious sleep deprivation,… I know there have to be more ways to feel supported and held while entering into – and traveling through – those demanding first years of parenting infants and young children. While I’m happy to be part of the solution, and I’m sure my fellow postpartum doulas are as well, I don’t think it’s a sufficient or sustainable one in every case.
Lately my friends and I – all parents of young children ages 2-7 – have started a dinner exchange. It’s one of those things that for years sounded too daunting to me. (Wouldn’t I have to clean my home, and what would I cook, what if someone didn’t like it, and what if I just don’t feel like socializing that night but it’s already on the calendar…?) We were determined to have this be something that made things easier and not harder. So, we made staying optional – you can come eat and socialize or you can come bearing Tupperware, have a drink if you want, and go home with dinner to eat with your family. We’ve committed to one another that we will NOT clean our house and therefore make the next person feel like they need to clean theirs. We put out healthy snacks while we finish cooking and figure everyone will get enough of what they need picking and choosing from what’s available from the meal and the snacks. And regarding the workload (more chopping, etc), it’s SO worth a little extra work one Tuesday if the next two Tuesdays you don’t have to cook or clean up at your own house! Maybe more importantly, we’re together and not all duplicating efforts in our separate homes. The kids form great relationships and become “surrogate cousins” since family is far away. (Just like we adults are not meant to do this parenting thing alone, these children also benefit from being surrounded by other children – and non-family member adults – who know them and care about them). When we go home with our kids after Tuesday dinner it feels like we’ve had a break from them, instead of endless hours alone together, and it makes facing bedtime hurdles easier. We’ve had fun with our friends and had a chance to vent any frustrations or brainstorm any challenges.
The problem is, this is the type of support we sometimes know we need but feel too overwhelmed to access – like a new mom support group, or mommy-baby yoga, that breastfeeding circle a few miles down the road, or even just the decision to go out and people watch with your baby instead of sitting alone at home. When I was a new mom, someone could have suggested this dinner exchange (I’m sure my sister probably did), or a coffee club or a hiking moms’ club… and I don’t know that I would have been brave enough, or convinced it would make enough of a difference, or confident I could make it through without bursting into tears in front of a bunch of new people (don’t worry, staying dry-eyed is not a requirement in these groups and if it were most of us wouldn’t be able to fulfill it). Instead, it took me almost three years after the birth of my last child, it took me until I was almost “out of the woods,” to be able to be resourceful enough and wise enough to pursue an idea such as our dinner exchange.
Anyway, perhaps between our postpartum doula or a local family member, and our mommy-baby yoga class and some commiseration with friends, we can try to piece something together that looks and feels like community, or at least makes us feel a little less alone. But it’s unfortunate that it’s takes such initiative and planning, such a leap of faith into something unknown and unfamiliar. Initiative, planning, leaps of faith… those are things we embark upon when we’re our best selves, when we have the resources rather than when we’re just trying to keep our head above water. In traditional cultures, the supports are just there. Your family is there. Your mother moves in with you or you with her. The food is placed in front of you, and the elders are knowledgeable about the best foods to give you for healing. They don’t let you do the housework, at least in those first few weeks. Your exposure to birth and postpartum goes way back into your childhood, you’ve helped other people with their babies, you’ve watched it all way more up close and personal. (At least if you’re a female this is true).I’m not suggesting traditional cultures are necessarily better in all ways or even in this way, just that they are set up. We don’t seem set up to me. We seem to be requiring people to figure out and forge a system that works, couple by couple, family by family, duplicating efforts and sometimes spinning our wheels. Jennifer Senior tells us in All Joy and No Fun of the findings that parents in many cases rank as less happy than their childless counterparts and/or less happy than their pre-child selves, and that in one study of twenty-two industrialized nations, the country that saw the biggest dip in happiness levels when comparing non-parents to parents was, in fact, the United States. Maybe this is because we don’t have appropriate supports in place. Senior also tells us that women’s contact with people in their networks shrinks in the early childrearing years, and that a study in 2009 found that 80 percent of mothers surveyed believed they didn’t have enough friends and 58% felt lonely.
Maybe there are policy level changes that could help new families make a smoother transition. Paid leave would give parents a little more time to adjust, recover, and catch up on sleep. Protecting a position at work for longer than the 12 weeks of FMLA, even if not fully paid, also opens up more options for families and is done in many of these industrialized countries where the happiness gap is less pronounced or nonexistent. (Often the job is protected for a year to two years). Short of or in addition to policy change, maybe there will be a natural cultural shift of a pendulum that swings us just a little bit back from overvaluing independence, toughing it out, sucking it up, and making it all look easier than it is.
In the meantime, here are a few ideas to help you take care of yourself and stay connected to others while you take care of your baby.