What asking for help taught me about Postpartum Depression

As many of you who follow me and my work know, I’m currently at the tail-end of awaiting the arrival of a new baby. This being the third birth my husband and I are planning for, we’ve done many things along the way differently, trying to remedy the wrongs of our previous experiences and enhance the one we are currently living.

One of the many choices we’ve made differently this time around is planning a homebirth, attended by two of the loveliest, most competent midwives I’ve had the pleasure to meet. That plan alone, one would assume would be the ‘thing’ people would gasp at and dissect. To my pleasant surprise, the responses have on the whole been heartwarming and supportive. However this week, I apparently did something FRINGE and entirely ROGUE in our pregnancy and postpartum planning, and I didn’t even realize it at the time.

You see, my midwives hold several group prenatal appointments for their clients throughout pregnancy. At these group prenatals, opportunity is given to address a variety of issues arising during pregnancy and postpartum – the most recent of which included the discussion topic of planning your postpartum “babymoon” and how to best facilitate family bonding, physical recovery, and a healthy breastfeeding relationship. Many suggestions were made, books referenced, and peer anecdotes shared. One in particular I went home and attended to the very next day. I wrote a list.

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SHOCK. AWE. HORROR. THE INHUMANITY. Wait….what?

In my typical little-bit-sarcastic-little-bit-facetious manner, I wrote what I felt to be a rather lighthearted view of what kinds of help we’d actually need postpartum, inserting a joke about “working for baby head sniffs” along the way.  My midwives actually sent home an example of one such list with us from that appointment and I had simply used it as a springboard to bring my own humor and assertive perspective to our version. To me, this seemed like a perfectly reasonable and excellent idea! Of COURSE I would need help postpartum- I have a husband who works long hours and weekends plus a preschooler and kindergartner who would be adjusting. What a wonderful, simplified way to tell people specifically how they could help in the chance that they offered.

I was completely unprepared for the response.

Friend after friend after friend after loved one wrote on my facebook and reached out to me privately after I shared on my personal wall.  Pleas to make the post public so it could be shared, comments of how SO many of these women wished they had thought to do something like this for their own births. The common thread? Almost every single person who was celebrating this novel concept, (openly asking for what you needed help with and not just hoping someone would step up and throw you a life raft while you were drowning in new parenthood) was either a newly postpartum mother or birthworker themselves.  Seeing how great the need was to share this idea, as so many had simply never considered something so bold as openly asking for help, I made available a public post on my business facebook page.

It was shared. And shared again. And those people’s posts were shared. As of this writing, the post has been viewed over 3,000 times. That’s a lot for one itty bitty doula facebook page with less than 120 followers!

As with most things on social media, the dissenters began creeping out of the woodwork almost immediately. And this is where the wheels in my brain really started turning. Over and over I began seeing responses along the lines of how incredibly selfish and self serving this idea. How ridiculous, how offensive, how TACKY. No one should have to do WORK to hold someone’s newborn. Why don’t new parents just SAY they don’t want visitors and everyone will leave them alone. How heinous to EXPECT that anyone should take a sponge to your counter top, or fix you a cup of tea. It wasn’t the first time in my life I was told unequivocally I was too much, too bold, too bossy. It probably won’t be the last.

I’d like to say I was shocked, but saddened would be a more appropriate term to describe how I was feeling. For every negative response I saw being written on the posts of those fresh, vulnerable new moms shouting “Oh my gosh, YES! This is what I need! I want to make a list like this, I NEED HELP!” there was someone right behind them tone policing. Silencing. Telling them their needs were invalid.

In the United States we live in a nation where 11-20% of new mothers and fathers will experience some form of Postpartum depression. On average, 1 in 7. 80% of new mothers will experience the “lesser” version known as the Baby Blues. EVERY new mother, regardless of how she delivered will spend at minimum the first 6 weeks of her life postpartum healing an internal wound at the site of the placenta. That wound is 9″ in diameter on average. 9″ people! Go out to your kitchen and hold up a 9″ dinner plate and tell me that’s a small thing to heal. If the mother had a cesarean section, her healing is complicated even further. Many many new mothers deal with pelvic floor healing, handling tears and stitches and bruising, making walking even short distances difficult. Compound this knowledge with the fact that there is still no nationwide standard for maternity or paternity leave policies, you have a culture of brand new families desperate for assistance with little time to cram their recovery into to begin with.

And asking for someone to help them dust is too much. Is it any wonder the state of mental health for new parents in America is in utter shambles?

What has gone so very wrong in our culture that asking for help is openly viewed as obscene? We have lost the village. Somewhere along the way, we have bought into the entitled idea that we are owed audience with a new family, and they shouldn’t dare limit how long we want to stay. We are happy to bring them one more super-cute-onesie (and gifts are AWESOME- I’m not knocking gifts for new babies), but giving the gift of ourselves, our muscles and minutes, is tacky and shouldn’t be expected.

In societies the world over, there are traditions and practices in place to protect the new mother. Special foods she should eat (most certainly prepared by others), specific amounts of time she should focus solely on resting, rituals for avoiding cold and stress on her body. We have trampled this idea in America as we push harder and harder for new families to simply assimilate this brand new human into an already overstretched, overworked, over-busy lifestyle and ‘bounce back’. When women are brave enough to reach out openly and say they really need help and this is how, they are shut down.  We must stop the double standard of pressuring women to be everything to everyone at the expense of their own physical, mental, and emotional health – then shaming them when they can’t because we’ve asked too much.

Well meaning loved ones say “Let me know if you need anything!” when what they really mean is “Let me know if I can come hold your baby!” while the new mother is left feeling as though she must clean, prepare, and hostess visitors in her home. After she has run the absolute marathon of birth. This has to change. Our new families deserve so much more! We must start honoring and treasuring the postpartum period, and this includes being willing to do the work of life in that very brief period for those we love. Snuggling their beautiful new babies is just the icing on the cake – the joy needs to start with being an integral part of helping the family heal.

I am still evolving, both as a parent and as a birthworker. What I do know now, especially after my experiences this week in sharing my “very scary” list, is how very important the work of doulas is, now more than ever. As my dear friend and fellow doula put it recently while she helped me for hours on a Tuesday preparing freezer meals and cleaning my kitchen – if we can relieve just a little pressure from new parents, take just a little of the stress off them, it’s worthwhile work. Doulas, postpartum doulas specifically, are not self-indulgent luxury expenses indicative of being lazy parents. They are doing the most important work – guarding tender, vulnerable spaces of new parents (and they’re worth every penny!) When new life is welcomed into a home that is well rested, well fed, and well treasured, a world of stability and health is opened to them. What could be more important to a society than that? Knowing our next generation is getting the best start possible.

So pick up the Swiffer, tuck the new parents into bed with their precious little one, and get to it my friends. This is the work of life. This is the little stuff that’s really big stuff. Don’t miss it.

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