The most common piece of advice I received while pregnant with my son was, “ask for help once he’s born. You can’t do it all when you are a new mom!” And they were right. New moms need help when settling in to their new lives with baby but what happens when asking for help means even more work than gutting it out yourself?
In the early days after the birth of my son, my friends and family brought me food and offered to hold him so I could rest. Theoretically, this sounded great! But in reality, I was hyper-anxious. I didn’t want anyone to hold him. I was frantic, actually. Breastfeeding was tanking, and he lost a lot of weight. I was in pain from my cesarean section, scared of taking pain medication for fear they would affect him, and I was a hormonal mess of tears, sweat, and exhaustion! How can you ask for the help you need when your brain doesn’t work anymore, you are recovering from surgery, your nipples are bleeding, and you haven’t slept in days? How!?
Asking for help requires foresight into what you need, and I honestly had no idea what I needed. To ask for help, I needed to be decisive while incredibly sleep-deprived, and I just couldn’t bare the weight of making any more decisions that would impact another life. What I needed was for someone to see me in my emotional, scared state, and make it okay for me to be a mess.
Our societal norms put unrealistic expectations on mothers to act and feel a certain way, and I definitely wasn’t upholding the expectation I had conjured up during pregnancy. In our culture, new moms are also expected to have people over to meet their new baby right away. This is incredibly stressful, especially when you are having a jarring reality check welcoming your baby in to your house. When distant Aunt Sally and Uncle Pete come over, they don’t want to see you in your state of crazy, put your boob in the baby’s mouth the way you are supposed to, wash your hair while you cry, and bring you dinner in bed. They want to hold your perfect, sleeping baby, take pictures, and then post them on Facebook.
But, did you know there are cultures that REQUIRE a new mother to stay in bed and rest during the postpartum period?! These new moms are surrounded by female relatives who feed them, take care of their older children, and allow them to recover from birth for WEEKS! They teach the new mama how to breastfeed, offer her hands-on help, and teach her how to care for her child. We used to have a ritual like this in colonial America, it was called the “lying-in” period. What ever happened to that?! Now new mothers are discharged from the hospital 24-48 hours after a vaginal delivery, 72 hours after a cesarean, and are told, “good luck!” (Unless they are lucky enough to afford a postpartum doula.)
So, yes, new moms need help, and no, we can’t do it all on our own. Giving birth is messy, scary, beautiful, exhausting, and recharging all at the same time. New mothers can’t prepare for what their world is going to look like once their baby comes, and those who support them need to remember this: it isn’t just about pictures and sweet-smelling newborns; it’s about the birth of a mother as well. She will shed tears, she will bleed, she won’t want to wear shirts, she will be frustrated, and her hair will be greasy. She needs rest, food, zero judgement, and unrelenting love. Once we let go of our preconceived ideas of how having a baby should look, and focus on reassuring new moms that whatever it does look like is perfectly okay, then we can actually give her the help she deserves.