If you google the term “postpartum”, a few hundred articles come up on postpartum depression and postpartum anxiety, which has made the two terms, which are intrinsically very different, become synonymous. But in its simplest definition, postpartum refers to the time after giving birth. That could be one day or that could be two decades after birth. It is easy to see how and why we are so confused on what postpartum actually means.
Most of us who are in the birth realm view the immediate postpartum time or postpartum shift to be those first six weeks directly after birth. Also known as “the first 40 days” or “4th trimester”. I personally consider the first two years of motherhood to be steeped in the postpartum haze. There are benchmarks of time as babies grow that lead you to a generally easier and new chapter. For example, when you pass your first six weeks, you’ve made it to the end of your first 40 days and that initial sacred window. Then there are the markers of 3 months, 6 months, 1st year, 18 months and 2 years. New research is now showing that the intensive postpartum healing time period for mama is up to seven years. It takes a long time for the mothers body to deeply heal physically not only from birth but also from pregnancy. Add to that fertility issues, IVF, birth trauma, postpartum depression or anxiety and you can imagine just how run down women’s bodies truly become.
Becoming a mother is an entire rewiring of who and what she is. Women experience this differently, but as a general statement, I have not yet met a woman who does not feel radically changed from her transition from maiden to mother. It is something so massive and expansive that it is hard to put into words exactly what becoming a mother feels like. It is one of life’s great mysteries that only truly become known as you experience it first hand.
The “first 40 days tradition” is a practice of holding the container for a woman’s healing post-birth to be top priority. Traditionally, throughout the world, women have been cared for in very specific ways after giving birth, all to promote their physical healing and to promote milk production. On a pragmatic level, it did not end well for babies whose mamas who were not healthy enough to make milk and feed them. That is why for thousands of years women have been supported and cared for passionately and intuitively because it makes sense. If you want the species to survive, you must protect and nurture the mother and the child.
Today, we may not be in such dire straights physically, as we have bottles and formula and other options but women are also dealing with a lot of other issues which burden the system. The hospital interventions, the lack of breastfeeding support, the lack of respect for a women’s natural birth process, the expectation for women to get back to work within months if not weeks after giving birth, etc. all lead to an exhausted unsupported postpartum healing shift. I believe that the lack of respect for this crucial time period is the reason behind our sky rocketing reports of postpartum depression, anxiety and psychosis. Women NEED the time to rest, eat nourishing foods, sleep, lie in bed skin to skin and nurse their babies for hours on end without feeling in a rush or tied to a clock. Basically, much of our societal treatment of new mothers is backwards and inhumane. All of these reasons have led me to my life’s work, of helping women navigate their postpartum journey. My goal is to support women and hold the space for them to heal, thrive and feel confident as they step into their role of mother.
Each culture across the globe has very specific rituals for postpartum. In China, the first six weeks are called the “Sitting Moon” and women basically do as little work as possible aside from breastfeeding their babies. Women were made to stay in doors, keep bundled up and warm (i.e. no tank tops) and traditionally often do not wash their hair for months (or up to a year historically) and rarely bathe. In India, women go to live with their mothers for a minimum of three months and eat only warming, nourishing foods such as teas, soups and porridges and special herbs. In Korea and Japan, seaweed soup is a staple for the daily postpartum diet. In the Indian Sikh tradition, women stay inside for the first 40 days or if they do leave the house it is only to take a brief stroll outside for some air. They do not allow anyone else except for the mother and father to hold the baby and mama stays no farther than 9 feet away from baby at all times, so as to allow the two auric fields to gently begin to separate. There are thousands of traditions honoring this time, each one beautiful and specific to that cultures belief system on healing.
I work with my postpartum clients to help them discern what makes sense for them and their lifestyle and also to learn how to prioritize their own self-care. It is a necessity and not a luxury to receive loving and mindful support during your first 40 days. As Mothers, we become the cornerstone of the family, like it or not. It is a huge responsibility that you will carry with you for the rest of your life. You are the Queen of your family and with that comes a lot of work, sacrifice and care. Women must learn how to proactively take care of their mental, emotional and spiritual health so that they can show up for themselves and their families. And if you don’t start prioritizing your health and well being after birth, it will bite you in the ass down the line. It may feel like a huge monetary investment or too much to ask from your friends and family, but the more you start evaluating and planning for your postpartum time during your pregnancy, the easier the conversations and transitions will be.
My top 3 recommendations for every mother post-birth are:
Sleep whenever baby is sleeping. It’s annoying and everyone says it and it’s true. You must nap during the day when baby naps because they sleep the most during the day. Expecting a newborn to sleep during the night those first 6 weeks (or months) is a recipe for disaster and exhaustion. Limit visitors to 0-1 per day. And have them only stay tops 30 minutes. It is hard because we want to share our babies with our nearest and dearest but it is impossible to plan those nap times and so when you plan visits, you are cutting into your sleep opportunities.
2. EAT WELL
This means plenty of homemade soups, stews, porridges and oatmeal, teas and nutmilk tonics, roasted root veggies, stewed fruit, healthy fats such as ghee, coconut oil, avocadoes and nut butters. You must eat enough calories to provide fuel for your body to heal and repair itself and also to produce good fatty breastmilk. If you do not have an appetite, do not use that as excuse to not eat. You must eat something nutritious every two hours if you aren’t eating big meals.
3. SET BOUNDARIES
Protect yourself, protect your baby, protect your new family. Oh boundaries, we love you and also hate to enforce you. Many pregnant women and new mothers notice that their priorities shift profoundly on their journey into motherhood. We change, and in so doing our dynamics with family and friends do too. It isn’t easy for anyone. And it is part of the process. Allow yourself to feel all of your feelings and do what is best for you and your expanding family. Sometimes that means letting go of relationships that no longer serve your highest good. Creating boundaries can be painful and also can be liberating and fabulous.
As women we are often groomed to be people pleasers and put ourselves last. When we become pregnant we often begin to respect our needs, our bodies and our hearts guidance as we see the power of growing a child and becoming a mother. It is a transformative time. And I wish for all women to allow themselves the space and time to support themselves how ever they need to. It takes a village to raise a mother, not just a child.
photo: Kelly Sikkema