In my book, Why postnatal recovery matters, I explain that postnatal recovery boils down to 4 pillars: social support, rest, food and bodywork.
Social support is the foundation on which everything else is built. If you are going to rest, have some great nourishing, food and some bodywork after birth, it’s kind of impossible to do this alone. You need other adults around to be supporting you in order to do this.
But postpartum support goes beyond the simple practical aspect of having other pairs of hands to hold the baby, cook you food or give you a massage.
Yes, having another adult in the house means that there is someone to help with house stuff, but most importantly, it means that we aren’t alone. It means that there is someone else to keep us company, listens, and reassure us when we doubt ourselves.
It means, most importantly, that there is someone to hold the space for us.
Holding the space looks like someone is doing nothing, but it might be the most important aspect of all. Heather Plett explains this concept beautifully in her article.
In the episode of the Midwives’s Cauldron podcast I did about postnatal recovery, I tell a story that illustrates this beautifully (you can listen to it here). When my daughter was a baby, she suffered from painful gas at night which left her inconsolable. I became aware that she reacted to certain foods I ate and had to eliminate these from my diet. On a holiday to France when she was 3 months old, I unknowingly ate some food she reacted really badly to, and she woke up in the middle of the night and cried for over an hour. As I got out of her bed to rock and soothe her, my mother heard her cry, and she came to keep me company. She didn’t do much; she just sat with me whilst I rocked my baby. But having another adult there, just being present for me, meant that I felt much stronger and able to support my daughter.
Recently a new mother I supported as a doula told me something similar: she said you have help during the day, but at night, you’re alone and it’s so hard. I helped her find a night doula, and it made a world of difference to her wellbeing.
As humans we are a social species, and we kind of intuitively know that we need community support through life transitions. This is why every culture used to have (and many still have) a set of rituals around big life transitions life becoming a parent.
The polyvagal nervous system theory tells her that we need each other to regulate our stress levels, especially at times when we are vulnerable.
Postpartum rituals around the world all have in common a period of about a month during which the new mother is nurtured and looked after, almost like a child, because there is an innate understanding that she needs to be surrounded and supported by experienced adults as she navigates her new role and identity.
Western societies are so focused on productivity that we tend to only plan for practical things. I see a parallel with what people ask me about my doula role. They ask what does a doula do, yet most of my role isn’t easily quantified, because it is more about being than doing.
An analogy often used for the transition to motherhood is that the change from a caterpillar to a butterfly.
If you have ever seen a butterfly emerge from its cocoon, you’ll know that as the butterfly first comes out, its wings are crumpled and soft. The butterfly needs to hang upside down from its cocoon or a nearby branch, whilst it waits for the wings to unfold, dry and strengthen. Only then can it take its first flight. If you’ve ever witnessed this you may also know that if the butterfly falls before the wings are dried, the wings are usually damaged.
Postpartum support is the same. It is about providing stable ground. One cannot help or speed up the wings unfolding and drying process, but they can be the strong cocoon on which the butterfly hangs whilst they unfurl.
We need to introduce this concept in the postpartum too: that what new mothers need, most of all, are people to hold the space for them, and who trust that they can find their own path, and unfold and spread their wings by themselves, in their own time, once there have become strong enough.
(PS: if you’re a birth geek like me you’ll be fascinated like I was to learn that there is a substance called meconium, which sounds quite similar to the human version, which the butterfly pushes through its wings to unfurl them.)