They say it takes a village to raise a child. It’s a nice sentiment but the fact is, most of the villagers are now urbanites. To put it plainly, the village is over. We aren’t living in the same world that previous generations raised children in. More women are in the workforce. More families require dual income. People are having children later in life. Grandparents are retiring later. People have the ability to travel more and family members often live in different cities. Fathers are taking more of an active role in child-rearing. Childcare is more often paid for than not. Technology and social media have changed the way many of us interact with each other. Rarely do we take the time to get to know our own neighbours and we find every excuse for that – we fear people who are culturally different than us, we don’t trust strangers, we don’t have the time, we spend less time outdoors, we don’t want to bother them, we value our privacy, we’d rather text than have a face-to-face conversation. Whatever the reason, there is no denying that the concept of community has changed quite drastically. From my observation, the village got a lot busier, more distracted and less available for providing hands-on help with the demands of a baby. You’ll likely have people who care about you who are interested and willing to provide support, but actually getting what you need is another story.
My advice for getting the care and support you need postpartum is to be clear about the care and support that you need postpartum. Remember, your primary job as a new mother is to take care of your new baby. You need to make sure you are being taken care of as well because you are recovering from your own birth experience. Each family‘s support system will look a little different. It might consist of your partner, your family members, your friends, community supports and services for hire.
You want to communicate what you need because well-meaning people will unknowingly inundate you with their version of help which won’t always serve you and might even make things harder on you. People will want to give you unsolicited advice. They will want to overstay their welcome, making you feel like you’ve got guests to entertain, which can be particularly draining or anxiety-inducing for a family adjusting to an entirely new routine. They will want to bring cute but useless gifts for the baby, who – trust me – does not have the awareness, appreciation or need for any more toys or newborn-size onesies at this point, especially if you’ve already had a baby shower.
What does a new birth mother need and how can her circle of support help in a meaningful way? A new mother needs food. More specifically, she needs nourishing food. A support person can help by buying groceries, doing the grocery shopping for her (which sounds the same but is a different thing – volunteering time versus money), preparing a meal or snack for her, bringing a prepared meal over or ordering food in. A new mother needs time for sleep, rest and any other personal tasks. A support person can help by holding the baby, feeding the baby, bathing the baby, taking the baby for a walk or changing diapers while the mom spends uninterrupted time alone, in a separate space, to attend to self-care. A new mother needs help with household upkeep. A support person can help by doing chores around the house such as dishes, laundry, cleaning and tidying, bringing them needed items, setting up a station with items they may need at close proximity such as diapers or the television remote. A new mother needs time to bond with the baby. A support person can help by watching older siblings so that mom can spend uninterrupted time with the new baby. A new mom needs emotional support. A support person can help by visiting, checking in by phone or text, asking how they are doing, hugging them, holding their hand, asking them questions about their birth experience rather than only questions about the baby, talking about things unrelated to the baby and birth, sitting with them in silence, offering words of encouragement and/or making them laugh.
Asking for help is hard. I have a few tips for making it a little more straightforward. The easiest one is to wait for people to offer to help. Many people will offer help in vague terms, for example, ‘Let me know if you need anything.’ This is the best opportunity to take them up on it. Set aside any hang-ups that you might feel in the moment – pride, the need to be strong, feeling like a charity case – and say, ‘Thank you’ and ‘Yes, as a matter of fact, I would really appreciate it if you could give me an hour to myself on the weekend’ or, ‘bring a meal over sometime this week,’ as an example. You can offer suggestions without being too specific or pushy. Give them the opportunity to take the idea and act on it as they see fit. Giving them a couple of options can help too, and they will choose what they are most comfortable with and best equipped to do. Always remember that they are offering because they care about you and they want to help.
Another good way to steer the support in the right direction is to ask your spouse or someone close to you to do it for you. For example, if your spouse is making arrangements with a group of visitors, have them mention that it would be extremely helpful to you if they could empty the dishwasher or switch the laundry over to the dryer before they go. If you are comfortable with it, consider putting a playful chore chart up in your home, listing specific tasks that need to be done around the house. These cues are more passive and entirely optional, so guests can take initiative as they see fit. Another possibility is to send a mass email to those in your inner circle just prior to the due date, outlining your postpartum protocol plan. You can express that you are so grateful to have each one of these people for offering their love and support at this special time, while expressing your wishes as a new mother. Examples from my own first birth: Please do not text me asking if the baby has arrived as the due date approaches. We will notify you. Direct all texts and calls for updates to my partner or my mom (provide their contact information). We ask that only immediate family visit in the first week. We ask that visits are kept to approximately thirty minutes to allow time for mum to rest. Gifts are not necessary, but for those inclined, healthy snacks and meals are most helpful to us at this time.
Once you’ve asked for help or been offered help, remember to accept the help. You deserve it!