Adela Stockton reassures new parents
The time after birth, the early days and months of adapting to your new role as a parent, can be as intensely special as it can be complicated, whether it is your first, third or fifth baby. Much of it is about discovering what works for you and your family. Many women experience a sense of euphoria during the first few days following birth, fuelling a bout of physical energy that is brought to a standstill as the ‘baby blues’ kick in around day four, when you might weep at the slightest cause or contradiction. Every mother’s experience is unique, however, and it is possible that it will take you at least a fortnight to start finding your feet, if not considerably longer.
The lack of sleep that is a normal part of caring for a new baby will probably make the most striking difference to you, and when you are feeling completely emotionally and physically exhausted, the world can often appear gloomier than it really is. The realisation that you now have a tiny individual human being who is utterly dependent on you for her every need can also prove daunting. Although you may have imagined that becoming a mother would come instinctively to you, and for many women it is indeed a joyful and easy transition, for others the realisation that your life is no longer your own can take its toll in different ways.
It is important to allow yourself to recognise from the outset that every family has different needs; what works for you may differ from the next woman and again from the next. Attempting to fulfil an idea of the ‘perfect’ mother can only prove soul destroying, as no such person exists. There are no rules – just being there for your baby, for your other children, for your partner and for yourself is enough. While the continuum concept may feel right for some new mothers, co-sleeping and holding your babe in arms at all times, others may feel you need some time to yourself now and then – in which case perhaps you can set up another trusted person to look after your baby for a few hours here and there.
You may feel eager to share your birth experience over and over again, particularly if you feel proud of yourself and pleased with the way things went, and you could find yourself telling more or less anyone who will listen. However, if you are feeling disappointed or disparaged – even traumatised – following a difficult birth experience, you may need to protect yourself from immediate, persistent unhappiness and secure your long-term emotional health by identifying a specific person who can listen to you in a more objective way. This could be your midwife, doula, health visitor or a counsellor, or it may be another mother (or mothers) who has suffered in the same way; alternatively, you may prefer to access support through the Birth Crisis or Birth Trauma Association telephone helpline.
Fiona’s story ……Everything was great, I’d had a quick and easy labour, at home in water just as I had dreamed, and she breastfed with no difficulties. But after about a month I found myself constantly thinking: “Everything is perfect and I should feel great, so why do I feel so miserable?” I felt like I was suffering a bereavement rather than celebrating new life – it completely did my head in.
It is also possible that even if your birth was all that you wished for, the responsibility of caring for a completely dependent human being, along with the impact of the changes that becoming a mother has brought about in your life, fills you with despondency.
Through exploring her feelings with a counsellor on a regular basis, Fiona discovered that the conflict between the joy of the arrival of her daughter and the grief she felt for her former self was a common experience for new mothers, and in time she was able to come to terms with this and settle more comfortably into her new role.
Another factor that can stir up confusing feelings during the postnatal year is if you have had a difficult relationship with your own mother or parents. It perhaps cannot be underestimated how the way we were parented ourselves, especially mothered, can permeate our own way of mothering, particularly with a first baby. We can find our instincts telling us one thing, while our head and deeply engrained early learnt behaviour are telling us something quite different. It is possible that issues which arose between your mother and father, or between yourself and your mother or father when you were an infant, can become transferred unconsciously onto your current situation, causing considerable emotional conflict.
Cara’s story ….I love Sam so intensely, he has supported me through birth and this first year in every way that I could wish, yet at the same time a voice inside my head keeps saying: “I hate him, I hate him”. How can I hate the man I chose to create new life with? It is really confusing.
When Cara was a toddler (at the same stage as her own daughter), Cara’s mother and father had split up and she had been surrounded by her mother’s feelings of hatred and bitterness towards her father. Memories of this time had been triggered by her own experience of becoming a mother and her feelings towards her partner had become mixed up with how her mother had felt about her father when she was at the same age. Although Cara truly did love her partner, her relationship as a child with her own parents continued to get in the way of her relationship with Sam, until she began to make sense of it after her GP referred her to a counsellor.
Women who have been level-headed, independent, communicating individuals prior to birth sometimes find themselves unable to concentrate and irritable with their partners, feeling as if their personality has completely changed. The effect can be devastating and demoralising, but with Western women today so often completely isolated from any female peer group support at a grassroots level, it is perhaps not surprising that so many new mothers struggle to surrender to the demands of parenting.
This is a common story. Many new mothers live far from their families or the community of women who would have acted as role models and provided emotional and practical support when the baby arrived. There is little doubt that women were never meant to be home alone with a new baby or babies. Accepting this fact may go a long way towards alleviating the guilt that many new parents feel for being ‘bad mothers’ simply because they are isolated.
Despite the huge adjustment that this life-changing event demands, there is most parents simply do the best they can nothing, nothing in the world, like the first time your baby smiles at you or hugs you or tells you that she loves.
Nevertheless, the experience of allowing the day to unfold spontaneously according to your baby’s needs or learning to slow down to a toddler’s pace can offer you the chance to embrace taking a different perspective on life for a while. The time of raising children may be the only time you can admit to yourself that you are a vulnerable human being like anyone else and allow yourself to really feel your emotions – a chance to develop and discover different aspects of yourself. At the same time, extra emotional and practical support during the early days and weeks with your new baby can go a long way towards positive parenting, and for this reason, particularly if you do not have family close by, you may choose to employ a postnatal doula.
Mairi’s story ….. I could never believe how I’d turned into a nagging snivelling shrew, standing weeping on the doorstep waiting for my husband to come home from work so that I could shove our baby into his arms and complain about what a hard day I’d had. I’d even phone him at work and beg him to come home early because I couldn’t cope with looking after a tiny baby all day. If only there had been someone around to reassure me, I would have felt less isolated, less afraid of being a ‘bad mother’, less out of control.
Postnatal doulas Your postnatal doula will listen to your birth story tirelessly, encourage you to rest and keep well nourished, and support you to feel confident with feeding and caring for your baby. She is not a maternity nurse (whose focus is on caring for your baby) or a nanny or a cleaner. Her role is to facilitate the nurturing of your whole family, just as extended family members still gather round women at the time of childbirth within traditional cultures, so she will usually also help you out with some day-to-day household jobs during your “lying in” period. She can come in for a few hours every day, or a few days every week, in negotiation with what best supports you and your family, and she will usually be available to you until around six to eight weeks after your baby is born. Evidence shows that having the support of a postnatal doula can you. There is nothing in the universe like the unconditional love that you receive from a young child. There is plenty of fun and joy and laughter to share as you observe her starting to explore with her eyes, her mouth, her fingers, to experiment with her first words, her first steps. Most parents simply do the best they can, and even if this turns out not to have been ideal, so long as your baby feels safe and loved, you can do no more. So many mothers speak of the guilt they feel for all the times they got it wrong, but what might seem wrong when compared to another mother’s experience may not necessarily have been wrong for you and your baby, your family. I would encourage you to be gentle with yourself and allow yourself to enjoy the time that you have together before she grows and sets off on her own journey into the world; the time is precious and it passes so fast.
References 1. Golbert, J. ‘Postpartum Depression: Bridging the gap between medicalized birth and social support’, International Journal of Childbirth Education, vol. 17, no. 4, December 2002 2. Mottl-Santiago, J. et al, ‘A hospitalbased doula program and childbirth outcomes in an urban, multicultural setting‘, Maternal and Child Health Journal, vol. 12, no. 3, May 2008
This article includes edited extracts from the final chapter of Adela’s book Birth Space, Safe Place: Emotional Well-Being through Pregnancy and Birth (www.findhornpress.com)
Adela Stockton is a doula, Mindful Doulas course leader, childbirth homeopath, writer and mother. Formerly a midwife, she has been supporting birthing families since 1992. She lives with her husband and daughter in Scotland.
This feature is published in JUNO Spring 2011, issue 23. You can find more about this issue, and our many other issues here.