Pregnancy and the postpartum period can invoke a whole range of mental and physiological challenges, not least the exhaustion of keeping up with the demands of a newborn. Nutritionally devoid foods, a host of environmental pollutants and the hectic pace of our modern lifestyle often finds women in a less-than-optimal state before even falling pregnant, and by the time our babies are born we find ourselves wondering if it’s normal to feel so utterly exhausted all the time.
There is a lot that has been said about the slow living moment – An international philosophy which encourages us to reject the ‘faster is always better’ adage but instead to simplify and slow down the pace of our lives in order to live more intentionally and meaningfully.
It is the antithesis to our fast-paced world where quicker is always seen as better, multi-tasking is the norm and, although rushing to the finish line first may gain us the prize, it is often at the expense of our physical and mental health and wellbeing. The ‘Slow Living’ movement originated in the 1980s with Slow Food and has since snowballed (slowly!) to include Slow Schooling, Slow Travel, Slow Money and Slow Parenting. It has its roots in simplicity and sustainability and encourages us to care for and love our environment and to live gently on the earth.
All around the world people are seeing the benefits in their lives from intentionally taking the time to slow down and live more mindfully. I believe that there is no more important time to practice this than the first few weeks with your new baby.
Although the word ‘Slow’ is at the heart of the movement, in fact this does not mean that we need to move at a snail’s pace, but rather that we intentionally adjust the tempo of our lives to our environment, moving swiftly when things need to be accomplished quickly but also creating space to rest, to enjoy the present moment and to simplify so that we are spending our time on the things, activities and people that really matter to us, giving them 100% of our attention. This in itself has the effect of making our lives more spacious and relaxed and creates more time for the things that are truly important to us.
You may also make the conscious decision to meet your baby where they reside and need you most – the present moment. A place separate from clocks, routines, busyness, and rushing. A period of time that is so important that it has been given a name in many cultures – ‘The Golden Month‘, ‘The Fourth Trimester’, ‘La Dieta’, ‘zuo yuezi‘ and ‘The Sacred Window‘.
In the days, weeks and months, following giving birth, you need to allow both yourself and your partner time and space to rest deeply, heal and rejuvenate. This is a restorative period, when the mothers body also repairs from a hormonal point of view. Current western culture doesn’t have these postpartum practices and the average age for childbirth is now 30.9 which is quite different from a generation ago.
It’s about embracing centuries-old postpartum rituals that focus on caring for a new mother to in order to give her the time and space that she needs and desires to bond, nurture and fall in love with her new baby. It’s also about resisting societal pressure to ‘bounce back’ immediately after giving birth, and fighting against the expectation to be the perfect mother who does everything. This will have lifelong benefits, not only for you but for also for your children, family and society at large.
The role of the mother
In virtually every culture around the world, there are postpartum traditions and practices focussed on the care of the new mother. These differ slightly depending on which country she lives in but there are marked similarities in nearly all places that can be categorised into five themes. Rest, Massage, Nourishment, Warmth and Celebration.
The wonderful thing that all these ancient postpartum traditions have in common is that they all help to boost a hormone which is essential for a new mother. That hormone is oxytocin also known as the ‘love’ hormone. It’s the one that makes us feel all ‘gooey’ and ‘loved up’ when we first fall in love, gives us the post orgasmic ‘glow’, creates the strong effective contractions of labour and also helps us to deeply bond and fall in love with our new babies as well as producing abundant breastmilk. Oxytocin increases in our bodies when we feel loved, nurtured, warm and supported. It decreases when we are feeling cold, hungry, tired, stressed, anxious and unappreciated.
The average mother loses 700 hours of sleep in the first year. To combat this horrifying statistic, in Asia, India, Africa and South America the new mother is given from 20 to 40 days of complete rest and abdication of all household tasks including housework, cooking and childcare. She rests in and around her bed and learns to feed and care for her new baby whilst being cared for by her family or a postpartum support person. This is known as ‘The Golden Month’ in the Chinese tradition or ‘La Dieta’ in Ecuador. In all of these cultures, it is understood that the new mother will be restored and rejuvenated by this sustained period of rest, allowing her to recover from her pregnancy and birth and to produce adequate milk for her new baby. It is understood and accepted that this will have ongoing benefits for her health both now and later in life.
In parts of South East Asia and Africa, a new mother receives a massage every day for 40 days following her birth! Her belly is then bound tightly to support her back and internal organs as well as to heal muscle separation. Massage helps to relax and soothe her as well as ease her body’s recovery from pregnancy and birth, giving her much needed time out from baby care activities.
Whether it be chicken soups & fish stew in China or dhal enriched with ghee and spices in India, the general theme of postpartum foods for new mothers all around the world is that they are warm, oily, collagen rich, densely nutritious and delicious. Just as importantly, they are cooked and served to her with love. Cold and raw foods are usually forbidden for new mamas in the first few weeks as they are seen to weaken what is already a depleted digestive system. Instead, warm, spiced, soupy and well-cooked foods are favoured and each culture has its special recipes passed down from grandmother to mother to daughter.
Ask yourself what are some of your favourite warming recipes? Hint: they are usually your ‘comfort’ foods cooked for you in the past by maybe your mother or grandmother. What foods might sustain you? Whom can you ask to bring you some pre-cooked meals during your Slow Postpartum?
In most every postpartum care tradition the new mother is encouraged to keep warm and snuggled up. In China and India this sometimes goes as far as being forbidden to bathe or wash her hair! When you think about it however, this advice would have been sensible as water in the village may not have been either warm or clean and going out in cold weather may deplete the immune system of both mama and baby.
The concept of a baby shower prior to giving birth is a relatively new one. Traditionally, around 12 weeks after the birth of her baby, a new mother in the Chagga Tribe of Uganda is dressed in the clothes of a warrior. Her hair is braided and she is paraded through the village as though she has just returned from battle. In Mexico, the traditional midwives perform the ‘Closing of the Bones’ ceremony – celebrating and bringing the mother back from the physical, emotional and spiritual ‘openness’ of birth. These ‘coming of age’ rituals celebrating the transition from maiden to mother are common in other cultures too and acknowledge the deep and potent transformation that a women experiences as she moves into this new stage of her life and celebrating and honouring her part in creating and nurturing new life.
How to build an after birth plan to suit your lifestyle.
These days, it’s common to think about making a birth plan – where to have the baby? Natural or pain free? Have you looked into Calm birthing techniques? Even what music will be playing? But how many of us consider making an after birth or postpartum plan?
In fact, it could be argued that to ensure that you received the care and support you so deserve following the birth of your baby, this is as essential as preparing your nursery and stocking up on nappies and swaddles.
The types of questions you need to ask yourself when creating your own version of an after birth plan are:
- Who can care for you while you are caring for your baby?
- Where will the baby sleep?
- How will you feed your baby?
- Who will look after your other children?
- Who will clean your house?
- Who will cook and bring you healthy, nutritious food?
- Who will do the grocery shopping?
- What things are important to you and what are your family values?
- What do you see as challenges that might arise?
- What role do you see your partner and family playing?
- Who are your local resources ie lactation consultants, women’s health physios etc?
- Who will be the ‘wise women’ that will support your choices and give advice that resonates with your values and philosophy?
- Do you have a postpartum massage specialist in your are and how often can you take time out to get a massage either at home or at a spa?
- If the weather is cold and wet when your baby arrives, will you be able to stay warm, dry and as comfortable and snug as possible in those first few weeks?
It’s also important for you to consider this not as a solo activity. Instead, make the time to sit down and discuss all of these things with your partner (if you have one) so that they can also consider what life will be like with a new baby in the house.
Time to build your village
The saying ‘it takes a village to raise a child’ is more important than you can ever imagine.
Evolutionary biologists report that our babies have evolved to need the care and attention of multiple people within a village, group or tribe in order to thrive. This is known as ‘Alloparenting‘ and is common in many different cultures throughout the world. Human babies are so vulnerable and high needs compared to other mammals that they need 24/7 attention. A job which is too arduous and exhausting for just one or even two people! It is essential therefore to understand that you will need to surround yourself with support so that others can nurture you as you do the important work of caring for your new baby.
One of the most important and most difficult things that we have to do as new mothers is to ask for help. To know that we do not know and that we can’t have or do it all (without something having to give!) is a hard lesson to learn. Especially when we have often been raised to see ourselves as strong, capable and independent. Take comfort from the knowledge that you are not MEANT to be doing this motherhood gig alone. That, in order to be a good mum, partner, friend, daughter AND have time to fulfil yourself as an individual, it is essential to ask for practical and emotional assistance and support from those around you. This doesn’t make you lesser – in fact the opposite. It makes you strong. Plus it gives those around you permission to also be vulnerable and to reach out to you when they are in need.
Often people do want to be of help and service to a new mum but are not sure exactly what to do. Make a list of those you want to help you and assign them some jobs and tasks. There is nothing worse than visits from friends and having to unintentionally wait on them as a guest in your house.
Jobs you can assign to your tribe include:
- Bringing meals
- Caring for older children
- Cuddling the new baby while you nap or take a shower
- Changing the sheets on the bed
- Doing a load of washing
- Hanging out and folding the washing
- Unstacking the dishwasher
If you are lacking village support you may have to invest some money in services such as a postpartum doula, cleaner, food delivery service etc for a few weeks.
What’s your philosophy?
Dr Google, baby whisperers, sleep consultants, parenting experts and mother-in-laws means that it’s easy to become bombarded and overwhelmed with all of the advice and opinions out there.
And once the little bundle of joy arrives, the village is focused on raising the child—leaving the new mother to navigate the fourth trimester on her own. Creating a fourth trimester, post birth plan can help reduce the feeling of WTF and help you come out the other side.
The truth of the matter is, all babies (and mothers!) are individuals and what works for one may not work for another. There is no magic ‘one size fits all’ trick. Instead, you must learn to trust in your own knowledge of your baby. They are your greatest teacher. Try the things that resonate with your heart and your gut, leaving behind the rest. You will make mistakes and that is part of the process and an important way that you will learn about this new little person in your life.
And if you only take one thing away from this plan, make it this:
Surround yourself with people that affirm your values and choices rather than judge you.