Baby showers are a long-standing tradition of pregnancy: laughter, maybe some games, and of course, gifts -- impossibly tiny onesies, cute little pants, and ever-practical diapers.. Typically, there are multiple generations of women, from grandmothers to mothers to sisters to daughters. They are there to shower love on the honoree, give her sage advice, and celebrate motherhood, pregnancy, and babies.
In a post for Women’s Health Today, Dr. Kathleen Kendall Tacket, Health Psychologist, author, and IBCLC, looks at studies of countries and cultures outside of the US and their postpartum customs. She describes ritual baths, hair washing, massage, laying-in traditions, and ceremonial meals as some of the mother-centered rituals that celebrate not the birth of a baby, but a woman’s passage into motherhood. She cites examples from Nepal, Peru, Guatemala, and Punjabi and Mayan cultures.
While it wouldn’t be right to appropriate traditions from other cultures, Kendall Tacket argues that lacking our own traditions of postpartum ceremony and support can lead to stress and isolation for new mothers, which can then lead to postpartum emotional complications like depression or anxiety. We also don't have the same social infrastructures in place in the US as in these other cultures, yet there are ways for us to honor a woman who has become a mother.
Plan a gathering after the baby is born
In the first weeks postpartum, she may need her circle of women to come together for her again. Two or three of her closest friends, people whom she doesn't feel she needs to dress up for or clean her home for, can bring breakfast. Welcome her to motherhood.
Stern note: Remember that this is not people coming to see the baby. The new mom is not to entertain anyone. I feel like this should go without saying, but I continue to be stunned by my clients' stories of an endless parade of oblivious visitors who come to the hospital while the mom is juggling her new baby while tending to her own tender body, and the parade continues as the mother struggles to keep her home presentable for guests who need to eat and drink..
Start a tradition.
Is there something meaningful your mother told you when you became a mother? Share it with her. Did she give you a gift that comforted you or gave you strength when you were experiencing big changes? Give it back to her with the same intention. Read her a poem about strength and learning; frame it so she can put it on her dresser and look at it every day. Ask each of her friends to write an inspirational or affirming quote on a square of paper; read them to her, and place them folded in a bowl or a jar. She can read them when she wants to feel the presence of her friends. Do your friends knit, sew, or quilt? Perhaps together you can make a shawl for her. Drape it over her shoulders and tell her she can use it to keep her warm while she’s feeding her baby in the middle of the night. Maybe someone can do the same for the next woman in your circle when she becomes a mom. That's how traditions are born, and traditions make us feel timeless connection to something outside of our own individual experiences.
The cultural traditions Kendall Tacket describes not only focus on the mother and celebrate her; they are also a practical way for women to gather and help her rest. Since we can't scuttle her away for any period of time nor move in with her temporarily, how can we care for her physically?
Focus on her.
Call her regularly and check on how she’s recovering from childbirth or how she is feeling emotionally. Ask her if there’s anything she needs from the store or if she’s had a nap or a shower. Plenty of people will ask about the baby, but she may need something.
This post isn’t so much for the pregnant or new mom but more so for her friends and family, to be read ideally before the baby is born. If the mom has already given birth, though, it’s not too late to consider how to care for her.
Sage Therapeutics is studying a drug to treat postpartum depression, and has launched a media campaign to raise awareness. The lead images show women sucking on a pacifier, crying, and the text is simple” Silence sucks. Online, the lead image isn't a still shot. The woman rears back her head and spits the pacifier out, like toddlers do when showing defiance.**
STAT, a publication for medicine and scientific discovery, summarizes the opposing ways that Sage’s media campaign has been received, and closes their article with the statement: “There are many women who suffer in silence.”
YES, there are women who suffer in silence. Can we please not perpetuate the status quo by infantilizing and sexualizing them?
Additionally, the ads I've seen at bus stops in Boston are women of color, just tacked-on tokenism rather than visibility when portrayed in this light.
I want to emphasize that my criticism is entirely about the marketing campaign. I am all for more and better treatment options for women, particularly how attitudes towards women and our perceptions of them in our culture impact their mental health. Many professional conversations divert to the clinical trial of this drug, and that MUST BE a separate conversation, as that is not the issue here.
**UPDATED TO ADD: The lead image on the website is now a still image.
Just yesterday, someone asked me a huge question: How do we prevent postpartum depression?
Honestly, all I could do was repeat her question with a half-chuckle, half-sigh.
But there is nothing funny about it; I know that (and believe me, so does my husband). My clients know that, too.
When I speak with people about preventing postpartum depression, I don't speak in the language of guarantees or absolutes. I use the language of risk reduction rather than risk elimination often. Because the postpartum is a steep learning curve, because meaningful maternity leave is a privilege and not a right, and because culturally we value independence and strength through adversity (these are huge concepts I'm throwing around, which I have discussed repeatedly and surely will another time!), perinatal emotional complications occur at a rate of 1 in 5 women. Think about how many moms were in your prenatal yoga class. Or your childbirth ed class. Or how many rooms there are on the the labor and delivery floor at the hospital where you gave birth. One in five is high.
A timely article was published yesterday; it discusses one aspect of risk reduction: caring for the mother, at a time when she is depleting herself taking care of her baby. The author observes her close friend with her newborn, and states:
"In her three weeks since having a baby, she had been so bogged down with infant care, that caring for herself and her basic needs felt impossible...considering herself at all had somehow been pushed away because she had been made to feel like her only priority should be her baby. And no one had ever told her otherwise — that it was OK to hand him off to her husband and take a long hot shower or walk around her neighborhood, or to tell the people who were coming to see the baby to hold him while she took a nap...it was the same lack of support that most mothers of any age learn to simply accept during postpartum."
The article, from the website Ravishly, can be read in its entirety here.
Here's one suggestion I have for you, if you are a friend visiting a new mom. Ask her how she is doing. Make the purpose of your visit or call to check in with her first, and ask about the baby second. As cute as that baby is and as lovely as it is to snuggle a baby -- tend to the mother's needs first. When was the last time she ate a real meal? Showered? Napped? Took a moment away from the baby? Take care of her.
And if you are a new mom or are about to be one, who in your support network can you pinpoint to care for you first? Let that person know that that is the special role he or she can play in your postpartum. Ideally before the baby is born, of course, but NOW is as good a time as any.