I’m sitting on the sofa, cradling my daughter’s doll, while she and my husband hover at my sides, arms outstretched.
“Try to be more grabby,” I instruct. “Less jazz hands, more gimme-gimme.”
Five minutes later and our 10-second video is a wrap. I add a caption and some music, and post it to Instagram ― only to watch it metaphorically explode overnight.
It seems that I’m not the only mom out there who has sat to one side, sweating and leaking milk, while somebody else “helped” by holding my newborn.
The thing is, though, holding my baby amid the rawness of postpartum was the only thing I didn’t need help with. It was the one thing in the world that I had covered. My hands were full, sure, but in all the best ways ― the ways that soothed my anxiety and even settled the all-over leaking.
Biologically, this feeling of inherent “rightness” makes a lot of sense. Scientists have dubbed a mother’s body as the “ecosystem” from which babies thrive after birth. And the thriving is dyadic. Just as a mother’s body regulates a baby’s physiological systems ― from the nervous system to heart rate and temperature ― so too does close proximity with her baby regulate a new mom’s physiology.
Research into the changes that take place inside a mother’s postpartum brain goes some way in explaining the reasoning behind this maternal regulation. When a baby is born, a mother’s amygdala — the part of the brain that plays a key role in emotional regulation — increases in activity. This heightened activity sensitizes a mom to her baby’s needs and creates a feedback loop whereby the more we respond to and connect with our babies, the more the reward centers of our ever-changing maternal brains light up.
We’re essentially neurologically motivated to remain close to our newborns. We’re wired to pause, postpartum, and absorb the details of our new baby’s face while they sleep in our arms or on our chest.
Biology, it seems, doesn’t hold postpartum “bounce back” culture in high regard.
And yet, the expectation to “bounce back” isn’t just confined to our bellies and thigh gaps, as might be assumed from every “wellness” program aimed at new moms. No, the expectation runs so much deeper. From a lack of maternity leave, to an influx of visitors postpartum, bounce back culture thrives just as vibrantly in our workplaces and homes as it does in our measurements.
As moms, we’re expected to be back to “normal” functioning within a flash after childbirth. We’re expected to welcome and host visitors. We’re expected to smile and pour drinks as our visitors meet the new life we’ve just grown and delivered into this world.
And the stinging point for many, if the response to my little video is anything to go by, is that all too often, this scenario is dressed up as “help.”
“Here, let me take her for you…”
“I’ll hold the baby while you get things done…”
“You look like you need a break, give her to me…”
When I had my first baby, I had plenty of offers of “help.“ Friends all but lined up to come over, sit on my sofa, and hold her sweet newness in their arms. But while I sat to one side, still bleeding and in total shock after a traumatic birth, I couldn’t help but wonder who or how this supposed help was actually helping.
What I really needed was help that made a genuine difference to our now-upside-down-and-inside-out daily lives.
The first time around, I needed the basics taken care of.
Any and all food, dropped off ideally. Because learning, healing and nursing ― all on exactly zero sleep ― is ravenous work.
I needed somebody to hold the space for the emotional roller coaster that I found myself riding. To sit and listen, to validate, to bring cake.
The second time around, I needed food (of course), but also somebody to come and rejoice in my eldest. Not to “take her off my hands,” but to fill up her cup with the type of play that I wasn’t able to fulfill myself. Active, loud and energetic play that left her in rounds of giggles. Or somebody to take care of the dishes in the sink without even mentioning it ... so that I could snuggle up and read big sister a story while holding her softly snoozing baby brother, without having my brain race off to the endless household chores that lay waiting.
I needed help, in the most basic and practical of terms, that actually helped.
These are the cries of moms who have been there, or are there right now, in the sweat-laden, bleary-eyed trenches of early motherhood. These are the comments that are still rolling in.
Listening, validating, supporting.
This is the help that helps. This is the help that allows us to breathe deeply and settle in with our new babies, while the periphery is miraculously taken care of.
Because if one thing is for sure, postpartum is raw and messy. And within the rawness, nestled between the emotional highs and lows, there’s an opportunity. An opportunity to show up and support a new mom, in a society that barely even recognizes her.
A mom of two and a lactation consultant, Louise supports families with breastfeeding and normal infant sleep(lessness). You’ll find her on Instagram.
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