This blog contribution is by MOM Social Media Intern, Jenny Nigro
I have been on a path toward pursuing a doula certification for some time now. The beauty of the timeline for certification is that it is a go-at-your-own-pace kind of thing. As it turns out, this also happens to be a curse for me. Admittedly, it’s taken me longer than it should to keep up. Part of the reason, though, is that without any real rhyme or reason, I convinced myself that I should be a birth doula. A birth doula is someone who attends the birth and offers support to the laboring mama in any way that is needed — in offering kind words, in reminding parents of breathing techniques, in running any water/ice chips that are needed, in massaging sore parts of the mother’s body, in taking photos or video of the birth so that other labor partners can be more actively involved, or in communicating aspects of the labor plan to medical personnel on the mother’s behalf if requested. Even as I write this list, I am filled with a sense of caring and warmth in thinking about the role that this plays in a birth. Perhaps this is what initially drew me to the field. But the deeper I went into fulfilling a certification, the more I realized that what I truly wanted to do was become a postpartum doula rather than a birth doula.
As the name suggests, postpartum doulas become involved in a family’s life post-Baby. The doula offers support to the family in a variety of ways — they may offer insight into breastfeeding technique, offer general breastfeeding or parenting support, maintain the household while parents and Baby rest/spend time bonding, cook healthy and nutritious meals for the family, or assist in care-giving to other children in the household so that the parents may have time to bond with their baby individually. A huge part of why I wanted to become a doula is because of the outcome of most safe, healthy deliveries: the welcoming of new life into a family. As a birth doula, I would only get to witness a small piece of that process. But as a postpartum doula, I could assist in the most crucial moments of that baby’s growth and development: as they bond with their family, expand their awareness, perform life’s first milestones, and interact with their environment. And for the family, I could ensure that the time that they have with their baby following delivery is precious and undivided by mitigating the demands of everyday life so that they can focus on the new member of their family. As a nanny, I perform many of these duties already: I cook nutritious meals for the family, I engage in light housekeeping duties, and I help supervise, instruct, and engage the children in the home to help the household run smoothly. It would be a natural transition, I feel.
As part of my postpartum doula certification requirements, I am expected to read several books about “mothering the new mother,” breastfeeding, and infant care. In one of my required reading books, I came across a quote/concept that sealed my decision to shift from birth to postpartum doula-ing. Deep down, I suspect that I’ve felt this way all along, but seeing it in print was sort of an awakening. The book quotes Suzanne Arms, holistic birth and parenting advocate, who once asked, “Is ours not a strange culture that focuses so much attention on childbirth — virtually all of it based on anxiety and fear — and so little on the crucial time after birth, where patterns are established that will affect the individual and the family for decades?” (Mohrbacher & Kendall Tackett: 2010, 106). The book also cites a cross-cultural review of postpartum practices which found that postpartum depression is virtually nonexistent in societies where families had a reserved time set aside for spending time alone with their baby, where mothers were cared for and allowed to rest in privacy, where parents were relieved of their household duties during this time, and where women’s status new mothers was recognized (2010, 106-107). In Rigoberta Menchu’s memoir, I Rigoberta Menchu, she devotes a section to describing the postpartum practices of the Quiche, where this sort of designation for new mothers is honored. She describes this as one of very few times in women’s lives when they are exempt from labor so that they may remain with their babies in seclusion for these important moments of their lives.
This feels so inherently different from the way we treat new mothers in our society. We shower expecting moms with attention — literally and figuratively — by throwing them parties, buying them everything they need for their babies before they come, and catering to their aches/pains/cravings while they are carrying. But once the baby comes, new mothers are somewhat forgotten. While some thoughtful friends and neighbors may contribute a dish or two and grandparents may come to stay with the family for a short while, once that time ends, new moms are expected to 1) automatically “get it” — get the hang of everything that taking care of a newborn entails, 2) bounce back from their pregnancy and any trauma inflicted on their bodies in terms of medical interventions used in birth, 3) not ask for anything and instead give everything to their newborn. Any attention offered the new family is more in adoration of the new baby. Brises, christenings, and naming ceremonies all celebrate the child.
I’m not saying that this attention and focus on the new baby is misplaced. But imagine a society in which the time followed the birth of new baby is cherished and sacred. Think about the ease of transitioning for the family if friends, family members, and neighbors eased the burden of normal household routines so that the new parents could have the first two weeks with their babies, chore-free to simply enjoy getting to know their little one. Picture a world in which a family’s decision to engage the services of a postpartum doula is expected, not a rarity. It is conceivable to think that a culture of postpartum depression or baby blues could be alleviated, even just a little bit. If this were the norm, perhaps our entire construction of maternity/paternity leave would shift. In reality, the way we do maternity and paternity leave in America reflects the reality that we simply do not value the time following births. Policies that do not include paid parental leave or offer inadequate time periods of full or partial pay speak to this idea that we expect parents to immediately bounce back from giving birth. Parents are expected to return to work in tip-top shape, despite having gone through a major life change. They are criticized when they fall short and admonished for taking additional time off. But if we were to reserve special time for families following the birth of a new baby, undoubtedly we would begin to see parental leave policies that respect this convention.
And that is a world that I would like to raise a child in.