In the colonial United States, women in a community would attend to a mother during birth, and take turns caring for and feeding her family during the first 40 days postpartum. At the end of the initial postpartum period, a “groaning party” would be held to celebrate and thank those who came together on behalf of the growing family. No one was paid for this work, it was simply understood that women would participate in this ritual, and then benefit from it when it was their time to have a baby.
In the south, African American “granny midwives” would walk for miles to care for birthing families of all races, often for little or no pay. They would stay with the family for days afterwards, making sure that the mother and baby were healthy, and teaching the family how to feed and care for the baby.
All around the world we can see examples of the community taking care of growing families, providing education, compassion, wisdom, and support as they navigate through birth and adjust to life with a new baby. Being held by a community improves mental health outcomes for parents, easing their journey of crossing a threshold into a new way of life.
These traditional practices stand in stark contrast to the way birth and postpartum are treated in the United States today. Due to failures in public policy around growing families, many parents must return to work and enroll their baby in daycare sooner than puppies are legally allowed to be separated from their mothers. It is not uncommon for parents to be back waiting tables before their postpartum bleeding has finished.
Partners often have even less time for family leave after the birth of a new baby, so even if one parent is able to/wants to stay home and care for the baby, they must usually do so in isolation, spending the entire day caring for their child/ren on their own. Our system has put very stressful demands on new families, making it a struggle for parents to meet their children’s needs, and their own.
What’s missing is a village – a network of loved ones to care for growing families. While this used to be built into society, it must now be consciously and intentionally constructed by most family units. This is no easy task for parents who may live across the country from their extended family, have few community ties, or just have trouble asking for help.
Although it doesn’t feel like there’s extra time and energy to go around during pregnancy, this is an ideal time to work on constructing a village of support to help carry you through the postpartum period. This is much harder to accomplish when you’re operating on limited sleep, recovering from birth, and trying to feed and meet the needs of a brand-new baby. You can begin to seek out peers, mentors, and elders to fill in any gaps in your support system during the prenatal period. You might find these people….
- In a postpartum support group. (Yes, you can attend while you’re pregnant!) La Leche League, Babywearing groups, and gatherings for parents are a great place to find camaraderie and support.
- In a faith community, at work, or in other social circles.
- In your neighborhood. There may be other parents or even elders in your neighborhood who could lend a hand or bring a meal after the baby is born.
- In a childbirth class. Some parents make lifelong friends in birth classes, where they can find peers whose families will share similar milestones.
- From parents, grandparents, or the parents and grandparents of friends.
Remember, not everyone will be suited to every kind of support. Some folks will be better at folding laundry, others will be great listeners, and still others will help you laugh through the hard times. Some support people will be by your side for a lifetime, and others just for a season. Each has their own important role to play in your village of postpartum and parenting support.