"When her mother reproached her for caring for the poor and sick at home, St. Rose of Lima said to her 'When we serve the poor and sick, we serve Jesus. We must now fail to help our neighbors, because in them we serve Jesus.' "
- Quoted in the Catechism, at number 2449
Teeny tiny David, relaxing while I frantically guilt-sew a doll blanket for Zuzu, which she then promptly threw on the floor sobbing "it's not a dress! I wanted a DRESS for my dolly!"
Consensus has it that something is majorly wrong with the West's postpartum practices. On various parenting or breastfeeding forums that I'm a part of, I regularly see women asking about getting back down to pre-pregnancy weights or fitting back in old clothes at a month - or a week! - postpartum. Blythe Fike wrote a much hailed post about how to do the postpartum period differently, and it's also been written about notably here and here.
My postpartum experiences have been so incredibly different from others that it's hard to relate, but honestly, my time after David was so much harder. Jen wasn't living with us, so I didn't have on-going help; my mom had to go back home relatively soon, and David was born during Holy Week, so Tom was basically gone for those first tender, difficult moments. And of course, we had Zuzu. I forgot how very emotional I am postpartum - how sensitive and frightened I become. I need more emotional support than I realize - I need people to force me to relax and to speak truth to me that will calm my heart. But this time, I sprung back physically very quickly, and I think this gave many people false reassurances of my well-being.
Zuzu had a lovely Easter this year, which I'm sure she would've had anyway, even if I had stayed in bed and let other people cook. Instead, I cooked a leg of lamb and arranged an egg hunt, less than a week postpartum, because I am dumb.
So the problem is well documented. What is the solution? What can we, as people who value women, children, and birth, supposed to do to create a better culture of postpartum care?
First of all, care for the pregnant women in your life. If you have a friend who is pregnant, inquire about her postpartum plans and needs, who will help her, what her fears are. Then offer to help where you can: organize her meal train, collect money to hire her a housekeeper, or a postpartum doula. Maybe find her a mother's helper, a teenager or older child to come over and play with her other children, or do light house keeping.
As Kendra Tierney says, few things make having a baby easier than also having a ten year old girl. My nieces come to visit and more than earn their keep by entertaining Zuzu in all her toddler shenanigans.
Affirm keeping the postpartum time sacred. It is so easy to see what we value by what we compliment. "You look great - so skinny!" or "She's wonder woman, just had a baby and she's out here coaching the soccer team." Compliment women differently, and honestly - "we haven't seen you much since you had the baby - good for you for making time to adjust." Text these things to your new postpartum friend, write them in an email or better yet, a lovely hand written card she can tuck in the new one's baby book (that maybe you can buy for her, if she forgot!).
Fight the isolation with visits - and don't be a guest that makes work! So often I think women get out so quickly afterwards because they are lonely. They are at home with at least one small child, their husbands or other help must get back to work, their neighborhoods may be empty of any other mothers. After the flurry of activity that surrounds the new arrival, ask if she would like a visit. Yes, this can be hard - maybe you have to arrange childcare for your kids because they're sick or she's not comfortable with them around yet; your own life is busy with many demands. But make the sacrifice, show how important this new little soul is to the community, let this be a corporal work of mercy. Bring food, drink, and little comforts for her and baby. While you talk, be mindful of her - does she seem comfortable? does she have a drink? when did she last eat? does she need a shower? The visit will not do as much good if you do not use it to gauge her needs and either attend to them, or make arrangements for them to be tended to. You will not be a helpful guest if you are making her take care of you!
Jen's strategy when I was postpartum with Zuzu was just to always hold the baby so I could shower, sleep, eat, and cry unassisted. It was amazing.
Lastly, if you are a woman of child-bearing age, make room to allow care for yourself. That is, unlike what I did with David, ask for help and accept it graciously. It is good to make freezer meals, lovingly craft quiet books for the toddler to play with while you nurse, and all the rest. But let your community take care of you as well. It is a blessing to others, as well as for you.
When David's godmother had her third baby this past June, it was such a great blessing for me to care for her. The first few weeks she was well attended by her parents and in-laws, but after that calmed down, I arranged her meal train. In the interim period, I made her new daughter a name blanket and texted her at regular intervals (not too much!) to keep in touch. When we got the green light to visit, I made sure Zuzu knew not to touch the new baby, and brought them several dinners over a few weeks. I would come earlier in the day, and sit and talk with her, watching our babies stretch on their blankets, while the older kids played in another room or outside. I hope it was good for her, because it did such a great deal for me - to see her adjust to life with three kids, to hear her incredible birth story, to revel again in the gift of new life.
I truly believe that respect for the postpartum period will help women be the mothers that God is calling them to be. And that could not be more vital for our society since, as the old adage says, "the hand that rocks the cradle rules the world."
At least this little world.