We've lost our village, and it's making us tired

We've lost our village, and it's making us tired

I just read a great article that cuts through the cultural attitude of "mommy martyrdom" around the issue of sleep deprivation and its effect on postpartum mental health.

We've all joked about having "mommy brain" and falling asleep mid-feeding in the rocking chair at 4 a.m., but as a society, it may be time to wake up. Pardon the pun. The Canadian Mental Health Society names sleep deprivation as a contributing factor to postpartum depression - a condition 10-15 per cent of new mothers will experience, some to the level of psychosis.

Having a newborn baby is blissful, joyful and exciting. But it's also constant - not to mention critically important - work. If women are lucky, family members pitch in with meals and grocery runs in the first week. But then what happens? 

Typically, Dad goes back to work and Mom is up three to four times a night feeding and soothing baby so that her partner is well rested enough to function at the office. Then chronic sleep deprivation really starts to kick in - chronic because there's no time to catch up on lost sleep.

As new moms, we're often told to "sleep when they sleep". But that's assuming someone else is cooking, cleaning, doing laundry and taking care of your other children. (Notice there's no time in there for showers or relaxing with a heating pad around your shoulders.) Not many of us have a super-grandma down the road who gives up the next six weeks of her life to take care of household business while her daughter (or daughter-in-law) feeds and bonds with her new baby. And almost no one has a village to rally around them any more. 

According to a Huffington Post article on birth traditions in other cultures, the Japanese have a concept around post-natal care called Ansei, or "peace and quiet while pampering." Um, yes please. Traditionally, Japanese women spend the first three weeks after the birth of their baby at their parents' house staying in bed, recovering and bonding with their baby.

In Nigeria, the mother, or mother-in-law, gives the new baby its first bath, symbolizing the care she will give in the early part of the newborn's life.  Maybe that sounds worse than labour to you; that depends on the mother-in-law. But we're talking about a concept here.

Just four decades ago, my mother spent a full five days in a hospital bed after each of her babies' natural, uncomplicated births. For one birth, she was sharing a room with an Irish-Catholic woman who had just delivered her 12th or 13th child. "I love coming in here," she said. "It's the only break I get all year." 

Another interesting read outlines the culture shock that a Korean nurse had when giving birth in the United States. In her article Postpartum Beliefs and Practices Among Non-Western Cultures, Yeoun Soo Kim-Godwin, PhD, MPH, RN says, "It is interesting that women’s status has been considered relatively higher in Western cultures than in non-Western cultures, yet paradoxically less recognition seems to be given to new mothers in the United States."

True - for baby showers and the postpartum period, the focus is most often on the baby.  Now, I'm not saying we should ignore the miraculous new bundle of joy, but we need to take care of moms so that moms can be fully present to take care of their babies. Don't get me started on the insanity of some countries that require women to be back to work after six weeks. 

So what to do?  Reach out. Make food - lots of it, and often. If you have a friend or family member who has just given birth, show up with two containers: one for tonight and one for the freezer. Ask the mom (and/or dad) if they would like you to watch the baby while they take a shower or have something to eat. Then bugger off. 

I'll never forget visiting my friend Jean a week after the birth of her first baby. Not yet a mom myself (and admittedly out to lunch on the whole thing), I brought flowers. You're welcome. And I stayed for an hour (total rookie). About a year later I had my own baby, so by the time Jean had her second, I had smartened up. I showed up with a big pot of nourishing soup, held her baby for five minutes and then left her in the capable hands of her husband-on-paternity-leave to rest.

That said, if you know someone who is really suffering, treat it seriously. Get them to talk to their doctor, and connect them with a local women's mental health or postpartum depression group. Make sure they're being followed by health professionals. And if they have a difficult baby who literally keeps them up all night, gather the troops, step in, and take shifts. She needs to sleep.

If you need a great platform for organizing postpartum meals or other support, check out Lotsa Helping Hands to make your own online signup calendar.