So much focus can be given to the actual birth that the time after birth can be forgotten or skimmed over. However, it is such a memorable time. Good support makes all the difference to the experience of the postpartum and the ‘4th trimester’.
In societies where the traditional culture is still intact, there is a reverence and respect for the postpartum time. In fact, anthropological studies have found that postpartum disorders such as ‘the baby blues’ were virtually non-existent in traditional cultures. Yet, in industrialized nations, the baby blues can affect up to 85% of women with up to a quarter of women experiencing postpartum depression.
According to Stern and Kruckman, there seems to be five postpartum ‘rituals’ that help new mothers to feel well supported and cared for.
Forty Days Of Confinement
The acknowledgement that the first forty days (or six weeks) is to be protected and treated as a time of recuperation. The mother accepts extra support from family/friends or a postpartum doula. She has relief from cooking and cleaning and instead focuses all her energy on falling in love and breastfeeding her baby.
The physical and emotional changes that happen to a new mother are acknowledged and healing traditions are brought in to assist the mother. Treatments are given such as massage, binding the belly and using herbs/spices.
Traditional cultures place a lot of importance on rest and recuperation. Mandating rest for the mother and minimizing visitors also assists breastfeeding to be established successfully.
These cultures assist the mother to rest and recuperate by having strong support networks in place. Family or friends usually step in to help care for the other children and also help with chores around the house.
Mothering The Mother
Ceremonies help honour the huge transition from maiden to mother. Rituals are performed and gifts are given to signify and acknowledge the new mother.
The following is a description of a postpartum ritual performed by the Chagga of Uganda. It differs quite a bit from what mothers in industrialized countries may experience.
“Three months after the birth of her child, the Chagga woman’s head is shaved and crowned with a beaded tiara, she is robed in an ancient skin garment worked with beads, a staff such as the elders carry is put in her hand, and she emerges from her hut for her first public appearance with her baby. Proceeding slowly towards the market, they are greeted with songs such as are sung to warriors returning from battle. She and her baby have survived the weeks of danger. The child is no longer vulnerable, but a baby who has learned what love means has smiled its first smiles, and is now ready to learn about the bright, loud world outside (Dunham, 1992; p. 148).”
While most modern women probably don’t want to shave their heads and be confined for 40 days, there is much to learn from the traditional cultures. Honouring the journey that the mother is on will go a long way to helping create healthy societies.
Remember that the most important job for the new mother is to fall in love and learn to breastfeed her baby. Help her focus on these tasks by assisting with housework, child-minding and cooking and cleaning for her. Care needs to continue throughout pregnancy and well into the crucial postpartum period. Let’s help women thrive in the 4th trimester, not just simply survive.