What Is Going on in the Postpartum: Why Are Mothers Struggling?
I am blessed to have an elder in my life who inspires deep conversations and challenges the status-quo. After spending a weekend with my dear friend and mentor Whapio, I was inspired to write again. It has been a while since I last wrote and although lots has been purculating, I have been waiting for the flow to take over. Gratefully, today it did.
In psychology, integration is a key component of mental health, and overall health. When we can make sense out of our life circumstances, feel our emotions that have been trapped in our body, and flow a coherent story about our life without a huge amount of activation, it is said that we have integrated an experience.
Thus, we can weave this story into the tapestry of our life, giving rise to our individual humanity. Some stories carry more heft resulting in requiring more time to integrate. Yet, usually those experiences are turning points throughout our life that mold and shape our character.
Childbirth is one of these kinds of experiences – rich in meaning and gravidas.
Hence, when a woman gives birth, regardless of her birth experience and outcome, she holds a very precious story that will forever be etched into her psyche and cells.
This process of unfolding, uncovering, undoing, re-claiming, re-membering, and re-orienting is and never was intended to be rushed.
We rush the postpartum.
I invite you to pause for a moment and considering the above notion.
How did you rush your postpartum ‘recovery’?
How did the people around you rush your postpartum?
What were you in a rush to do? What were you rushing? Why were you rushing?
What were the consequences of rushing your postpartum? Rushing to get back to normal? What normal? What was your concept of normal? Who defined ‘normal’ anyways? Is there anything ‘normal’ about the way we live?
Seriously, take out a pen and paper and write down all the ways that you were rushed in the postpartum.
When a mother is rushed in her postpartum or holds an impression that she should somehow get it ‘together’ and ‘get back to a normal way of being and doing’, she is most likely going to be faced with struggles in her postpartum. Those struggles can show up as depression and anxiety.
Is it possible that a mother’s intelligent system is screaming at her to pay attention, to slow down and listen, and that something is off balance? Why are we so quick to label our experience as ‘something’ and get this label from someone who is an ‘expert’ in the field? Rather, what if we were encouraged to drop in and listen to what the symptoms are saying? And, be supported to follow through on this listening?
Allow me to elaborate. Having both experienced my own three postpartums and witnessed many, there are a few things that I have noticed.
After a woman has given birth she is in an altered state of consciousness, which is experienced as a felt sense of being held within an in-between state of reality. Akin to having one foot in two different worlds. It is not always obvious for mothers or onlookers that this is taking palce, and because our everyday experience rarely courts the altered state of consciousness, it can feel very foreign and unfamiliar to new moms.
Even if the mother does not ‘feel’ this in-between state, something in her knows that something is or should be different.
A miracle took place, an everyday miracle albeit, but a miracle of creation. And why is it that we are so quick to close this state of awe? Granted all the attention goes towards the baby and receiving the baby, and sometimes the mother is left to her own accord and neglected. Society grants very little attention and reverence to what the mother just experienced – need alone the fact that she sacrificed her body, in an act of love, for the past nine months.
She just delivered a baby earth bound and she is expected to have it all figured out within a few weeks?
There are so many physical changes that are taking place in the immediate postpartum that use up a lot of vital energy. For example: The uterus changes shape and size and shifts from being the size of a watermelon to that of a pear again; her hormones change and are needed to produce milk; her blood volume goes back to normal after doubling in quantity; her organs go back into ‘place’ within the body; If she had surgery she is healing an incision; If she had damage to her pelvic floor she is healing her tissue; If she lost blood, she is rebuilding blood volume; She is regaining vitality after giving all her nutrients to the growing fetus for the past 9 months; She is replenishing her energy after exerting it during labor and delivery; She is resting after staying up for hours upon hours during a long labour.
As you can imagine there are many physiological adjustments and changes taking place that would exhaust anyone. And standard care suggests that this process takes 6 weeks to return to ‘pre-pregnancy’ mode. First of all – There is no such thing as pre-pregnancy or going back to that. Secondly – none of these physiological changes address the psychological, emotional, relationally, and spiritual/energetic changes that occurred and also need time for integration.
Childbirth is a woman’s vision quest story.
Much about modernobstetrics and midwifery lacks regard to this notion. It is important to recognize that the modern practice of birth professionals is driven by an imbedded need to control at all costs to prevent death. In such, although one most often agrees that they are grateful for these advancements in obstetrical and midwifery knowledge and practices, they/we fail to recognize and address the implications of such practices.
The largest implication is the lack of regard to the sacred act of giving birth – the dismembering of birth, compartmentalizing that which cannot be compartmentalized.
As a keeper of birth stories I have heard and read hundreds. These stories have included everything from orgasmic birthing experiences to violent traumatic events. In all of these stories there is a common thread – All of these women regardless if medication was present or not, knew that they were experiencing something profound, life altering, and other worldly.
Foundationally, every women who has shared her story has been deeply imprinted by that event. It is etched into her cells and her psyche. Our lack of reverence, culturally, for the experience of birth is in my opinion showing up in the postpartum.
Somehow, many mothers get the impression like they are supposed to just sort it all out in a short period of time. Get over the event. And have it all figured out – nursing, night sleeping, crying, diapering, illness, development – as if they are born into being a professional mother. Each baby requires time and attention to nurture the unique relational bond between each family member. There is no right way or one way, but there is a unique way.
On top of the pressure to have it all figured out within a certain time frame, there is the added pressure to take on a new ‘job’ as an at home mother that includes – cleaning, cooking, organizing, socializing and tending to the baby. I have heard over and over again mothers express guilt connected to the concept that they ‘should’ be doing more around the house now that they are home or that they are failures because they can’t ‘keep it in order’.
Can you sense the tension building in any mother’s experience of the postpartum?
If for some reason a mother is challenged to have all of this figured out within the first few weeks or months after giving birth, and if her body is not healing as ‘normal’, and if she is struggling with sleep, colic, illness, or nursing, one can understand how her nervous system would be absolutely taxed. Thus, contributing to the onset of postpartum mood challenges – anxiety and/or depressive states. But there is more, not only has her nervous system gone array, she is dying on a soul level.
Let us add one more challenge that many mothers face in the postpartum – isolation and loneliness.
Motherhood can be a very isolating experience. Part of this is because many mothers are exhausted and adding a social engagement to the mix is just too much. Sometimes, mothers have expressed feeling too ashamed to connect with other mothers because they are struggling. This isolation is a result of our nuclear family structure which has separated us from community and connection. Motherhood was never intended to be a role that is ‘performed’ in an isolated environment.
All of these factors impact the postpartum mother’s process of integration.
Further, when a mother’s primary partner and closest family members feed a mythical tale that she is supposed to: be better by now, have it all figured out, hide her emotions or tone down her emotions, take on many jobs and do them well, be happy, love her children, have a nice clean home, nourish her family, and work towards getting her pre-pregnancy body back, she is likely to go ‘mad’.
Both ‘mad’ in the sense of a psychic wild pain and ‘mad’ in the sense of rage.
I would argue that this rage is necessary and insightful. It is a collective rage that is screaming ‘something is terribly wrong about what is happening’. This rage is shared, and I can attest to this because I have both experienced it and witnessed it in hundreds of women. Most often however, this rage is never given space to be witnessed. There is fear that this rage will either a. harm another or self or b. cause one to be sent to a mental institution. Sadly, when we explore the depths of this fear, usually these are the two fears that prevent a mother from moving into this sacred rage.
Women are not allowed to rage. Period.
We are fed to believe that It is dangerous. Too much. Violent. Aggressive. Wrong. Bad. Mean. Denotes a lack of control. I am going to write more about motherhood and rage!
What happens when mothers are not encouraged to voice and do something with their rage?
It turns into anxiety or depression, or in some horrific cases psychosis.
What would being held in a manner that fosters integration offer mothers?
Space to speak about the fullness of their perinatal experience
Space to emote and feel into the fullness of this experience
Time to collect her pieces that have just been totally discombobulated throughout pregnancy and birth
Time to re-orient and re-connectto herself, her baby, her loved ones
Nourishment both physically and soulfully
Space to create meaning from this life changing experience
A knowing that she does not have to have it all together or figured out, and that there is no pressure for her to be a certain way or do certain things
A trustin the process and in herself as a mother
Some questions to ponder:
How have you been held in your postpartum?
What expectations have been placed upon you – internally and externally?
What do you need to begin to integrate the fullness of your childbirth experience?
What is being asked of you?
What would you like to say to those you love, to other mothers, to the world that you know would shift something for you and other mothers?
What was lacking in your postpartum? What was off?
What is your rage about?
I invite you to contemplate these questions. Share them with others or keep them close to your heart. Begin conversations with other mothers in your community about any or all of these concepts I presented. I beleive that change will happen when mothers claim something different for themselves; when collectively we begin to speak about the ‘unspeakable’ aspects of the childbirth continuum. When the sacred is included in the conversations about birth and postpartum. And when the rage is acknowledged and understood.