Handle with care
The wellbeing of mothers in the six weeks after birth is given high priority in many cultures – mostly non-Western ones. In her book ‘The Golden Month’, Chinese herbalist, acupuncturist and teacher Jenny Allison writes about this very important time and explains why it’s so beneficial to ‘mother the mother’.
Why is this time so important?
During that postpartum phase the mother’s body is healing. Her uterus is healing and that takes six weeks in a normal delivery. Her ligaments are all very soft from the pregnancy hormones, so her body structure is vulnerable. She shouldn’t be doing anything that’s going to strain it and put joints out while her hormones are changing. They’re altering considerably as she’s adapting to lactating and her pregnancy hormones are dropping – it can be a very turbulent time. Women are physically and emotionally vulnerable for that reason. Socially, it’s important too. Especially the first time – it’s that transition into becoming a mother and that’s also incredibly intense.
What are the implications of not treating this time as rest?
I’ve seen patients who I’ve treated during pregnancy who then come back months later and they haven’t recovered because they didn’t have a proper rest during that crucial six week period. They come in and they’re exhausted, getting chronic back problems and they may feel depressed. I saw a woman recently who said that she thought it had taken her five years to recover because she went straight back to work and didn’t have that support that she really needed.
I’m not an expert on postnatal depression, but I definitely think that having the support of the community and especially the family around the mother can be quite an important protecting factor against PND. There are several studies that show the protective effects of rest and good support – that means support that is welcome and consistent and that you can rely on. Young women now are given the message that they can do everything and that they should be independent, so it can be really hard for women in Western societies to know that they need to be looked after now and that it’s okay to be dependent. There’s a time for payback, because one day that mother will be able to look after a young woman in her community.
It’s about being honoured too. This came up when I spoke to women from other cultures. In Morocco, one woman told me, you’re treated like a bride; you don’t do anything and everyone does everything for you. Lots of other women said that after their six weeks they felt like a queen. Everyone in the community, including the partner or husband (although it’s mostly the other women who are giving the immediate care), are running around doing everything for them.
What are the key things to do in the six weeks after birth?
There are four main things, although they all depend on having good support.
That’s proper rest: not trying to do exercise for several weeks and when you do start, taking care not to do too much because all your energy needs to go into this tremendous job you’re doing, so you don’t want to be expending it in any other direction. Even breastfeeding increases your energy requirements by 25 per cent.
It’s a form of passive exercise. It has many of the benefits of exercise but without moving. It’s also very calming and reassuring. The touch of the massage therapist is actually giving you energy as well; it ties in with the idea of warmth. In lots of different cultures they will warm the lower body or abdomen with wraps, right around your hips or lower abdomen, because that’s the area that is now empty so you’re wanting to keep it warm and supported.
There’s quite a specific principle for the postnatal diet (even though food is different all around the world), based on nutrient-dense food like good quality protein and food that is rich in vitamins and minerals. Any kind of bone broth is good, but chicken soup is the star. The other key thing is that it should be served warm, so
it supports digestion.
The mother being mothered. That holds everything else together.
How to support yourself
Unfortunately, we don’t all have access to the ideal level of care and support in those early weeks, but here are some things that Jenny suggests:
- Make sure you don’t put any pressure on yourself to achieve anything other than caring for yourself and your baby.
- Forget about getting back into your pre-pregnancy clothes or exercising to lose pregnancy weight. These things can wait.
- Think about whether there is someone who might be able to support you and care for you during the postpartum phase. Talk to them before the time arrives. If that’s not possible, then make sure you accept help where it’s offered and don’t feel guilty about taking it. There is nothing to be gained by trying to do everything yourself.
- Look after yourself during pregnancy. Jenny says, “There was a big study done recently on diet in pregnancy and rates for post-partum depression. This only related to a mild scale of depression but women who were on a Mediterranean-type diet had about 50 per cent less postpartum depression. They were eating up to 40 grams of virgin olive oil a day, seafood, fish, vegetables, fruit, pulses and dairy products and their diets were low in processed food, junk food and sugar.”
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