The human infant is born less developed than any other infant in the mammalian kingdom. In fact, the human baby is entirely dependent on its mother for its very survival. When a fetus is in its mother’s womb there is a complex system of support wherein the mother’s body provides the environment, the nutrition, and the hormones that move the baby’s growth forward. Once the infant has arrived in the world, however, the concept of unity and separateness evolves.
When a mother is pregnant, we are sometimes uncertain whether to think about mother and baby as two separate people or one complex organism. But once the baby is born, how do we think about baby and mother during this early phase when fetus and mother go from sharing a body to inhabiting two clearly separate bodies? Over the past several years the concept of the fourth trimester has emerged as a useful way of thinking about the continuum of dependency of the human baby on its mother and the complex nature of what unfolds during the early postpartum period.
Our culture does not tend to acknowledge this transition. Once the baby is born there is a definite expectation that the event has occurred and all should return to normal. As such, we do not routinely see the support in place for early motherhood that we see focused on pregnancy. Given this sharp reduction in support postpartum an important question to consider is whether a mother is born as quickly as a baby. Or might the birth of a mother take time as well, perhaps several months of gestation, so to speak, before she can really know and feel herself a mother?
The fact is, in Western culture we are generally isolated from extended family. Most of us do not grow up in households where our cousins and aunties are going through early motherhood before our eyes. We often enter this role with little inside knowledge of, or exposure to, what is called for and what early motherhood may look like. In some cultures there is a formalized lying-in period, usually lasting four to six weeks, where a new mother is taken care of by a community of women such that all the mother is required to do during this time is get to know her baby and ease into the experience of mothering. In our culture the new mother is generally doing this on her own, sometimes with the help of a partner.
Expecting to live life as normalonce a new baby arrives is not a healthy or realistic expectation. The fourth trimester can be a magical time of deep intimacy, discovery, and bonding. However, if we allow the tasks of life (i.e. cooking, laundry, returning email, and socializing) to prevent us from being with the emotional aspects of early motherhood, it can become an experience filled with anxiety/depression and self-doubt. Many mothers end up feeling there is something wrong with them for struggling during this transition. This is a sad state of affairs. When mothers are provided with the space to ease into motherhood, when the enormity of the transition is honored and supported, rates of postpartum depression and anxiety are greatly reduced.
So what is a healthy recipe for the postpartum transition? Some of the ingredients include: plenty of space and time to grow into your role as a new parent; having realistic expectations about what this period should be like and how long it may take to feel comfortable in this role; ample support from family, friends and community; surrounding yourself with other new parents who can understand and are open to talking about the joys and challenges of this period; and allowing yourself to seek professional help when these supports are not enough.
Many women struggle during this period and our culture of shame — a culture that doesn’t allow for darker feelings to be acknowledged and expressed — may well cause more suffering. Open up space to feel hope by letting people in so you don’t feel so entirely on your own. Isolation is not good for new parents and certainly increases our risk of suffering. Connection and community are paramount, so reach out, ask for help, and accept help when it is offered.
Parenting can be joyful and stressful and will at various times be both. Having realistic expectations of ourselves as well as compassion and patience are important ingredients in making early motherhood a more joyful experience.
Gina Hassan, Ph.D. is a licensed clinical psychologist who specializes in working with pregnant and postpartum women, and has a particular focus on working with mothers and couples around the transition of early parenting. She has a private psychotherapy practice in Berkeley, and runs Mindful Mothering and Mindfulness-Focused New Moms Groups.