I’ll start with the cliché: They say it takes a village to raise a baby.
After an intense and long labour, a stint in the NICU and the following very, very lonely weeks at home, I have come to realize the meaning of ‘village’.
It’s you. The new mom. You’re the village. That’s it.
Six days after my baby was born, my husband, my baby and I – this new family – finally came home. We had been holed up in the neo-natal intensive care unit in downtown Halifax for five days after our 65 hours of a very complicated labour.
We had high hopes for a healing and beautiful birth experience – we bought the birth pool, read the pain management books, practiced the art of orgasmic birthing and hired the doula. The whole way through my pregnancy, we followed our ideals and leaned into what we dreamed of for our first few moments together as a new family.
Instead of our dreamy birth, I got a second-degree tear and an episiotomy that goes all the way past my butthole (a little bigger than it needed to be, if you ask me). Instead of honouring doulas and attentive midwives, we had a pushy OB that was rude to our midwife and dismissive of our decisions. Instead of a beautiful moment when we were all finally together, we got a whole bunch of PTSD and very little support to work through it.
Living through a complicated labour has made me realize that a healing or empowering birth experience is almost impossible as long as we live in a culture that constantly traumatizes the female body. Amongst the books on breastfeeding and latching, sleep schedules and wake windows, I have yet to find a book on what it is to heal after a traumatizing birth experience.
Perhaps worse still, is the world’s response to the trauma:
“You’re doing great mama!”
“Just try to get her to nap.”
“What did you think parenting was?”
“You’ll get through this.”
All perfectly adequate responses, were the question not ‘can someone come and just help me please???’.
Following the birth, my body needed rest and nutrients–but there was no one there to help me get it. In the first 6 weeks of my baby’s life, there was one knock at my door with a kind visitor who brought food and gifts. There were no meal trains, no pop-in’s with a frozen lasagna, no offers to hold the baby while I nap. We had no bags of food left on the porch, no nice calls, and only a few texts. All the things promised at the baby shower quickly disappear once the baby arrives.
To get through the lonely days, I decided to hire a postpartum doula.
How insane, I remember thinking, that in order to be helped through the most intense and transformative time in my life, I have to pay someone $25 an hour. Where is my village?
When she came over for her first three-hour shift with me and my new baby while my husband worked, I talked to her about how lonely I felt, how betrayed I felt that no one showed up to help (compounded, I’m sure, by a less than ideal birth experience).
This is what I hear the most, she said to me as I scarfed down yet another piece of toast – the only thing I had time to eat most days. But her revelation brought me no comfort – instead, it makes me absolutely enraged.
Her and I discussed the importance of a community and people ‘reaching in’ with new moms and new families (yes, dads too). When you are in the thick of your first few months of parenthood, the absolute last thing you can think of is how to ask someone for help. Do I need a shower? A meal? A nap? All three?
In a culture that traumatizes women’s bodies throughout their lives, including in the birth of her baby and the birth of her as a mother, women are still left with the wreckage to clean up by ourselves. Perhaps it is too triggering and too difficult for other women, those whose kids have come and grown, to witness us as new moms in what they themselves try to erase from their own history.
I have learned, in the past few months of being a new mom, that community is the only answer. Healing does not happen in a silo. Your body cannot heal while you hold and nurse a screaming baby for hours on end (literally, there are days where you just can’t put them down).
By week eight, I began desperately perusing the online world for any semblance of a new mom community. Would it be a WhatsApp chat group? The local Hot Mom Walking Group? I knew I needed something to keep me going through the very long days. I needed community, I needed other women. I needed someone to look me in the eyes and say, I know exactly where you are, because I am there too.
In my frantic searching, illumined by the blue glow of my cellphone in a dark nursery on any given midnight, there it was: A 5-star retreat in New York for new moms and families. Surrounded by other new moms, doulas, midwives, and caring nurse staff, I could recover from my traumatizing birth, eat well, and learn how to get my baby to latch, complete with room service and nurses at my beck-and-call for a simple $1,400 USD a night.
Instead, I angrily signed up for Mom and Baby Yoga. I can still feel the sharp pangs of perineum scar pain when I remember loading up the car to go to yoga, and to essentially go find a community. When I got there, they asked me about the baby, about our labour. The yoga teacher, upon hearing it all, exclaimed “why the hell are you here? Go home and rest.” But I had no choice.
Now, four months into my baby’s life, I am no longer shocked by the amount of women who experience postpartum depression or anxiety. Birth trauma, compounded by loneliness, a crying baby, and the sheer lack of support or community for new moms, I am certain it is more than the “20% of women” who report it.
Amy Saunders is a queer writer of poetry, prose and essays. With works published in SheDoesTheCity, Briarpatch Magazine, IN & OUT, and the Canadian Archive of Poetry, her topics vary from grief, womanhood, family history, to PTSD, healing, alcoholism and drug addiction. She splits her time between Toronto and Halifax. You can read her work at www.theprpriestess.com or find her on IG @theprpriestess.