One woman's path through doula training, childrearing, and a computer science Ph. D. program

Monday, May 31, 2010

The disconnect between childbirth preparation and postpartum support

You spend months preparing for childbirth. For many women, the experience of first childbirth is a rite of passage: it is a pivotal, defining moment in a woman's life. It is an emergence into motherhood, if not womanhood.

You attend childbirth classes. For six to eight weeks, you schlep your growing form to the hospital or midwifery center in your town. You eye the snacks at the back of the room while trying with all your might to pay attention to the instructor. You take notes. You talk to other expectant parents. Every morsel of your mind and body is occupied with thoughts of the upcoming labor and subsequent childbirth. You are prepared.

You go to monthly, then semi-weekly, then weekly check-ups with your ob/gyn or midwife. You waddle into the office, greet the receptionists by name. You pee in the requisite cup. You get weighed. You talk to your doctor. You have no questions, except, "When is it time?"

You attend baby care classes. A nice, middle-aged lady with curly hair croons over a plastic doll while showing how to change her diaper. She shows diagrams of a breast and videos of proper breastfeeding technique. She explains how to care for the umbilical cord stump; she has you practice swaddling the plastic baby. You feel clumsy. Everyone feels clumsy.

You are prepared, but not ready.

Soon, it is time. Your labor begins and you are excited. The pivotal moment is upon you. You are doing this. You are having a baby. You are strong, womanly, powerful: you are a lioness birthing your cub.

Maybe you give birth in a hospital. Two days later, you go home. Your child is two days old, and although you have no immediate questions, you may not know what to expect. You have prepared for the baby. You know how to change a diaper, how to gently burp the baby, how to wash the baby's chin-folds. This is not the problem.

What about you?

Your bottom is sore. Your muscles are sore. Your mind is racing. You are exhausted. And your next visit to your doctor or midwife is not for another six weeks. The next one after that is your annual check-up, in one year. You wonder: is this normal? Am I normal?

Not just your body. Hormones rage through your veins. You are moody. Is this normal?

After months of support from medical professionals, you feel lost. Like they have abandoned you.

You attend new parents' support groups. But nobody asks you about your birth. It is as if it were inconsequential. It is as if it were just a stepping stone in life. A small, insignificant event. The significant event is your child, but how it got there is not important. At new parents' support group, mothers sit in a circle with their babies and discuss poop and spit-up. You wonder: why does nobody talk about their birth? Isn't that what new parents' support group is for?

People do not celebrate with you your achievement. They do not ask about your transition into motherhood --- the rite of passage that you had been waiting for, with bated breath, for forty long weeks. They do not debrief with you what happened, picking apart detail from detail, and pondering with you, the way you do alone, day after day, if you did it right.

You did, you know, do it right. By the way. But you do not know this yet.

You keep replaying it in your mind, over and over, every day. Every day for eight months you think about your birth experience; you replay it in your head. Until one day, you forget to think about it. This is when the healing begins.

This is why I asked you about your birth. Because not enough people do.

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