The postnatal period is fraught with danger. It is well known that the health and mindset of the mother during the postpartum period can have long lasting effects on her, her baby and the whole family. It’s a big responsibility to bear and I for one, wholeheartedly believe that this responsibility should be shared, by not only the family, immediate and extended, but by you, me, employers, indeed every member of the community.
But why? Why should we all take this seriously? Firstly, because we all contribute to a culture which undervalues motherhood in and of itself; unless an adjunct to a career of some notable standing, it is simply not good enough. And this is hard to bear; hard for mothers who leave careers to have families, hard for women who may only want to raise a family and hard for all of us who have mothers, sisters, aunts and daughters who face this as they stay home to raise their babies, even if for only a short time. Secondly, because prevention of such an insidious condition is far more appealing than the alternative.
And lastly, given that we are human beings with the capacity for compassion and reason, why wouldn’t we?
Easier said than done? No, not really. It’s actually remarkably simple.
Here is an example of how support was given to me, a new mum over a two-day period, which made a world of difference to my emotional wellbeing, my strength, my self identity, my sense of connection to others…all the areas which make a marked difference to the daily experience and long term health of women postpartum.
It all started with an invitation to attend and participate in the 2018 Westpac Scholars Summit. Was it mandatory? No. Was it paid? No. Then why would the mother of a 10-week old feel compelled to travel from Adelaide to Sydney to be part of this 2-day event? Simple. It represented a part of life that holds a great deal of my self identity and purpose and to attend was important for feeling connected to that part of me and thus for my mental wellbeing.
Despite suffering from Postnatal depression with my first daughter 7 years ago, and the 40% relapse rate for subsequent births, I have in fact felt amazing this time around. No signs of blues let alone depression – I didn’t even cry when my milk came in – the sure fire hormonal trap for even the hardiest of us. And yet, there are days I feel disconnected from my cohort, even further away from accomplishing my academic goals and just plain lonely. I made a solid effort to have support mechanisms set up for myself this time around and that included keeping the occasional commitment to university and my peers. It also included asking for and accepting assistance. This is a tough one for most of us and Im certainly not keen on feeling or appearing incapable or dependent on anyone. In fact studies show that when mothers feel like they aren’t coping, rather than ask for help, they simply try harder, as though they are somehow failing rather than doing their best to exist in a patriarchal society which demands more of us now than ever before. Bigger picture here was my mental wellbeing and that of my family; no need to cut off my nose to spite my face, so I swallowed my pride and allowed it to flow. I had already learned the hard way.
And so...back to the event. My daughter is breastfed and so this posed somewhat of a challenge. I attempted a bottle for the odd occasion and she wasn’t a huge fan. So high maintenance it was going to have to be! Cue support…
Prior and during the event
My ex-husband agrees to have our daughter Faith for the days I am away.
Westpac offer to fly James over to support me. They offer to arrange a babysitter. They arrange late checkout so Rumi and James have somewhere to be during day two. They offer me a space to breastfeed and ask me if there is anything else I need to feel comfortable. They arrange a back up speaker in case I need to leave at any time before or during the event. They make me feel like I am worth the effort, not like I am putting them out; not a burden but a guest they want to see.
James arranges things at work so he can come with me. Dee his ex partner arranges things with the kids Rugby training which James will now miss.
My friends lend me clothes and shoes because God knows Im still carrying a little extra around the waist and a whole lot extra in the chest. Nothing of mine fits me.
Qantas staff move James and I to sit next to each other in case I need a hand. They block out the seats so we have more room. They let us bypass the security queue which is about 100m long. I’m not exaggerating.
Arrive at Westpac. Security give Rumi a security pass which reads ‘future CEO’, again a small possibly unintentional gesture which tells me she is welcome and thus removes a huge weight from my mind. The program director gets my name tag for me, stores my bags for me, team members refrigerate my breast milk for me. They tell me I look great. They offer to get me food and drinks at anytime throughout the day.
Throughout the day my colleagues hold Rumi, take pictures of her and with her. They ask me how I am and they really want to know the answer. A colleague holds the baby so I can get my lunch and then lets me eat it. Someone else gets me a cup of tea. The CEO invites the baby to the evening function to get a photo with the national CEO. As we walk to the hotel a friend offers to take my bag. As well as wearing our baby James pulls our luggage.
At the event a friend and colleague chases down food for me – literally - because I’m an always hungry breastfeeding mum. Meanwhile my partner has been walking around with Rumi, feeding her, putting her to sleep, playing with her, bringing her to me for feeds, sending me reassuring text messages, urging me to ‘stay out longer’ and enjoy myself. He encourages me to have a bath and unwind when I get back from the evening’s function.
He comforts the baby throughout the night.
My coffee and breakfast order is brought to the front of the queue and my coffee is ‘on the house’. The restaurant staff bend over backwards to help by running some food up to my partner who is in the room with baby while I’m down in the restaurant.
Im sitting in the ballroom and instead of rehearsing, I’m breastfeeding Rumi. A stranger walks over to me and asks me if she can get me some morning tea. She returns with a plate of cakes and a cup of tea.
Colleagues hold the baby so I can adjust my clothes and begin my rehearsal. They get me a hot chocolate. They tell me how amazing they think I am and how wonderful Rumi is. They make me feel like they are happy she is there, not like she is a nuisance or that she is inappropriate.
They take photos of us up on the stage.
Afterwards there are offerings to carry my bags and James is again walking in and out as required for feeding, as I stay and participate in the day’s events.
A stranger holds the lift.
All day I am complimented, told how Im doing such a great job. Im acknowledged and celebrated. Small comments like “wow its amazing that you’re here”, “you look great”, “Rumi is beautiful – you’re doing such a good job”. They all count; they go in the bank and withdrawals are made regularly on those days at home when getting dressed seems hard. Or when frustration over yet another pair of pants not fitting anymore gets overwhelming.
We arrive at the airport – more offers from people I barely know to help with bags. We arrive a little too late for James’s flight. I call my ex-husband – he happily keeps our daughter for an extra night and asks if Im ok and is there anything else he can do.
The café waiter brings me out my coffee instead of calling my name to pick it up.
Strangers at the airport smile and comment and offer nods of understanding – each one adding a little more to the bank. A stranger on the plane pops my bag up in the overhead locker.
The flight attendant sat next to me and put the infant seat belt on instead of letting me attempt it alone. She noticed I was upset that James had been left behind and whispers to me, “are you ok? What’s happening… tell me”. She came back with water for me and each and every time she walked past she winked at me and mouthed, “you ok?” she offers me a seat down the back and moves me to the front of the queue so I can change Rumi in the bathroom.
And as I sat next to the window feeling overwhelmed the two ladies next to me ask if Im ok. They assume Im upset flying with a new baby and say to me, “we have kids at home and we work in childcare. You don’t need to worry - we will help you”. I burst into tears, both because I have no idea whats happening with James and when he will get home feeling awful that this is somehow my fault because I accepted his help, and also because these words remove so much pressure and alleviate the 'what is she cries on board' fears. Throughout the flight, they chatted with me, they offered me food and drinks and held the baby. They made me laugh. They offered kind words and told me how amazing we were. The lady right next to me looked at Rumi and said, “your mum is doing such a great job. You’re a lucky girl.” The lady next to her gave me her jacket to cover Rumi’s eyes from the light so she could sleep. Upon landing the flight attendant comes and gives me a bag of treats – chocolates and tea and biscuits. She gets my bag down and wheels it to the front offering to take it all the way to the gate. At the gate another new mum walks over and takes my bag. Her family are carrying her baby so she has her hands free and we chat as she walks me all the way to the taxi line and we say goodbye as she leaves to meet her husband at the car park. The men in front of me in the line give me their cab.
Finally, we are home. I lay Rumi down in bed and eat some of the chocolate I had been given. Im feeling so supported and grateful that I go to sleep remembering all the amazing gestures of kindness I had been offered and how truly supported I am. James messages me to say he has been able to get another flight and will home by lunchtime.
These two days showcase supportive acts from strangers, from family, from friends, from colleagues, from professionals, from companies and staff. Each individual gesture on its own was quite simple. Yet in total, make for a very well supported new mum who feels included, acknowledged, part of the group, relevant, cared for, loved and respected.
Could I have handled this without the support? Yes. I’ve been there and done it before, but it can be so much harder, it can be lonely as hell and most importantly it shouldn’t be necessary.
This is not to minimise the pain of postnatal depression, nor am I suggesting that these simple gestures will solve the complex and multidimensional causes of or experience of it. But they can none the less be life changing…even for a day or 2 days or a week. Or honestly, for an hour. And all those hours add up to a life lived postpartum; all the small acts add up to be far greater than the sum of their parts.
My take home from this long and detailed spiel is that not only is it important to ask and accept assistance, or that it’s important to acknowledge all these things as supportive, but that all of us, in our capacities as strangers, employers, staff, friends, family and colleagues, don’t have to do a lot to literally change someone’s life, and the lives they care for.