Helping Women Become New Mothers
Diane S Speier, PhD
Over the years I’ve had the privilege of working with hundreds of new mothers in the weeks and months after their babies were born. Sometimes it was in a postpartum group or in a postpartum exercise class for mothers and babies. As a postpartum doula (the Greek word for servant), my work involved going into the home soon after birth and providing assistance to the new mother as she made the necessary adjustments that having a baby required. Asking the question, “what do new mothers need”, an important part of helping mothers is to support the transition to parenthood that changes their whole identity. The transition that mothers are making is called ‘matrescence’.
Matrescence is the process of becoming a mother in the full sense of the experience on all levels of experience. It means fully taking on the role and seeing how it fits, and recognizing the areas that require adjustments and making them. In a society without a built-in support system, it can mean going it alone, which can be daunting when mothers are discharged from the hospital within hours of giving birth. The normalization of what was once ‘early discharge’, going home very soon after birth, means the mother is often expected to take full responsibility for mothering with little training and less support, and prior to her readiness to assume the task. We are sending our mothers home seriously lacking in confidence and skill. Matrescence is a time for coddling, and the presence of another supportive person can be the difference between insulation, which we need, and isolation, which undermines our sensitivities. Insulation provides peace of mind and relaxation for the mother. Isolation, as a result of the nuclear family structure or single parenting, can leave the new mother on her own to cope, if she can.
Breastfeeding is not an automatic process – for those who can and want to, it requires extra patience, effort and dedication. We need to give ourselves time to get into the rhythm of it, and be kind to ourselves. Women who are bottle feeding will also be challenged by the routines of feeding, sterilizing, and preparing bottles. Mother love is also not an automatic response for many women. What facilitates that experience is sensual and skin to skin contact with the baby, knowing the sights, sounds, smell and touch of our newborns. This connection establishes a mother’s natural responses to her baby, cementing the attachment. Research highlights the connections between healthy child development and bonding, and it becomes imperative to provide the resources for new mothers that enhance the bonding process and the attachment we form with our children. The benefits of having a postpartum doula include a greater sense of competence and adequacy, heightened self-esteem and a more complete and integrated role identification as a mother.
Especially when it comes to breastfeeding, Dana Raphael in her book The Tender Gift: Breastfeeding (now out of print, unfortunately) said, “The common denominator for success in breastfeeding is the assurance of some degree of help from some specific person for a definite period of time after childbirth” (p. 141). The presence of a caring individual, whose sole purpose is to mother the mother by confirmation, reassurance and support, allows the mother to establish the rhythm of sucking and letting down that is so important in the first weeks after birth. The doula is an experienced mother who comes into the home and assists by cooking, helping with other children, holding the baby so that the mother can have a shower or do other non-baby related tasks, offering breastfeeding support and counseling, and tending to other chores or errands that need attention. She does it willingly, on a temporary basis, and she is there for the mother, allowing the mother to focus her attention on getting to know her own baby.
Postpartum doula care is not limited to women who are breastfeeding their babies, and having support for the process of matrescence helps women to assimilate the experience of newborn parenting. Support allows that process to unfold naturally. Although a postpartum doula is a wonderful way to move through matrescence, it might not be in the budget for some women. Perhaps she has friends who can offer that support, or her partner is supportive, and if she’s lucky her mother might be the support person of choice. Support comes in all shapes and sizes and includes practical support (to manage the tasks of life), emotional support (nurturing), social support (knowing assistance is available within her network), and informational support (knowledge and advice). Being able to ask for and receive support in the early days of new motherhood can be the difference between feeling confident and competent, and feeling insecure and incompetent. In other countries around the world, new mothers are given extra special treatment in the early weeks after birth. In most English speaking countries, there is no support system in place to smooth the process for parents. Getting the support needed can require some proactive engagement, but it will be worth the effort. Support can also come in the form of groups for new mothers and other classes that are more baby oriented, such as baby massage, swimming classes, and baby yoga, just to name a few.
Another form of support for postpartum mothers is now available as an app from the Apple store called Digital Doula. Based on the book in progress, The Handbook for the Postnatal Period, the app has six chapters of information about the different aspects of the postpartum weeks after birth, including The Fourth Trimester, The Power of Hormones, Breastfeeding, Bonding and Attachment, and Nurture Your Partner Relationship. It also has over 60 Hot Topics in the form of articles, research and videos that provide even more knowledge and insight about this pivotal time in life. More sections are being added now. The app is a collaboration between Dr Diane Speier and her daughter, Mariel Sands, to bring time tested wisdom to new mothers in a 21st century format that they can access. The link to purchase the app for just $1.99 is:
Helping women become mothers has been a lifelong dedication for me. My wish is that all new mothers can find the loving support that they need at this time!
Diane S Speier, PhD
Dr Diane Speier was the founder and director of The Family Tree Center for Parents in New York, before immigrating to the UK. Diane became a certified childbirth educator in 1978, and taught classes in fitness to pregnant and postnatal women for 20 years. Diane started attending births as a labor companion in 1978, and her passion for helping mothers evolved into the Birth and Beyond Doula service for childbirth and postnatal home care.In keeping with the digital age, and in collaboration with her daughter, Mariel Sands, her 35 years of experience is being harnessed as an empowering and reassuring resource for an international audience of new parents in the form of a postnatal app, called Digital Doula. Diane is also a birth psychologist, and specializes in the psychology of parenthood, the psychophysiology of birth, postnatal depression and recovering from birth trauma.