Moms Need a World of Support Postpartum, But Your Help Shouldn't Violate Their Boundaries

Photo by Beachboard Photography
Photo by Beachboard Photography

I tugged at my bathrobe, wrapping it tightly around my body, gazing curiously into my own reflection. The dimly-lit space reeked of eucalyptus, luxury, and relaxation. A single candle tossed its light against the mirror, illuminating a row of lotions, soaps, and plush white hand towels arranged along a marble countertop. Toward the end of my pregnancy, my husband asked what I wanted as a push present. I'd chosen a massage at an elegant spa near our home. And, at three weeks postpartum, there I was: immersed in the respite that my anxious, sleep-deprived soul had dreamed about. So why did I feel so out of place? Why did it feel like I was doing something wrong?

For a split second, I thought about scrambling together my belongings, scurrying across the polished floors and through the French doors, and rushing home to scoop my baby girl into my arms and bury my face into her buttery neck. But, just as intensely, I ached for a glimpse of myself – the "me" who existed before becoming "mommy." I was so in love that the smell of her skin made me cry. But now that she was here . . . who was I?

When you're pregnant, strangers put down their coffee cups to admire your bountiful bump and waddle. Everyone rushes to open the door for you and offer up unsolicited pep talks. Loved ones greet you with a sparkle in their eyes that amplifies your excitement about the days to come. "Growing a human isn't easy" serves as a gracious response to the most wildly swinging moods. But, while pregnant women are often treated like a delicate flower, that heightened sense of grace and support begins to subside in the midst of the most delicate season of all, which is postpartum.

In Motherly's annual State of Motherhood survey, moms reported feeling unsupported by society. While 74 percent of those polled in 2018 claimed to feel that way, that number roared to 89 percent in the midst of 2020's COVID-19 crisis. And this feeling is even more intense for new moms. In the weeks and months after a woman gives birth for the first time, she might be crawling under familiar bedsheets and filling her mug from the same coffee pot, but she has toppled into an unfathomable dimension of identity upheaval. Postpartum experts call this process "matrescence," which is defined as a multifaceted life shift that resembles the transformation experienced during adolescence. And, while the new mother fumbles to make it to the other side, she is being met with a world of expectations from those who wish to ooh and ahh over the life she has spent nine intimate months growing and protecting. Some of her hormones have fled the scene and new ones have entered the building. And it goes beyond that. Giving birth means her brain has literally been restructured.

A 2016 study published in Nature Neuroscience revealed that, up to two years postpartum, new moms experience gray matter shrinkages in areas of the brain that are involved with social cognition and empathy. This could be nature's way of seeing to it that a mother's focus becomes more adequately wired in areas that direct her toward her baby's needs. Regardless, it is indisputable that postpartum women should be handled with compassionate gloves. Because she is in a tug of war between the woman she was and the one she is trying to become.

So, if you have a new mom or mom-to-be in your life, read on. Ahead are science- and expert-backed suggestions for how to support her during this delicate transition.

Be generous with offering help, but don't demand that she take it.

Offer to clear your schedule for an afternoon. Bring a spread of warm cookies, a pot of homemade soup, and a fragrant bouquet. Pour a cup of hot coffee and help her set up her breast pump. Offer to rock the baby for a few hours while she naps, soaks in a bubble bath, or slips away for a quiet dinner with her partner.

But here's the catch: If she feels comfortable retreating to her bedroom, or vanishing behind the bath curtain, or leaving her baby at home in your care, she will. But she may not. And, if she isn't ready, don't try to convince her otherwise. If she feels pressured to accept something she doesn't want, even if otherwise tremendously grateful, she might perceive your presence as violating.

Dr. Ashurina Ream, PMH-C, a licensed clinical psychologist who specializes in perinatal mental health, says this is a commonly-raised issue within her practice, especially with extended family. "A grandparent may offer advice or help based on what they did or what worked for them, but that can be received as overbearing. Most of the time, new parents don't need advice or to be told what to do; they just need a listening ear and to be told, 'You're doing a great job,'" she says.

Don't judge her if she isn't on Cloud 9.

Almost immediately after giving birth, a woman's estrogen and progesterone levels tumble dramatically. The hormones that soothed her in pregnancy have vanished, causing her exhausted body to feel abandoned and confused. So, if she isn't bubbling with excitement, Dr. Zaher Merhi, MD, FACOG, HCLD, an OB-GYN and the Director of Research at New Hope Fertility Center, says it doesn't mean she lacks the motherhood chip. It just means her body is trying to find its way.

"When the baby is born and the placenta is removed, the hormones go with it, so the majority of women experience postpartum blues. They might cry for no reason or seem withdrawn. The best thing to do is soothe the mom through this process and never make her feel like she is crazy," he says.

While up to 75 percent of women experience some level of postpartum mood disruption, only about 15 percent suffer with extreme postpartum depression. "In these severe cases, moms cannot take care of their baby, or might think of hurting themselves or the baby. Regardless, even in the worst of cases, there is treatment available," says Dr. Merhi.

It's natural for a new mom to be possessive, so honor this instinct.

When I was three months postpartum, my husband, our baby and I attended a birthday party at a friend's house. One of our friend's family members, whom I had never seen or met, approached us and started tugging at my baby while she lay cooing in my arms. She then held out her hands, signaling for me to pass my baby to her, declaring matter-of-factly, "I'm a registered nurse." I thought, Congratulations. You're also a stranger.

The commonly tossed-around term "mama bear" embodies a powerful feeling that takes root the minute a baby is placed in its mother's arms. Oxytocin, the love and bonding hormone, floods the system, and while it can reduce a mother's stress overall, it also generates feelings of protectiveness in response to environmental threats. This means that a new mom might experience a primal urge to "protect" her baby from others. So, with this in mind, a presumptuous action like tugging the baby from its mother's grasp is a no-no. Unless you're in the mood for a "mama bear" growl.

Dr. Merhi says this type of possessiveness is evident across nature. "In the beginning, a woman might feel uncomfortable if her baby is out of her sight or being held by someone else for long periods. The baby has been inside of her womb and is now on the outside, and this can be a shock. So it's important to be patient while she adjusts," he says.

Try to tame your dreams about the baby's future.

Reiterating the importance of honoring a mother's possessive instincts, the postpartum period isn't the ideal time to announce certain expectations one might have about the baby's future, especially plans that involve taking the child away from its mother's care. For example, expressing your intention to whisk the child away for long, faraway trips one day might not land well early on. Everything is so raw and scary, and mom hasn't had time to make peace with the realization that the tiny baby she felt kick and squirm in her womb will one day no longer be a baby.

Be cautious with sensitive subjects and mom comparisons.

Perhaps you know someone who returned to her pre-pregnancy weight prior to her six-week postpartum appointment. But many moms don't and, instead, find themselves at war with poor body image. And, while breastfeeding is a magically intuitive process for some, that's not everyone's story. So, even if it feels innocent to mention, know that certain topics can be triggering during postpartum.

In a 2013 survey, 92 percent of women polled reported having problems breastfeeding – from struggles with low supply to a weak latch. Unfortunately, some women don't have the necessary biology or resources to charge through those obstacles triumphantly. So, unless she opens up the floor for discussion about sensitive topics, especially when comparisons are on the table, it's often best to avoid them.

Be respectful of her boundaries and space.

She might not feel comfortable with a menagerie of visitors at the hospital. Then, once home visits begin, she might only have the energy for narrow windows of time. If she tells you that she and the baby are available until noon, plan to leave at noon unless she suggests otherwise. Never push for more. Every individual has unique needs while adjusting to a massive life transition, and you may have no idea what she is processing emotionally, mentally, or physically.

Dr. Ream says that, for new mothers, "Boundaries are crucial." So, the more she feels that you are respecting her boundaries and space, the more she is likely to trust you to create your own bond and connection with her baby.

Acknowledge that she is still her own person.

One sleep-deprived afternoon, I confessed to one of my girlfriends, "Sometimes I feel like I'm grieving the loss of a friend . . . and the friend is me." I was nearing the end of the newborn phase and had made lightyears of progress since that day at the spa when being a room away from my daughter felt like ripping flesh from flesh. But I was still searching for a new rhythm.

Not long after, my friend replied with a video message, saying, "You know, I love getting your updates about the baby, but today I only want to know what's next for you." She asked about the travels I'd pinned to my vision board and how the book I'd been writing was coming along. In doing so, she directed me back to the friendship I had with myself. It helped me reunite with a sacred truth: My dreams, my individuality, and my presence in the world never have to become a desolate forest — even after becoming someone's mother.