The year I turned 30, I realized that I was meant to be a mother. For years, I had looked for a purpose in my life. I left the chaotic life of Montreal and headed for a Vancouver Island farm to learn organic gardening. I discovered that I enjoyed nurturing plants and taking care of animals. I had a good instinct and seemed to know in my heart what they needed. I had a lot of love to give and it suddenly dawned on me: my purpose in life, along with gardening, was to have a family, to be a mother. I was going to love and nurture my children, watch them grow and blossom. That summer, I met my husband, and in February I got pregnant.

I started reading books about pregnancy and birth. For me, the birth was the rite of passage to motherhood and I wanted to be prepared. I took childbirth classes, read dozens of birth stories and practiced prenatal yoga every day. I felt peaceful and ready. I made a list of all the things I would need for the baby: clothes, receiving blankets, cloth diapers, sling, stroller, baby bathtub and breastfeeding pillow. I didn’t even have to go shopping. We received countless presents from friends and family, and soon our tiny cabin was packed with baby stuff. I was now ready to have that baby. Or so I thought.

I remember my midwife asking us if we had a good support network, people who would help us after the birth. I didn’t grasp the importance of that question and answered vaguely that a few people had offered to bring us food in the first week. In fact, I thought we wouldn’t need anybody. I had created a fantasy of how my life with a newborn would be: my baby happily nursing and cooing, and me singing lullabies and rocking him to sleep. I simply refused to look at the facts: I had never held a newborn, never been around one for more than a few minutes, nor witnessed breastfeeding. My husband and I had no family on Vancouver Island and we only knew a few people. I wasn’t at all prepared for what was to come.

After the birth, I was exhausted, anemic and I could not sleep more than two hours at night. Breastfeeding didn’t come as naturally as I thought it would. Tomas was very sensitive, easily overstimulated and he always seemed to have painful stomach reflux. He didn’t coo or cry—he screamed! He would only sleep when he was carried around or bounced in a vertical position. My partner was doing all he could to support me. He prepared meals, ran errands and became an expert baby-bouncer, but he was exhausted, too. I loved my son with all my heart, but I wasn’t feeling the joy I had expected. A lot of times, I felt disconnected, sad, resentful, overwhelmed and exhausted.
“What is wrong with me?” I wondered. I didn’t talk about these feelings to avoid being seen as a “bad” mother. Maybe I wasn’t made to be a mother after all, I worried.

I didn’t know how normal my situation was until I read Sally Placksin’s Mothering the New Mother. For the book, Placksin interviewed dozens of mothers and found that these feelings were very common, but that most women hide them because of the social pressure to be overjoyed. The roots of this problem can be found in the extinction of the traditions that used to nurture the new mother for weeks after the birth of her baby.

In our culture, the mother is often expected to take on all of the emotional and physical responsibilities of caring for a newborn without any training, experience or support. The pregnant woman gets a lot of attention, but after the birth, the focus shifts almost exclusively to her baby. The dramatic changes experienced by the new mother are often overlooked: changes in her physical being, her emotional life, her status in the group and her female identity. This life-changing experience is so important that anthropologist Dana Raphael states that becoming a mother is a woman’s most critical rite of passage. Raphael invented the word “matrescence” to designate this period of transition into motherhood, starting with pregnancy and ending when the woman feels comfortable in her new role. This transition can take a long time if the mother doesn’t receive adequate nurturing and support in the early postpartum days.

According to Placksin, a new mom’s needs include:

• rest

• gentle education and reassurance as the mother gains confidence in her mothering skills

• time to withdraw into herself and bond with her baby

• some realistic images and guideposts about the range of feelings other women have experienced postpartum

• a place to debrief and talk about the birth and the emotions that follow

“If a woman moves through this early time without recognizing and fulfilling these needs for ‘self-absorption,’ nurturing, and remaining ‘within herself’ and without sharing her total mix of emotions, then these needs may not be resolved, but may linger on, and be incorrectly interpreted by the woman as her own self-indulgence or inadequacy as a mother,” writes Placksin.

Many cultures have traditions that support the mother after each birth. Female relatives and neighbours take on all the household chores so she can rest. They bring her healing teas and nourishing soups to support breastfeeding. Experienced mothers provide companionship, instruction and encouragement. The mother is cared for and is expected to lie in bed with her newborn for the first weeks, getting up only when necessary. But with the extinction—or absence—of those traditions, it is more important than ever for today’s mother to plan for support during the early postpartum days in order to have her needs met. A good way to do this is to create a postpartum plan during pregnancy (see Resources below).

Reading Placksin’s book helped me to understand my own journey into motherhood and to make peace with my initial mixed emotions. I gradually eased into my new role and became a happy mom. My high-needs newborn grew into a content baby, then into a funny toddler who fills my heart with love and joy. I was right to believe that I was meant to be a mother… I only needed a little bit of time to become comfortable in my new role.

Nathalie Boulanger is a mother, a farmer and a writer who lives in the Cowichan Valley. Her journey into motherhood has inspired her to train as a postpartum doula to support new mothers in her community. For information, e-mail info@newmomcentre.ca.

Resources
The Year after Childbirth: Enjoying Your Body, Your Relationships, and Yourself in Your Baby’s First Year by Sheila Kitzinger (Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1994).

Mothering the New Mother: Your Postpartum Resource Companion by Sally Placksin (Key Porter Books, 1995).

Breastfeeding: The Tender Gift by D. Raphael (Schocken Books, 1973).
DONA International’s Postpartum Plan: web link.