In the west, it’s common for new moms to experience postpartum isolation. Not so in many other societies, where you might find
– postpartum mentoring by elder women;
– ritual bathing and personal care;
– help with cleaning, cooking, and care of older children; or
– assignment of a special status in the community.
These postpartum practices and others exist to help new moms in other societies like China, Guatemala, Punjab and Uganda. Kathleen Kendall-Tackett, PhD and writer, cites a study by Stern and Kruckman (1983) that examined these cultures’ treatment of new mothers. And if you compare rates of “baby blues” (50-85%) and postpartum depression (10-20%) in North America, versus close to 0 in the cultures Stern and Kruckman studied, it’s clear that postpartum isolation is a big factor in new mothers’ mental health struggles in the United States specifically but certainly in any industrialized nation where the nuclear family is the norm.
While support and care are scarce for western postpartum women, Kendall-Tarkett points out that these women are, by contrast, given special attention and assistance during their pregnancies. Baby showers, meal delivery, help with carrying groceries, and rides to medical appointments all point to the awareness westerners have developed about the special needs of pregnant women.
But after the baby is born, this awareness of the women’s needs, and the subsequent care and support, disappears; the focus turns to the baby. Most American working mothers have, at best, just a few weeks of paid maternity leave, and fathers or non-birth mothers generally have none. And even in Canada and Europe, where leave time is more generous, new mothers suddenly need to find friends and community in their neighborhoods, other moms who are also home caring for children, something they may not have had prior to baby’s arrival.
All of this results in many western moms spending long stretches of time at home alone with their babies, oftentimes going without any adult conversation for eight or more hours a day. And that postpartum isolation spells trouble, both for women’s health and infant health, since a new mom’s capacity to care for her child is directly affected by her own wellness.
While it’s nice to imagine western moms benefitting from supports like those Stern and Kruckman studied, it’s difficult to picture such drastic cultural changes, at least in the short term. But the good news is that motivated women aware of the dangers of postpartum isolation have created avenues for new mothers to connect and find friendship, community, and support. I interviewed three such women who are contributing to a movement to counter postpartum isolation.
1) Hello Mamas
A service that matches new moms of all types for friendships with an app launching soon
Christa Terry, Co-Founder of Hello Mamas, was surprised by how isolated she felt after her first baby was born. Terry’s baby was a preemie with lots of special needs and who couldn’t be out in public for months. “It was an eye-opener,” said the 36-year-old mother of a seven-year-old daughter and a three-year-old son. “Other moms were going to weekly ‘Mommy and Me’ classes, or walking with each other, and I couldn’t participate.” Terry teamed up with Julia, whose husband got transferred to a town where she knew nobody, and Meg, whose baby had a serious food allergy, and together they created Hello Mamas.
“As moms we came to the idea individually through different experiences. That is a big part of what convinced us that postpartum isolation is ‘epidemic.’ You could be a preemie mom, a mom who had a big life change, or an allergy mom, a mom who is an introvert or a mom with a high needs baby. Or maybe you’re just a mom. It’s tough enough even without special challenges. Making friends as a grownup is hard. Add in exhaustion and all that comes with new motherhood, when and how are you supposed to do it?”
The three women looked for a solution to postpartum isolation that would be as easy as possible for new moms. They decided to focus on the online dating model for Hello Mamas. Terry explains, “You put criteria into a profile, like at Match.com, and you’re matched with other moms looking for friends. You can do a search and get a list of moms closest to you locally with similar values, interests, and situations.” And, Hello Mamas’ members are quite diverse. “Hello Mamas is for every mom, not just for certain groups,” said Terry. “No matter what family situation, parenting style, religion, we make sure all members feel comfortable. We also have some big changes coming soon: our new app is launching. We recognize that moms with things in common are not necessarily local to each other. So we made a topic-based way for moms to connect.” Individual moms can create a group around a topic like autism or food allergies to meet other moms around the world who share an interest in or experience with the topic.
Here are some Hello Mamas members’ stories:
“Wai-Ke and I started messaging each other on Hello Mamas when her son Hugh was nearly two years old and my Valentina was 18 months. One of my best mom friends had recently passed away and I was feeling disconnected from other moms around me. It was strange that even though I was born in Vancouver, it was Wai-Ke, a newcomer to the city, who helped me get connected with other moms here. She introduced me to the Vancouver Active Moms meet-up group, where I was able to connect with many other moms and ultimately a babysitting co-op. I’m grateful for our friendship. Even though Hugh and Valentina always have their share of rough play whenever they get together, it is so lovely to also see their friendship grow. I have seen Wai-Ke’s and my friendship evolve as well – through Wai-Ke’s husband’s job change to Toronto and my pregnancy and maternity leave.”
“I met my friend Alyss through Hello Mamas. I can’t remember now if she responded to a friendship request or if I responded to hers. Or maybe we were part of a discussion in the same forum and then one of us reached out to the other after some comment struck a chord. However it began, we began chatting through the website in February, and that evolved into me helping her find an at-home daycare in a pinch when she went back to work … and we had never even met! After the daycare situation was resolved, which was a whirlwind week for both of us, she suggested we meet. Now we will meet for lunch and we text back and forth. Alyss and I don’t live in the same part of town, and I don’t even think we run in the same circles. I never would have met her if not for Hello Mamas!”
“I received my first friend request a couple weeks ago, and at our first meeting it turned out we had a lot in common. We are both military moms, both have multi-lingual households, both cloth diaper, and both breastfeed! It was eerie how good of a match we really were so now I’m telling all of my mom friends near and far about Hello Mamas because it really does work. I’ll probably be less apprehensive about contacting other moms in the future since having such a great experience with my first match.”
2) MOMS Club
A network that encourages and supports formation of local social/support/service groups for stay-at-home moms
Another network, the MOMS Club, also was born of a woman who experienced postpartum isolation. Founder Mary James had an infant and a three-year-old in 1983, when her family moved to a new town in California where she didn’t know anyone. After looking around, fruitlessly, for a group that met during the daytime and whose activities included children, she had her “just do it!” moment. “I realized that if I didn’t start it, then my children would be grown before I found something like that.” She quickly realized she wasn’t alone. “Other mothers expressed the same thing I had: they were lonely at home alone, even though they wanted to raise their children themselves and at home. Once we got started, we had 60 members very quickly. It was fabulous!”
The structure of this organization is more like a meet-up, the idea being that having an in-person support group during the day where moms and their children can be in community with other moms and kids. The goals include support for stay-at-home moms, forum topics, help for children, and community service. The organization has four principles:
-That women must be free to choose their personal path to fulfillment;
-That, for women who choose it, raising children is an important and fulfilling full-time job;
-That a family’s decision for a mother to stay at home to raise the children often involves considerable financial sacrifice; and
-That there is no one right way to raise children, but our members have a common concern in raising their children in a healthy way.
MOMS Club Chapters meet for lunches, museums, outdoor activities, and service projects, and there are newsletters to help members keep current with one another. But the distinguishing feature is the in-depth support. James explains: “Our chapters have a broader program than a simple meet-up, and the mothers really get to know each other and their children. When there’s a problem or crisis in a member’s family, the other members jump right in to help — babysitting, bringing meals, providing transportation or fundraising — because the members are real friends, not just online acquaintances.”
As the years passed, the MOMS Club continued its rapid growth, adding chapters first in Tennessee and then expanding across the USA and into other countries. The group, a 501c(3) publicly supported charity registered with the IRS, now has over 1500 chapters in the USA and over 100,000 members. International chapters have formed in countries like Belgium, Nigeria, and Japan. James is thrilled at this explosion of growth. “Even today, I’m so gratified to hear mothers say the exact same things I used to say – ‘The MOMS Club saved my life!’ ‘I never knew there were so many other at-home mothers out there!’ The years may have changed, but the need is still there for personal support for all at-home mothers.”
3) Postpartum doulas
DONA International, a professional doula certifying organization, provides this definition of a doula:
The word “doula” comes from the ancient Greek meaning “a woman who serves” and is now used to refer to a trained and experienced professional who provides continuous physical, emotional and informational support to the mother before, during and just after birth; or who provides emotional and practical support during the postpartum period.
“We are not meant to navigate this time alone or with just our partner,” explains Montreal-based Doula Megan Howarth. “Other traditional societies continue to respect this and mothers and new families are treated with respect and care. Emphasis is placed on healing and transitioning into the new role. Of course women will do better in situations where they are supported and taken care of. Especially in the US where maternity leave basically doesn’t exist, there is little focus on the mother/baby dyad.”
Howarth began her career as a birth doula. Many of her clients struggled after their babies’ births and some asked her to continue spending time with them during what some call “the fourth trimester.” She is currently certified as a birth doula with the organization ProDoula and plans to certify as a postpartum doula as well.
Howarth describes some of what she might offer her clients after a birth:
“Allowing the parents to get some rest is a biggie. Stepping in and allowing a new mom the permission to sleep and shower and take care of her needs is so important. Breastfeeding is a big focus these days but the support after the birth often doesn’t match the encouragement given beforehand and I’ve played a big role in supporting women as they navigate that intense time. Baby care is another important one. Bathing, swaddling, feeding, babywearing etc. I either support the parents or do these tasks for them. I also simply listen to them so they feel understood and heard. I offer resources if they need extra help or support.”
The tasks Howarth offers clients might seem ordinary, but to clients, they can make an enormous difference. “One couple was desperate for some time together after two weeks with their new baby,” relates Howarth, “so I came over and they went out for a quick bite to eat. Baby slept and I did a load of laundry. They came home happy as can be after a glass of wine and oysters! If that isn’t a great way to start parenting, then what is?!?”
Another time Howarth stayed overnight with a new family. “They had a very difficult birth and were in the hospital for a week. When I arrived they cried they were so happy to see me. I sent the father to bed since he was exhausted. Then I helped mom breastfeed and pump and then sent her to bed. I woke her up just for feedings and the next day they were so happy and relaxed after finally getting a night of rest. I prepared breakfast and coffee and left them to enjoy their baby.”
DONA cites research that indicates having a postpartum doula has concrete positive benefits for new parents. “The quality services of a postpartum doula can ease the transition that comes with the addition of a baby to a family, improve parental satisfaction, and reduce the risk of mood disorders.”
Having a baby in a western culture in the 21st century can be unimaginably lonely. For women who choose to stay home to raise their children, postpartum isolation is a very real health risk. Hello Mamas, the MOMS Club, and postpartum doulas are just three examples of solutions developed by women who decided to do something about the problem. There are additional organizations, clubs, and cafés that cater to moms and young children, and even government-sponsored efforts like breastfeeding support groups in Canada are springing up in response to postpartum isolation. If you are a mom, if you’re pregnant, or if you’re even considering having children, check out your options for support. You might have to dig a bit, but chances are you’ll find several paths for growing your community of mothers and children. Staying connected is essential for good health and happiness, which makes all the difference for both new moms and their families.