The 40 Day Tradition
You've had 40 weeks (give or take a week or two) to "plan" for your birth. You've read all the birthing books, taken all the birthing classes. Hey, you even went as far as taking an infant care, breastfeeding and CPR class. You know about the stages of labor. You did yoga throughout your pregnancy and you paid particular attention to your pelvic floor because you were in my class and I drilled it into your brain (ha!). You have a team in place: your OB or midwife, your birth doula, your partner, nurses, favorite musicians... you are READY.... right? Perhaps you are prepared for birth, but are you prepared for what happens next?
During pregnancy, many of us spend a lot of our energy thinking about and "planning" for the day our little one will arrive, but we may not give as much consideration to what is going to happen after we bring baby home (or after our team goes home if we've had a home birth). Sure, we know which relatives will be with us to "help". Sometimes, this just adds more to our plate. We might have an idea about where the baby will sleep and whether we "plan" to breastfeed or not. I'm putting the word "plan" in quotations a lot and this intentional as many things do not go as planned when it comes to birthing, breastfeeding and sleeping babies. That said, what about the plan or intention to heal your body that has been through so much? Or the manifestation of a sacred space for resting and bonding? In American culture, we tend to overlook these valuable rituals because they go against the cultural norm and standard.
The 40 Day Tradition
Americans are babies. We live in the New World and are influenced by a culture that is so profoundly YOUNG compared to the ancient worlds of China and India. We've rewritten the template for many things and in many ways, this is a good thing. When it comes to the practice of what is expected during the Postpartum period, we could benefit from taking a giant step back (or perhaps forward) and adopting the traditions put into place by the wisdom of our ancient ancestors. What's more, we get to integrate the best of all worlds and make it our own so long as we don't have our overbearing first-generation grandmother imposing her own cultural beliefs on us. Even still, that is the beauty of living in this free world, we have the power of autonomy and personal decision-making.
The 40 Day Tradition encompasses many cultural facets and can be tailored to each new mother to suit her needs and the needs of her family. Essentially, it entails a period of healing, rest and proper nutrition to set the new mother up for success in her journey toward transformation or "Matrescence". Dr. Alexandra Sacks has recently resurrected this term to describe the process of becoming a mother. There is no limit to the amount of time this takes. We are constantly evolving and growing was mothers, but in the case of the postpartum period, I am referring to the initial shock of change and birth of a new mother as matrescence.
It is believed that honoring the first 40 Days postpartum with rest, nutritious foods, and healing herbs will result in reemerging 6-8 weeks after giving birth with a sense of well-being, confidence and security versus feeling depleted, insecure and possibly suffering from postpartum depression or anxiety. Of course, one may do all the things and could still potentially suffer, especially if there is a family history of mental disease, but I am offering you a guideline for setting oneself up for success.
I did not personally experience the 40 Day Tradition after either of my births. I had my children way before I immersed myself in the world of pregnancy and postpartum. I was also stubbornly attached to the American ideal of "bouncing back" after baby is born. I was so proud of myself for coming home and being "able" to clean the house and be up and about. I even disregarded the advice of my OB and started going on long walks with the stroller at 2-3 weeks post because I "could". I went through the first portion of my yoga teacher training prior to conceiving my firstborn so I did have some intuition about what my body was capable of, however I was failing to understand what all of this pushing was doing to my undercurrent, physically and mentally. I was living on power bars and figured that was ok because that would assist with losing the baby weight (clearly my priorities were backward and I am fortunate that I still produced enough breast milk). I even turned down outside help because I wanted to prove to myself and my loved ones that I had everything under control... Right. Uh huh. Because having a baby means you get to have control over everything??? Wrong. Needless to say, my lack of awareness caught up with me, as did the lack of rest. I only felt more lost and vulnerable by the time I was 8 weeks post. This is part of the reason I feel so passionate about being a postpartum doula and spreading the word about taking proper care of oneself 6-8 weeks following birth, and practicing self care perpetually, for that matter.
Before I go into details about how you can set yourself up for success after you give birth, I want to give credence to what it means to transform into motherhood. Just as the child is born, so is the mother. Before her child's birth, even during pregnancy, a woman is her own agent. She may consider others in her decision-making process: partner, friends, co-workers, extended family, but she is free to move with fluidity through the process of taking action toward these decisions. After baby, especially immediately after baby, almost all decisions are tethered to the well-being of this tiny little human who is as close and necessary to her life as is her beating heart. Life as she knows it will forever be demarcated by "before I became a mother" and "after I became a mother".
So there's that holy, spiritual, cosmic, otherworldly, what-have-you transformation and there is also a physical transformation. The expectant mother's body changes and adheres to this growing life-force. We take this for granted because it happens with or without our direct participation. Organs are being shifted, hormones are changing, body fluid increases, fat stores increase... And then there is the battle of birth that rocks her world no matter which way it goes. Have you ever met a woman who has given birth and said it was easy, painless and no work at all? Even hypno-birthing requires mental strength beyond the fathomable until we are in it. When the battle is over and the war is won, she then has her sweet baby in her arms. Left behind is her empty womb. From an Ayurvedic perspective, the empty space left behind is considered "vata" as is change and transition. A lot of moving parts, air and lack of containment.
Even if a new mother has a lot of visitors and/or family staying with her those first few days or weeks, it can add to the chaos and lack of structure and it can still feel lonely. In Matrescence, we are departing from one phase of our lives and entering into a new one. We do this alone- without our spouse, without our friends, and even without our child. It is a completely solo, internal journey. It is a beautiful and magnificent journey, but it can be a lonely experience, one in which we are mourning the loss of a past life. Nothing will ever be the same.
I believe we are always in matrescence as mothers, given the many stages we experience with our children, but the most intense part of it is by far the moment we give birth and then the first few weeks following. I remember this transition as if it happened last week. The rush of oxytocin ignited an obsessive, fierce kind of love for my baby. However, since I was unaware of the ways in which I could take care of myself, my love turned into a hyper-focused obsession and anxiety-inducing diligence about my son's well-being. I lost myself somewhere in the midst of too much advice coming from too many places and a failure to tap into my own intuition. I know in my heart that had I given myself a 40 day healing period, complete with self-care practices, my intuition would have turned on and guided me much earlier than it did. I know this because I felt exactly what my son needed that very first night after he was born and my internal compass slipped away as soon as I got home and tried to re-enter the world as if nothing had changed.
Honoring the Mother Postpartum
Now we've reviewed a little of what becoming a mother does to us physically and emotionally. So how can we take care of ourselves and set ourselves up to wade through the waters with as much ease and support as possible? Below is what is recommended in the postpartum doula world and is a combination of ancient Asian and Indian practices as well as what is generally recommended by professionals to keep postpartum mood disorders at bay:
- Bed Rest- The extent to which one can allow for this is up to individual circumstance. The main idea, and something everyone can do, is to set up a sacred space that is dedicated to the bonding of mother and baby. A place she can retreat to that is off limits to company. A quiet, comfortable and peaceful space, ideal for feeding the baby. You can't necessarily prescribe the amount of time a new mother "should" spend in this space, but it should be available to her and private.
- Herbal Baths- Warm sits baths using specific herbs (such as chamomile, rosemary and lavender) can be very helpful in healing the vagina and perineum.
- Belly Wrapping- This requires a second person to help tie it on. A Benkung wrap when properly tied helps lift and hold the internal organs that shifted during pregnancy and birth. It has the secondary benefit of keeping the mother's body warm to balance the vata (Ayurveda) or chi (Chinese tradition).
- Warm Prepped Meals- In Ayurvedic Medicine, certain warming spices such as cinnamon, cardamom and ginger help reduce that busy, cold, airy vata energy. Clarified butter (Ghee) has a "kaphic" quality and brings grounding and calmness to the mother. Soups, porridge and stews bring in warmth and proper nutrients for healing and breastfeeding.
- Oil Massage- Going back to the idea of bringing in kapha to balance vata, oil and touch have a grounding aspect to help mom grow her roots deep into the earth. I can speak to this with personal experience. Getting my first postpartum massage, it was otherworldly to have someone put their hands on me in a nurturing way after days and weeks of giving my body over to the baby.
- Help- A new mother should not need to trouble herself with housework or any other kind of work other than tending to her baby those first few weeks. Again, this varies from mother to mother as some women simply cannot remove themselves completely from the demands of their careers. However, there is always someone who can come over and help tidy up, fold laundry, prep a meal or help with a sibling- be it family or friends. I recommend placing a note on the door that has a list of small tasks that each visitor can contribute to and check off.
- Emotional Support- Allowing the mother to retell her birth story over and over can be very healing for her, whether it was traumatic or incredible. She needs to make sense of what she went through and process it through the story-telling. She may also need to express her doubts, fears and triumphs as she is figuring out this whole motherhood thing.
- Breast-Feeding Assistance- If the mother plans to breastfeed, she may need extra support from someone with experience (lactation consultant or doula). Even if baby is latching and getting milk, nipple pain does NOT need to be part of the equation and a support person can help ensure there is proper latching taking place.
A Postpartum Doula does all of these things for the first 6-8 weeks after birth. (Oh hey! Hello!) Of course, not everyone has the luxury of hiring one or feels comfortable inviting someone they don't know well into their home during such an intimate time in their life. As mentioned, friends,family and partner can take over a lot of these duties. This is a time to be "selfish" and ask, request, require support from those closest to you.
You can begin the process of setting yourself up for success during pregnancy:
-There are helpful books that go into greater detail about the traditions and rituals I describe above. I have listed them on the resources page.
-Start practicing slowing down. During the 3rd trimester, your body kind of forces you into this kaphic, slow and steady state. Go with it. Allow yourself the time to nap, read and luxuriate in a supine position.
-Go to a prenatal yoga class with lots of grounding poses (Oh! Hey! Hi again!).
-Pay attention to your self-care practice and make it a priority. This will set the tone for keeping it in place after your child is born and throughout your journey as a mother and as a woman.
-Start to become aware of your old wounds and triggers. These are the things that scream at you when you are most weak and vulnerable. Begin to find ways to heal yourself emotionally. Confront those demons and let them know they have no place in your life anymore. You need your mind healthy and clear so you can be as present as possible for your child.
Staying Present: The Parenting Journey
I recently read the book "All Joy and No Fun" by Jennifer Senior and it really helped me wrap my head around the incredible and challenging ways that having children effects parents. We have a lot of expectations placed on us; a lot of demands outside of our children. I don't have much advice on how to stay present through the process of raising your children. I am still battling with this and imagine it will always be a struggle between staying true to my personal path and continuing to guide my children toward theirs. I will say that self-forgiveness is key to surviving. Every mother I know goes to bed with at least a little guilt about not having done enough or not having done something "right". We must give ourselves room to learn and grow from that inner voice. There is always another day to make amends and try things a different way and children are very forgiving and generous souls.
As you wade, stumble, glide, skate, fall, bounce and recover through the first 40 days after giving birth, allow yourself a learning curve. Your baby just needs your love and comfort (and milk roughly every two hours). She will forgive you your mistakes. Better yet, she won't even remember them! YOU will remember this sacred window and wouldn't it be nice to look back on on it as a time of steady presence and emotional attunement? After all, you did create and deliver a human with your very own body- let's pay homage to that.