My postpartum journey was something much different and more difficult than I ever would have anticipated. Because of this I realized I was not just on a personal journey, I was on an archetypal and universal journey. With all of the yoga, meditation, and body knowledge that I had, I knew that if I couldn’t figure out what was going on with me, then how would someone with way less embodied experience than I, put themselves back together post-birth?
I remembered years before being in India, in what felt like a golden room, with a new mother and her tiny baby. They were on the floor of her mother’s house. (When Indian women get married, they move to their husband’s house. And then when they give birth, they go back to their mother’s home so they don’t have to do any household duties or care-taking — essentially, they return home to be taken care of.) I remembered the feeling in that house, and decided to embark on a journey of what I discovered to be a cast number of traditions where women are respected, revered, and served in their immediate postpartum time. These cultures respect the profound physiological, physical, and emotional changes that women go through each time they become mothers.
As I studied each culture, from Indonesia to China, Brazil to Mexico, I found that although each course had its cultural specificities, they all had a number of similarities.
And, while some of these core needs may seem excessive and luxurious, when they are not met, new moms often feel isolated, lonely, lost, and yes, depressed. The following are the five universal postpartum needs that are necessities for every new mom, including women who have experienced miscarriages and loss.
1 | Extended rest period —
Around the world, new mothers are expected to rest for the first 20-60 days after giving birth. Women are literally sequestered in order to rest. Women are cared for so that they can direct all their own care toward their babies. A new mother is supported in resting so as to give her body, mind, and spirit time to harmonize and process everything she has just experienced. Both classical Chinese medicine and Ayurveda view this time as the most critical in ensuring a woman’s long-term health.
The Chinese call this period zuo yuezi, which means “sitting out the month,” sometimes translated as “confinement.” I have also heard it referred to as the golden month. In India, this period is called the sacred window. Vietnamese women respect this time called nằmổ, “lying in a nest,” by eating tonics and soups, and sitting over charcoal stream prepared by their aunts and mothers. In Mexico and Guatemala, this 40 day rest period for healing and mother-infant bonding is called la cuarentena.
2 | Nourishing food —
Food is a fundamental human need and makes up the building blocks of our body. More importantly, food is medicine. New mothers need special foods during this time. A new mother should consume certain herbs and foods so that she can complete the cleansing of the uterus, eliminate any old blood still remaining, and rebuild her strength. These foods also help a woman to produce milk with more ease. Since a new mother is vulnerable to cold and wind, she needs foods that are both warm in temperature and that have an internal warming effect due to the spices used.
In Hong Kong, women are fed special soups, first for elimination and ease of digestion, and then to rebuild blood and life force. In Korea, soups are made with various types of seaweed, full of rich minerals. While there are variations in ingredients and spices from culture to culture, what the postpartum foods have in common across cultures is that they are warming, easy to digest, mineral rich, and collagen dense.
3 | Loving touch —
During the birth and postpartum period, women’s bodies are going through tremendous changes: organs are returning to their optimal positions, the body is returning to a normal blood and fluid volume, and hormones are recalibrating. To assist in all these changes, and to flush the lymph system and optimize circulation, bodywork is an integral part of a woman’s recovery to vibrant health. Because of this understanding, Asian cultures pamper new mothers.
In Korea, a new mother gets a massage every day for 40 days to help restore organ position and circulation. In India, women receive abhyanga, a circulatory massage with herbal-infused oils from sisters and aunts. In Mexico, women are taken through a “closing of the bones” ceremony that includes massage, herbal steam, cathartic release, and being tightly wrapped. In the Indo-Malay tradition, women’s bellies are intricately wrapped, a practice now used in Singapore, India, Nepal, Taiwan, and Hong Kong as well. It’s important to have caring touch during this time period, whichever tradition you decide to incorporate into your healing.
4 | The presence of wise women and spiritual companionship —
In most cultures, birth and new motherhood are still considered the territory of women. Therefore, women are surrounded by and tended to by other women who are in different stages of life and who can offer them comfort as well as knowledge from their own experiences as aunts, mothers, and grandmothers. There are the practical considerations, such as how to breastfeed, how to care for any small vaginal tears, and what to eat. Then there is the very real fluctuating emotional state, and having other women who have been there and can share their experiences, easing the sensitive heart and nerves.
In many countries, this post-birth time is respected as a delicate one, both physically and spiritually, for mothers and babies. In Hopi and Mayan traditions, unmarried and elder women take care of new mothers so they are relieved of their normal duties and responsibilities and can simply concentrate on caring for their babies during this time. In Turkey, women are kept in the company of loved ones for 40 days. The idea is to distract the evil spirits and keep people from looking directly into the baby’s eyes, possibly stealing a part of their spirit. Women need to know that they are not alone, and that they can relax because there are other women around who can care for the home, the baby, and themselves in this new, vulnerable state.
5 | Contact with nature —
In our high-tech, fast-paced lives, we often forget about the tremendous teacher and resource we have in the natural world. In nature, a seed sprouts, a flower bud blossoms — each process in its own time. We can’t force it to happen faster. We can provide the conditions — the right soil, sunlight, and water — for optimal growth, but we cannot push it to happen any faster than its natural rhythm. This is the same in the fourth trimester; life takes on its own pace, one that is entirely unique in its golden languorous quality. Connection to nature can help you feel the beauty and rightness of the slower pace at this time.
It’s not necessary to go hiking or camping to feel the power of nature. You can do simple things. Set up a nursing station near a window with a view. Take a sponge bath in warm herbal infusions as the women do in Mexico, Guatemala, and Brazil. Relish in the multi-layered flavors of herbal teas. Imbibe the earthy qualities of herbs in your sitz baths and steams. Trade screen time for sitting outside, bundled up, absorbing the feeling of the elements around you. Allow yourself to breathe fully. Feel the air coming into your body, follow its trail and then consciously exchange it back out into the environment. These are all simple ways to reconnect with the elements of nature, the life force around you.
In places where the culture is not explicitly designed to honor this time immediately after birth, women have to take measures to create their own sanctuaries of relaxation and restoration. At first, the amount of support we need seems surprising, maybe even excessive, especially given the superwoman ideal currently prevalent in the western world. Women are supposed to give birth and bounce back without missing a beat. Yet the truth is, a new mother needs to be mothered herself. Everything the baby needs — a quiet, calm space, eye contact, swaddling, soothing sounds, and frequent nourishment — a new mother needs as well. Use the five universal needs to guide you in the process of building a postpartum plan that works for you.
Kimberly Ann Johnson is a Sexological Bodyworker, Somatic Experiencing trauma resolution practitioner, birth doula, and single mom. She specializes in helping women prepare for birth, recover from birth injuries and birth trauma, and heal from sexual trauma. She is the author of The Fourth Trimester: A Postpartum Guide to Healing Your Body, Balancing Your Emotions and Restoring Your Vitality. You can find her online at www.magamama.com or in real life in San Diego, LA, or NYC.