When I was researching my book on how to take care of your emotional health as a mother, the one word that came up time and again was support. That old African proverb “It takes a village to raise a child” is right. This is not a solitary endeavour, nor was it ever meant to be. If you need proof, let me kick a little evolutionary science your way.
Here’s how the math of raising a human breaks down among people still living as hunter-gatherers—much as our ancestors must have when humans were evolving, according to anthropologist Sarah Hrdy, PhD, author of Mothers and Others: The Evolutionary Origins of Mutual Understanding. A child needs to consume thirteen million calories between the day he is born and when he becomes an adult and is able to provide for himself. Since the time between births tends to be shorter in humans than in other apes (close to three to four years), mothers will give birth to a new infant long before her older offspring are anywhere near independence. In fact, the peak nutritional demands for brain development occur around four to five years old, just as mothers would be nursing a new—and very dependent—baby. That means well before a child is able to feed him or herself, his mother will be busy breastfeeding another infant and will not be able to provide all the calories her older child needs to survive.
So how, then, were we able to get the nutrients we needed to become big-brained humans capable of following that complicated paragraph of evolutionary math? Group members other than parents (“alloparents”) filled in. They were sisters, aunts, cousins, and even some non-kin. They were—and remain today—any member of a group who is not a genetic parent that helps care for a child. “Human beings could not have evolved unless mothers had had allomaternal support,” says Hrdy. In other words, it takes a village. Let’s start building yours.
Who will be helpful after delivery? And who won't be? The question is not “Who wants to visit after you give birth?” or “Who lives closest to you?” The question is “Who will be the most helpful?” Think about who has been a support to you in the past. What family members or friends, on the other hand, are more likely to show up when you’re having a hard day and ask what’s for supper? This is one time (the first of many, I hope) in your life that what matters most is what you need and which people will help you meet those needs.
I suggest getting concretely organized about this. Make a list of family and friends (you never have to show it to them, and I promise not to tell them you did it) and write down which ones are likely to show up and cook you a meal, which ones are more likely to want to be entertained while you hold the baby, which ones you are comfortable being in front of in your bathrobe with spit-up on your shoulder. Who will change a diaper? Who can see your messy house? Who wouldn’t mind being asked to do some dishes? Who gives really good back rubs? Which friend is likely to share how she raised a child that eats nothing but kale and quinoa? This is not a list of who is better than whom. It’s a list of people’s strengths and, yes, weaknesses, that will help you figure out who is best to help you when.
A friend who hates to do dishes but is super fun to vent with over a glass of wine is likely someone you’ll want to see maybe a month after birth and not in those first few weeks of survival. A mom friend who seems to have it all together might be a terrible choice when you are a weepy new mom but would be terrific support when you have your sea legs and are ready for some tips. In those early weeks, you need friends and family who have seen you through hard times, who don’t have high standards for appearance or etiquette, and who will roll up their sleeves and pitch in.
Make a schedule Once you’ve got a sense of which friends and family might support you best during different phases of your recovery, map out an ideal scenario of who would visit you when. If your mom is your best friend and your sister can be a stress, then your mom gets to take the first visitor shift. And you can extend an offer to your sister that will make sure she comes later but still feels included. Don’t double book folks, and do everything you can to put people up in other people’s homes, at motels or hotels, apartment rentals—anywhere other than your house. Unless, of course, your best friend has offered to do some night shifts with the baby or your mom will hold the baby all day while you sleep and shower—then open up the sofa bed and welcome them over.
Practice asking for what you want now It’s not easy telling your mother-in-law you don’t want her in the delivery room or asking that your mom stay at a hotel. Few of us are comfortable with those kinds of conversations, but to embark on parenthood is to embark on a journey of setting boundaries with yourself, with your children, with others. And one of the unexpected and great things about parenthood is that it can give you permission to stand up for what you need. It may not feel comfortable, but practicing in small ways now can make it much easier to continue setting boundaries when the hormones have kicked in, you’re sleep deprived, and your little bundle of joy likes to wail her head off from 5:00 to 7:00 each night.
Make it easy for others to pitch in People get excited about babies. Remember how they couldn’t stop touching your belly or asking your due date? They just want to be a part of it! And guess what? After delivery is a time when they truly can be. Yay! So remember that when people say, “What can I do?” “Let me know if you need anything,” and “Call anytime,” they mean it. And you should take them up on it by having very concrete ways they can follow through. Even better if you can designate a friend to help you set this up and spread the word for you!
Easy ways to help people help you
Twelve answers to the question “How can I help?”
Don’t think of it as asking for help Asking for help gets a bad rap. Some of us think it makes us weak. Others worry they are imposing and don’t want to be a bother. Still others don’t like other folks up in their business. I get all of that. So, let’s not call this asking for help. Let’s assume that all the evolutionary biologists know what they are talking about when they affirm that alloparents were essential for the survival and development of the human species. Think of all the things suggested in this chapter as nurturing your community, deepening your connections, fostering your friendships, and building your village, one that will not only strengthen you and your family but your whole community, and, dare I say it, the world!
From Strong as a Mother: How to Stay Healthy, Happy and (Most Importantly) Sane from Pregnancy to Parenthood by Kate Rope, copyright © 2018 by the author and reprinted by permission of St. Martin’s Press.