This too Shall Pass, but Should we let it?
I’ve just come home from visiting a close girlfriend and her newborn baby. It’s the first week of February. The air is cool, the days are grey, and the sun sets around 5 pm. This is enough to make anyone feel depressed and sad, especially a young post-partum mom under extenuating circumstances.
The U.S. has the worst(yes, THE WORST) maternal health outcomes of all countries in the developed world. And, as I was reminded this week, it’s easy to see why.
But first, let me rewind for a moment. I’m a women’s health nurse. My undergraduate degree is in Nursing from The University of Virginia, and women’s health is my life’s passion. At the age of 16, my parents let me travel to Malawi, Africa (I’m still not sure how I convinced them to agree to this). At that young, impressionable age, I witnessed firsthand the importance of maternal health for communities and the economy at large. After graduating from UVa, I moved back to my hometown of Philadelphia and started working my first nursing job as a day-shift RN on the Mother-Infant Unit at Hahnemann University Hospital.
You could say this was an eye-opening experience. At 22, I was thrust into the world of hormones, newborns, jaundice, breastfeeding, lochia, teen births, and so on. Part of my new role included understanding, educating, and caring for women in the immediate postpartum period. In the world of nursing, women’s health is often looked upon as “not serious” enough. It’s for the nurses who “can’t handle ICU work” or “real trauma.” I would beg to differ. Women’s health is where it all starts and ends.
For women, the postpartum period is the most fragile and critical time that a mom and baby might face. Women experience a massive hormonal shift. At the same time, they’re tasked with caring for a new life. Now, mix this with the fact that likely over 90 percent of new moms (and dads for that matter) are never taught about the postpartum experience. Yes, it’s true: I was 22 and knew more about this than the women actually going through it. How messed up is that? Well, it’s a product of our current culture and society.
In the U.S., there are federal and state policies surrounding health education in schools. It is not mandated that we teach women’s health, labor, or the postpartum experience. Women are born with breasts, and those breasts’ sole purpose is to produce milk to feed a baby. Yet women do not know how breastfeeding works or what it looks like. Our culture gushes over women during pregnancy and “awwws” over a new baby but never speaks about the reality of what that new mom faces after birth.
It’s time we speak up and speak out.
OK, let’s go back to yesterday. I’ve just arrived at my friend’s house. She gave birth three weeks ago after having a very healthy pregnancy; however, her labor and the post-birth experience were rough. As I mentioned, there are some extenuating circumstances at hand. She’s tired, her baby is fussy, she’s having some trouble with breastfeeding, and she’s received completely mixed advice from all her different healthcare providers, family, and friends. Herein lies the culprit: the guilt, confusion, fear, depression, and lack of education.
Starting in the hospital(thanks to the World Health Organization’s policy for “breastfeeding friendly units”), the pressure and guilt begin. As nurses, we are instructed to strongly advise breastfeeding over bottle-feeding, practice skin-to-skin contact with mom and baby immediately after delivery, and not give formula. You tell mom that “breast is best” and you provide her with an extensive list of the benefits of breastfeeding for both herself and her baby. However, most health providers fail to mention that there is no “right” or “wrong” way to feed their newborn.
Not only are new mom’s now pressured into choosing to breastfeed, they get conflicting information on how to breastfeed from the pediatrician, nurse, OBGYN, NP, friend, and lactation consultant. Why would we ever expect a new mom to remember all of this information, keep it straight, let alone make a decision? That pressure and misinformation leads to guilt, something our society is really good at creating when it comes to new moms. And you know what happens when that young mom is sitting alone with her baby, letting that guilt swell inside of her? It turns into the feeling of failure.
According to the CDC, about 10-15 percent of all women in the U.S. suffer from postpartum mood disorders. This is a key driver to the overall health outcomes for maternal health, and this is why I say that women’s health is where things start and end.
Here’s what we need to change and how to make it happen:
- Consistency and policy at the highest level We need to mandate health education and teach women about how their bodies work. As health providers, we must talk amongst each other and agree on how to educate new moms about breastfeeding. Enough with the conflicting information!
- Stop the shaming! We must stop the pressure we put on mom to conform to society. Each woman and after-birth experience is different. What we should teach is that a “fed baby is best,” not “breast is best.”
- Encourage women to ask for help and support - Let’s continue to lift each other up, not put each other down.
- Share responsibility- Caring for a newborn is not solely a woman’s duty. We need to encourage partners to participate and share in the care. Being a mom is work. We need to start recognizing that.
When we empower women with education about their health, we empower entire communities and improve our economy (because 80 percent of women in the world make all the health decisions for themselves and their families). When discussing tough periods of life, people often say “this too shall pass.” But when it comes to maternal health, should we let it just pass? I don’t think so. Why stand aside and just let something pass when we can take steps towards prevention or improvement? It’s our duty as a society to hold each other up. Let’s start now.
Written by BINTO Founder, Suzie Welsh. Suzie is a women's health nurse, certified breastfeeding nurse, and a 200 hour Yoga Instructor. Aside from her daily role with BINTO, Suzie is an Adjunct Professor at Villanova University. She enjoys a cup of coffee, long walks, cat cuddles and hiking with her husband.