Amritha Joseph

Before I became a mother, I figured that the sanctity of mother-baby bonding that followed was not only well known but well-respected across cultures and generations. I looked forward to scooping up my baby, cuddling her and absorbing the new responsibilities of motherhood – on my own.

How brusquely I was lurched into reality that day three years ago when I realized just how much I would have to fend for alone time with my little one.

I had just delivered my first baby, Sahana, and was blissfully numb from the waist down thanks to an epidural that had worked gloriously well. Now, I was soaking up every peach-fuzz-covered inch of her.

She slept, undisturbed in the hospital’s bassinet, so soundly that as a naïve first-time parent, I let her snooze through feeding times. Apart from glaring hospital lighting and a sensation gradually returning to my lower body, this pristine bubble that surrounded us was my nirvana.

And then, the bubble popped.

For the next 24 to 48 hours, nurses and technicians alternated in what seemed like visits every 30 minutes: first to check on baby’s vitals, next to poke and prod at me to ensure I was recovering; sometimes they whisked my little one away for additional testing and observation. They were healthcare workers, so I let them do their jobs.

But then our families descended, gushing loudly, eager to snatch my newborn from my arms and jolting her awake. By this point I was barking – perhaps from the combined whiplash of postpartum hormones, a fading anesthetic and my own frustration with nursing setbacks. Either way, I wanted privacy and time to bond with my baby without interference or unsolicited advice. Call me possessive, but I wasn’t ready to play hot potato just yet.

Eventually, we all made it home together, and my family’s presence proved to be an immense help for which I am grateful: they offered words of encouragement for my nursing journey, cooked meals (including lactogenic foods), watched over Sahana so I could take some time for personal care.

Yet for the few days and weeks that followed the birth, I retreated early in the evenings to my bedroom with Sahana, under the guise of postpartum exhaustion and attempted nursing, to create some space.

From my perspective, this was prime time with my daughter, moments I would not get back. Was it unreasonable or selfish of me to want uninterrupted snuggles and space to navigate the new groove of parenthood with my husband independently?

Understand that bonding is a biological need

Apparently not, according to Tijana Sefic Eby, a pediatric and family chiropractor and birth and postpartum doula. There is a physiological rationale for giving new mothers space to bond with their newborns.

“The time spent together during the initial postpartum period is necessary for both mom and baby. This is how both of them regulate their bodily functions,” she says. “For babies, skin-to-skin contact helps regulate body temperature and breathing; and for moms, skin-to-skin contact helps promote and regulate the breast milk production and feeding patterns, as well as reducing the stress hormones.”

To my relief, it’s also not uncommon for moms to feel overwhelmed or territorial during this time.

Luisa Martinez of Sandy Springs also felt inundated – and guilty of her reaction in hindsight – by the immediate presence of family at the time of her son’s birth. The popping of champagne bottles and toasts that took place upon the birth of her son made her feel frustrated as she felt exhausted after delivery.

“I felt like they were invading my privacy,” she says. “I wouldn’t let my son leave my sight.”

Today, she, too, acknowledges that the outpouring of jubilation and love was “a beautiful gesture,” but at the time, she couldn’t help feeling like the rest of her family was being insensitive. The revelry only continued through the holidays, as she got home from the hospital on Christmas Day and her family threw a New Year’s Eve bash without consulting her first.

She felt alone, despite being surrounded by the merriment of her husband’s family, who had helped deep clean the house and had shown up in full form.

“I was so embarrassed because his family was doing everything to make this experience easy. I regret not embracing the excitement and accepting them with open arms,” Martinez says.

Make the support system work for you

Marta Himmelreich

Perhaps embracing support – in some forms – isn’t a bad idea as a mother is still recovering, according to Eby. The “fourth trimester,” the 90 days following the birth, is just as tender as the first three for moms, who should prioritize rest in the early postpartum period, she says. Having a support system to help the with cooking, chores or even bolstering mom’s mood with conversation around topics other than the baby can be a significant benefit at this time.

“Most moms don’t need the support with the baby. They need help around the house,” she says. “None of the moms want to give their baby up.” (Phew, so it wasn’t just me!)

Such non-intrusive help came as a blessing for East Cobb resident Marta Himmelreich, who feels lucky to have had her in-laws fly in from Texas to help when her son was born in February 2020. As an immigrant, Himmelreich was not able to rely on the support of her own family, who live in Poland and were reluctant to travel. However, her in-laws were able to assist with grocery shopping, house cleaning, cooking and dog walking.

“It was so amazing. I was so happy to have them there,” Himmelreich says. Her in-laws stayed for one week to help the couple get adjusted to the new demands of parenthood. After that, Himmelreich and her husband were able to settle into the new routine on their own, but it was not without challenges. Once her in-laws left and her husband resumed work, Himmelreich found it hard to find a window of time for herself. There were days she’d end up in tears for not having even 20 minutes to take a shower in peace.

Now, as she and her husband plan for their second child, Himmelreich is confident in the community of friends – including other moms – that she has built in Atlanta to make the experience less lonely the second time around. “It’s important to have the right people around you who know the boundaries and went through the experience, so they know what you might need and also what you might not want to see, hear or do,” she says.

Set expectations, limit exposure

Selecting and screening visitors is especially important from a medical perspective, too, especially for the baby’s development, according to pediatrician Dr. Shayna Smith of Flourish Pediatrics.

Even prior to the pandemic, the first month of life has always been considered a crucial period for keeping the baby’s contact with others minimal, as there is always a risk of infection while the infant’s immunity is starting to build up.

She advises parents to enforce frequent hand washing by visitors. If prospective visitors have been sick, have had a runny nose or have been exposed to any kind of virus recently, have them visit after a month.

“In the first couple weeks, the baby is going to sleep. Having a lot of family doesn’t help,” Smith says. “If people are upset or question what the parents say, put it on the doctor. I know exactly what the risks are.”

That’s precisely what I did the second time around. Since my son was born during the pandemic, hospital restrictions prohibited visitors, and there was only a skeletal hospital staff who were preoccupied with more urgent cases.

I basked in the solitude. For those quiet hours in the hospital with my son, our bubble remained our own.

Amritha Joseph

How to Establish an Effective Support System

  • Prior to the due date, clearly decide with your partner the environment you want for your newborn, but be ready to anticipate changes if needed (When will you allow visitors? If so, who?).
  • Let your social circle, including potential caregivers, know your boundaries (immunizations/health checks required before handling baby, use of pacifier/bottle feeding, etc.).
  • Inform loved ones of the type(s) of help you will need (watching the older kids, meal requests, errands, etc.).
  • Be polite but firm in discussing your anticipated parenting approach, and request they respect it.
  • Be honest about your bandwidth to sit and chat, as you will likely not have time to entertain guests.
  • Generously cite your medical professional’s guidance to justify your approach.

How Friends and Family Can Actually Help

  • Respect the new parents’ wishes, regardless of how you feel about them. Withhold judgment.
  • Focus on uplifting mom. Give her the opportunity to talk about what she’s going through or talk about something that has nothing to do with babies. Remind her of how she is an individual with interests of her own.
  • Offer (and follow through) to help with the baby’s laundry, do the dishes or household chores. Bring over a nutritious meal, or offer to spend time with the other children/pets in the house.
  • Ask and listen for specific needs, rather than your perception of the family’s needs.
  • Do not expect new parents to entertain you if you visit. Be mindful of their time.

-Amritha Joseph

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