There is an old adage that ‘it takes a village to raise a child’, but in recent times the village seems to have gone missing! Families are more dispersed geographically, grandparents may be working later in life or are more elderly and so less able to assist, and people in general just seem busier. Compounding this is that parents may be going back to work more quickly. All of these factors can lead to a Mum feeling more isolated and without the support and care the ‘village’ previously provided. This lack of support is a real issue. Research shows that low social support is related to higher rates of postnatal depression and lower wellbeing in the postnatal period.
It is therefore very fitting that the theme for this year’s Perinatal Mental Health Week (6-12 November) is ‘Building Your Community of Care’. Now that our villages are harder to find the onus is on us to think about what our needs are – and to actively build our own village.
But where do we start? What are the important parts of a helpful village, and what may make building that village difficult?
What do I need in my ‘village’?
To help work out what we need in our village we could look to research on the important components of social support. Good social support is often defined as covering three main areas:
- Emotional: the type of support we get from a good friend or loved one – it includes feeling cared for, listened to, and respected.
- Instrumental: practical help (e.g. cooking, cleaning, shopping)
- Informational: advice, suggestions, and information
When thinking about building your own village, these are all the bases to cover! Below are some ideas on how you could source each of these different kinds of support.
Building a village that includes strong emotional support is about actively investing in friendships, and particularly in those friendships that have a positive impact on you and how you feel. This doesn’t need to be a large number of people – having a few close friends will often provide the support and care people require.
Building close friendships can take time. So, if your village is lacking in supportive friendships this is perhaps an area to target. Making new friends as an adult is daunting – but it’s worth it. To get started you need to put yourself into situations where you meet new people. One or two special connections who you could imagine becoming close to down the track will make a huge difference.
Take a risk and go along to the classes or sessions nearby that are relevant to your life stage. This might be prenatal yoga during pregnancy, new parents’ groups with a newborn, or a local playgroup or other classes with older babies and toddlers. Or, if you already have a good circle of friends, make the time to call them or meet with them. Getting out and spending time with friends is an important priority!
Don’t forget that your partner is also a vital source of emotional support! Making the time to still connect with your partner in the postnatal period can feel like something you never quite have the energy for, but it is worth the investment. It could be as simple as prioritising time each night where you each have a 10-minute window for sharing how your day was.
Feeling overwhelmed by the volume of chores and household jobs is a very common feeling in the postnatal period. It also detracts from our enjoyment of our babies and of being a Mum. In Western society, new parents are mostly left on their own to recover from birth, learn how to care for their newborn, and keep their households running. This is very different to Asian societies where Mums are provided with a huge amount of care and support in the postnatal period.
Start asking for the tangible help that you need. You may be surprised what people are willing to do if you ask. We don’t need to do it all in order to be a ‘good Mum’. It is often the case that we could do it all, but what are we sacrificing in order to achieve that? Plus, by asking others for help, we are clearing the path for them to also ask for help should they need it in future. This can help with friendship building.
So, what type of help could you ask for? Here are a few ideas:
- Ask for help with meals. Websites like Meal Train are a great way to get a rotation of meals being dropped to your door.
- If someone comes over to meet the new baby, get them to help with a chore! Maybe they could fold a basket of washing or wash a few dishes!
- Utilise grocery delivery services or click and collect to reduce the time (and stress!) of grocery shopping with a baby.
- Ask a loved one to help look after the baby for a short time to give you the chance to go for a walk or have a nap? Or both!
- Investigate if there’s any way for your partner to modify their work arrangements to provide you with extra support (e.g. could they work from home one day per week?)
Becoming a parent is a huge transition and a very steep learning curve! Getting the right team of professionals around you to support you in the journey through the perinatal period will make a huge difference to the level of confidence (or anxiety) you will feel.
Building the best ‘informational’ part of your village isn’t just about finding someone with the title you are looking for – it’s about finding the professionals that you connect with. They are ideally people you trust and who you feel understand and are supportive of your needs and wishes. Experts to consider adding to your professional village include:
- A supportive GP with experience in antenatal / postnatal care
- A lactation consultant
- A women’s health physiotherapist
- A perinatal psychologist
- A sleep consultant
- A birth professional (obstetrician, midwife or doctor, depending on your path) who is aligned with and supportive of your birth preferences
Social media and the internet offer a huge amount of advice and information and this can be a really valuable resource. Facebook groups that allow people to learn from the experiences of others who have gone through similar issues can be very helpful and can also feed into the emotional support part of our village. However, the advice and information we receive via these informal sources should be sense-checked with an expert.
What may make building your village difficult?
The biggest impediment to us building the village we need, is often our own pride. It is hard to ask for help or to make ourselves vulnerable. This often prevents us from reaching out to our friends or loved ones in times of need. Asking for the help you need or seeking care and support from a friend at a challenging time doesn’t make you less of a Mum. It is the brave thing to do and will most likely make you an even better Mum!
So, if you have identified ways in which you could build your village, whether it be in the spheres of emotional, instrumental, or informational help, but are feeling hesitant, ask yourself two key questions:
- Would building your village in this way or seeking this support help improve your wellbeing, and therefore make you a better Mum?
- Would you feel ok about a friend or loved one asking for this type of support from you?
If you can answer yes to both of these questions, then go for it! And remember that the more we ask for support and build our own villages, the more we’re encouraging others to do the same.
Asking for help and putting yourself out there socially can be really hard if you are already feeling low or anxious. If you are having trouble taking the steps to build your own community of care, this is something that a perinatal psychologist could help with.
Building our own community of care and encouraging others to do the same is a surefire way that we can improve experiences of the perinatal period.
Written by Pip Johnson, Psychologist