Ask almost any postpartum person what was most helpful after labor — Was it that cute frilly onesie with matching headband, or that lullaby sheep your friend pretended she didn’t get at Target as an afterthought while shopping for a replacement dustbuster? — and the answer will be painfully simply: Food. Food. More food. Over and above the “IT’S A BOY” balloons (well, possibly), moms need nourishing food, postpartum.
After all, you just donated your body to the manufacturing of a small person. Now, your body is asking for something substantial, and in abundance. But as my doula, Erica Livingston of Birdsong Brooklyn, points out, “It’s uncomfortable in American culture to be women so deeply needing and receiving food, to be so unapologetically ravenous.” In the U.S., we hear the message that we should slim-down-bounce-back-get-into-shape, and yet without food your body struggles to recover and flourish or do anything much at all.
In fact, all the cultural messaging snatches the food right out of our hands. We’re told to tone down our appetites once we are no longer small children. A mom, Z.W. of Queens, New York, reminds me that many of us were taught explicitly what to order from the menu on a date to consume the fewest calories. Some women have spent decades hiding their eating, at least behind a palm, if not behind a door. But having a baby reintroduced me and so many mothers to food as mana, food as reason to go on, food food food.
And most of us postpartum cannot feed ourselves by ourselves, without serious advanced preparation, or visitors who understand that this is the singular priority, and the lullaby sheep can wait. Paid family leave is still relatively rare in the U.S.; many full-time partners who are eligible to take unpaid time off under the Family Medical Leave Act can’t afford it. Eighty-six percent of dads said they would skip paternity leave unless they could be paid 70 percent of their salary in a 2014 Boston College survey. Forty percent of respondents took two weeks off work after the birth of their child — that isn’t much, given a woman is designated as “on disability” for six to eight weeks after delivering a baby. New moms need more help! Even the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists has admitted they’ve been too conservative in postpartum recommendations.
A.L., of Mahwah, New Jersey, and E.B. of Brooklyn, New York, both reported that, postpartum, they stashed bananas all over the house for these moments when appetite clobbered them. The idea of a stashed banana anywhere repulses me but I understand the need to behave like a squirrel. Other mothers reported it was nuts or M&M’s they left in little dishes everywhere, like was fashionable for grandparents who entertained. L.B.H., who now lives in Serbia, kept sliced cake on the ready in the fridge, for when her belly "went in just enough" during this special (guilt-free!) period of time establishing breastfeeding. (There we go, justification for eating what you want). Truth is, it’s hard to do something as Mark Bittman-y as spread peanut butter on bread one-handed without significant practice before the baby, and barring an accident that cost you use of a limb, why would you have practiced that?
I have a partner, and his job was food-delivery. When, newborn to the boob, I would say “LAMB STEW, PLEASE” (a gift from a friend, much better than a singing sheep!). He would take a minute to rouse himself (supremely annoying), and then spoon it into my open mouth like I was a baby bird. Careful not to drop it on the baby. He refilled my quart jar of water, poured it into my mouth awkwardly. All day long. I left those large jars everywhere, protection against annihilating thirst.
How are we moms supposed to figure out this new phase of adulthood, defined by helplessness, vulnerability and high demands? How is this supposed to work? When I am baseline empty, boobs drained, and need so badly to be filled, my thinking warps like poorly torn saran wrap. I don’t even remember how to assemble something food-like. That’s when we need to be met with provisions.
And so here comes the solution: the meal train. For me, it was Brooklyn’s “Meals for Moms,” a creative and profound act of communal sustenance. An antidote to the total deficit of services and reverence for the postpartum period in America, versus, say, the standard in other countries like China, with its month of confinement, Malaysia with its 44-days of care, and India, where new moms are fed a special diet and given daily massages. (Thus our slightly envious interest in books like The First 40 Days, which offer solutions beyond pretzels and brown bananas.)
To survive postpartum, people say “It takes a village!” and they are not wrong, if they mean a group of people willing to come to you on a moment’s notice to help you with the simplest, often humiliating tasks; people who are never too far away, and agree that you have value to the whole that deserves total support, i.e., calories. My neighborhood moms rallied.
Meal trains can be found across the U.S. The website MealTrain.com allows you to crowdsource your postpartum dinners as you might after a kidney operation. Some communities have established postpartum care rituals, whether that entails a tray of your aunt’s baked ziti or sesame soba, and there are even services like home-delivered Korean soup (on a small scale) available in places like Oakland, California, and Brooklyn, New York. But even this is different from a team of community moms who jump in with sweaty pits to bring you their best Thursday-night creation (sometimes this means they feed their own kids half-frozen fish sticks and baby carrots on the fly).
Perhaps you get how weird it is that people volunteer to cook and schlepp food for those they may not even know, may not ever know, but yet are driven to provide for?
Of course, some people also do not feel safe sharing their vulnerability with a partner, with their families, or with friends — maybe even with themselves. This takes a toll. The kinds of hunger that exist unmet deepen and broaden until hunger becomes the norm and satiation somehow feels wrong.
Satiation means you’ve neglected something else, Z.W., a mother of two toddlers, reflects. That’s because every bite you take for yourself is a choice, say, not to clean up the scum and onesies and angry lullaby sheep in the living room.
But it can feel awful to center yourself that way.
What it really takes to thrive, ergo, is people willing to show up and bring stuff, and ask nothing of you. Maybe even go away quickly (or stay quietly?) if you look like you need them to. And this is exactly what was engineered in my Brooklyn neighborhood by Nicole Fabri, who, as far as I could tell from her email signature, worked as a rep for a sparkling electric company (or maybe it was a ruse, she was just here to light up your life?). In her former Michigan neighborhood, a cadre of moms cooked for each other after childbirth. When she moved to Brooklyn, finding nothing like this, she says, “the first few moms that I met included one who was pregnant — and so I suggested that we started a group that delivered meals. That first group was six moms… then word got out and our group expanded. Within the year, we probably had 15 moms. Within another year we were hovering around 30 to 35 moms, delivering about to 6 to 12 mothers per year.” The group has now fed around 90 moms. Now that is some delicious math.
Meals4MomsPLG has since been passed down through the hands of a few neighborhood maestros willing to take on the massive coordination efforts required to get a new family fed on a relatively seamless schedule over a period of weeks. I was lucky enough to be pulled into this group on the receiving end, after answering a random neighborhood listing for someone selling a Boppy when I was 7 months pregnant with my first. I didn’t realize I’d spend most of my breastfeeding hours standing on my two feet using one arm to shovel food into my mouth. Or how much, almost a decade later, the bounty brought by random moms would feel like an antidote to the more restrictive, orthorexic and confused eating of my late teens and 20s.
You know no one has time in New York, right? Even if you do have time you are busy deflecting all the requests on your time — that’s a full-time job. So perhaps you get how weird it is that people volunteer to cook and schlepp food for those they may not even know, may not ever know, but yet are driven to provide for? As with so much caregiving work, we are not reimbursed. It is left to us and the receiving family how much food to make and what, how to deliver, and whether or not to linger when we bring the food. But the essence is: it doesn’t matter. The point is we are taking care of one another, and it is not personal.
Each time a mom drops something off, she writes an email to the cooking team itemizing what she’s delivered (sometimes it’s the guys who do the delivering and cooking too — we see you! Fight the patriarchy with the spatula!). This reporting from the field keeps us connected to one another, and helps us avoid too much dietary repetition (chili for weeks gets a little rough on the postpartum intestine circuit). This also inspires healthy competition. We witness what we are doing for each other, which amplifies its goodness and visibility. And it’s enough to get your ovaries pumping for the next round because who doesn’t want that lamb shwarma with warm pita?
There is nothing compulsory about this, and no quid pro quo. When there is a query sent out on behalf of a new family with their food preferences listed, there are no shakedowns, no reckonings — if you cook, you cook, and if you don’t, you don’t. No one is breathing down your neck as the months accrue since you had your baby saying, “HEY HOW IS YOUR VAGINA DOING NOW, isn’t it time for you to make something?” In fact, if you offer too soon, eager to return the kindness shown to you, the team captain may leap in and say, “Really? You just had your baby!”
Remember, after giving birth, you are essentially turning yourself into food.
Nothing is compulsory, and so food is never cooked with anything less than empathy and generosity, and sometimes ridiculous haste because, agh, a parent yourself, you might not have made it to the store as planned.
This attitude also allows you to be postpartum essentially forever with no ultimatum. This is healthy because sometimes you really can’t get your shit together for months and months, certainly not by the hallowed 6-week checkup, at which point your care provider signs you off as all good. Other people might expect you to be back to Biz As Usu but there is no pretending with this group. No pretending about how we eat, what we need or just pretending, period.
Remember, after giving birth, you are essentially turning yourself into food. If you choose to breastfeed, you are literally liquifying yourself. Your caloric needs spike, partially from pure exhaustion, but so does your need for authentic nourishment. The number of pregnant and postpartum people who lack that in this country is staggering and shameful, a testament to patterns of inequity and disregard for mothers/families in the U.S. It takes fuel to fight hard for every postpartum mother, and there are so many, who have no help nor adequate food at all.
None of them need our tears or restrictions on what they can eat; all of them need our advocacy, compassion, fats, proteins and vegetables. All of them need beloved community like M4Ms.
When John and I thought about having another baby, we knew we were demented. We stopped thinking too hard about it in order to protect ourselves from ourselves, but also stopped using other forms of protection. Soon enough I got that telltale feeling that I was dying of perimenopause and hated the whole world, after which I peed on a stick and was met with an excess of plus signs. I said to John, not just “LOOK, QUITE PREGNANT, NOT ACTUALLY DYING!” But also, “YES, the food! We will get FED!” Perhaps all this means is we need to feed each other more, because life is hard. Because to offer is profound and to receive without guilt or the need to immediately reciprocate is as un-American as tea leaves. Or is it?
“The benefit of living in a city is that we can cultivate our own communities of care, and Meals for Moms has given me such an outlet,” says L.S., a Brooklyn mom who has cooked for others but not received herself.
“Also, we give each other beer and wine, so there’s that.”