Courtesy of Mary Sauer

"Mothering the Mother" Is Great In Theory, But In Reality, Moms Are All Alone


When my third child was born, it was the first time since becoming a parent that there was considerable distance between me and my mom. She came for the birth, but wasn’t able to stay for more than a days. It was the first time in a long time I can remember aching for my mom to be nearby. I was a mother, but I needed mothering, too. My husband was taking care of our big kids and I needed someone to take care of me. It's a concept known as "mothering the mother," practiced by doulas.

In other cultures, there are traditions by which the mother is tended to postpartum: in Mexico, the cuarentena is a 40-day period where everyone showers the mother with help and nourishment after the birth of her baby. In Korea, samchilil is a 21-day prescription for rest, care, and nourishing soups like the miyuk-kuk before the mother returns home. In the U.S., some women are back at work just days after delivering.

I've seen this a few times. I see how desperately new moms need caring for, and how few people are stepping in to fill the gap.

In the absence of care for new moms, there is a thing that happens on social media. New moms, the ones who are just days into this whole lifestyle of mothering, are taking to private Facebook groups, asking for advice. I’ve done it, too. Posting pictures of a rash or bruise, with a plea for a layman’s diagnosis in the caption.

“Should we head to the ER, or wait till morning?”

For the most part, these posts aren’t just your random, middle-of-the-night emergencies, they’re the basics. These are moms looking for someone to tell them that their baby — and his relentless 1 a.m. crying — is normal. Sometimes they just need a recommendation for a diaper rash cream.

Sometimes they’re moms just looking for a simple, “you’re doing OK.”

Courtesy of Mary Sauer

More than once, I’ve found myself asking under my breath if this was the only place they could turn. Were a bunch of strangers on the internet their only resource? Where were the friends and family who have done this before?

I found myself wondering how I had survived that year without her there, how other mothers survive with no one to mother them.

With my youngest now, at 18 months, well past the point of round-the-clock breastfeeding or those terrifyingly weird (but completely normal) sleep-breathing patterns, it's easy for me to look at these women posting pleas on the internet and wonder: who is looking after them?

Earlier versions of me, with a brand new baby and a lot of fear, spent plenty of time on the internet asking strangers for advice or asking for someone to tell me I was doing OK. So I feel a strong sense of connection and compassion for these women who are mothering while motherless, in a way. Who are learning to put another person first 24 hours out of the day because it is essential to their survival, with no one to keep track of whether or not the mother is surviving.

Partners can and should be the caregiver for new mothers, but there are limitations. When everyone in the house is walking around in a state of sleep deprivation, a pattern often emerges. Mom takes care of baby, dad sometimes takes care of the baby but also takes care of himself and his work and the bigger kids, and no one takes care of mom.

It feels like a crisis, to be honest.

I won’t say that this is the way it goes in every hetero relationship. And I don’t really know if this same pattern emerges in same-sex relationships, but I do know that it seems that a primary caregiver almost always emerges in a family. One friend told me her husband returned to work and they came to agreement that he would only wake at night on the weekends — she found herself dangerously exhausted within weeks of this "arrangement" taking hold. Another, with frustration, told me of her Saturday mornings, spent on breakfast and breastfeeding and dishes while her husband slept in, recovering from his work week — leaving her with no time to recover. I’ve listened to more than one mom tearfully explain that her husband wasn’t getting up at all and that she wasn’t sure if she would ever feel like herself again.

My mother moved back home just before my son’s first birthday. That first week, she dropped by to visit in the middle of the week. She was just stopping in, but she saw the tears of exhaustion in my eyes, the dark circles, heard the desperation in my voice, and sent me right to bed.

As I drifted off to sleep, I found myself wondering how I had survived that year without her there, how other mothers survive with no one to mother them.

Courtesy of Mary Sauer

Who will “mother the mother”? I don’t know. Some have made a career of it, overnight nurses and postpartum doulas, but not everyone can afford those resources. Where are the older mothers, ready to lend a hand or hold a baby? I’m not sure, but I suspect they’re drowning, too.

It feels like a crisis, to be honest. So many moms emerge from baby days and find themselves staring down health problems, mental health problems, and a loss of identity. I found myself wondering where the last five years of my life had gone. I felt lost and exhausted and unsure of how to recover. It was then that I realized that, at least for now, it is up to us.

Until there are better maternity leave, maternal healthcare, and childcare options in our country, we have to take care of each other. As soon as we are able to pull our heads above water, we’ve got to reach back and grab the hand of someone a few steps behind us.

Check out Romper's new video series, Bearing The Motherload, where disagreeing parents from different sides of an issue sit down with a mediator and talk about how to support (and not judge) each other’s parenting perspectives. New episodes air Mondays on Facebook.