The First Forty Days: The Essential Art of Nourishing the New Mother
When we think about life postpartum, many of us focus solely on the baby. And while the health and happiness of our tot is crucial, so too is that of moms. Thanks to the groundbreaking new book, The First 40 Days, co-written by Amely Greeven, we will learn how to nourish new mamas with food, meditation and help from friends and family.
When I became pregnant with my daughter, I had just relocated from a small Western mountain town to the population-dense shores of Southern California. My former home is an unrushed place where the postmaster knows you personally and neighbors take you to the airport: the circle of community is drawn pretty tight. The prospect of being a new mother in a land streaked by the wash of speeding cars was daunting. Southern California felt more like a million individuals living side-by-side than any kind of circle.
But then I made a really good decision: I opted to entrust my pre-natal care to four local midwives who had recently opened the Santa Barbara Birth Center. “Our job isn’t to deliver a child,” they said, “Our job is to help you become a family.” A tremendous relief, and a flurry of excitement, moved through me. I think I’ve found my circle, I thought.
As my pregnancy progressed, the hour-long appointments at the Birth Center held me and my growing baby in wise, unhurried care. They also became a point of connection to something deeper: a practice of women guiding other women on the exciting, unnerving, and often uncertain path to motherhood. It was satisfying, confidence building, and felt utterly safe.
At the start of my third trimester, the conversation turned practical: Have you decided who you want in your home after the birth? Do you know who will bring you food? Is your freezer stocked with nourishing meals? My wise women elders were steering me to prepare for the postpartum period with as much consideration as I’d put into conception, pregnancy and labor. They knew from years of experience that for a mother, after labor is when the real work begins. And while it is a time of extraordinary joy, it is also a time of vulnerability. I was to set up my cocoon for resting, recovery, and bonding with my newborn by anticipating my needs, building a support team in advance, and even—shocker—asking brand-new friends and acquaintances to cook dinner and deliver it to our door.
Awkward? A little. Heart-warming? Definitely. With each gesture of help that our fledgling family received after the birth, from groceries dropped off to sumptuous Thanksgiving leftovers stacked in our fridge, I felt a sense of things being right in the world; the outside world was organizing itself so that I could turn completely inward to my child. And I realized that roots are laid down when, at your most exposed and exhausted moments, you lean on neighbors for support, and circles are woven tighter when one mother asks another for a pot of soup.
My postpartum experience shaped my new book The First Forty Days: The Essential Art of Nourishing the New Mother, written with my friends, Heng Ou and Marisa Belger.
Excerpt from The First Forty Days: The Essential Art of Nourishing the New Mother by Heng Ou, Amely Greeven and Marisa Belger
There is an institution of postpartum care that dates back centuries and that stretches across continents. Because this care goes on behind the closed doors of family homes, and is passed on woman to woman—from grandmother to granddaughter and midwife to client—it’s not exactly written in scientific literature or discussed in ten-minute doctor visits. You have to dig a little to find it. But it is there. Like a golden rope connecting women from one generation to the next, the protocol of caring for the new mother by unburdening her of responsibilities and ensuring she rests and eats shows up in wildly diverse places, from India to Mexico, from Burma to Arizona, from Russia to Cambodia, from areas of the Middle East to ethnic communities in North American cities. This rope of care is long and it is strong; it holds families—and societies—together. Its individual threads are the millions of aunts, mothers-in-law, grandmothers, and neighbors who have, since time immemorial, shown up with soup and clean sheets and a listening ear to serve the woman who has just given birth.
These global grandmotherly customs have different flavors depending on the locale, featuring diverse but always nutritious foods, from creamy lentil dal to blue cornmeal mush. They have contrasting sensibilities, too. Some treat mom as gently as the newborn, with warm milk drinks and transcendent hot-oil massages; others have a no-nonsense attitude, seeing this care as an investment for the future—ensuring that the mother’s health, beauty, and ancestral lineage endure. But at their core lies universal wisdom about overexertion after childbirth having serious consequences, and constant sleep deprivation taking a toll on mental and physical health. For the mother, there was no “returning to normal” right after birth. Far from it.
In its purest form, traditional Chinese zuo yuezi advises a tough-love approach of sponge baths instead of showers (to reduce the chance of catching a chill), no books in case reading strains the eyes, and no movies in case sad scenes upset you and disrupt your flow of chi. The reward for spending dedicated time in this revitalizing in-between space? The mother can emerge more beautiful and rejuvenated than before. Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) doctors say that if the woman shirks this recovery, she may experience a yin deficiency, resulting in insomnia, excessive night sweats, hair loss, anxiety, or headaches.
In many parts of Latin America, a forty-day period known as la cuarentena—it literally means “quarantine” yet also plays off the Spanish word for “forty,” cuarenta—has female relatives take on all domestic duties to ensure the new mother rests at home, in order to safeguard against future exhaustion-related illnesses or ailments. The new mother’s abdomen is wrapped in a faja or cloth to help keep her belly warm.
In many Native American tribes, ceremony is key: The customary “lying in” period after birth culminates in ritualistic bathing, a baby-naming ceremony, and going to a sweat lodge to boost circulation and help mom’s body eliminate any toxins. The Hopi people in the southwestern United States recall practices of twenty-day seclusion periods for mother and babe, during which the mother might be served blue corn piki bread, a ceremonial food.
In India, many pairs of hands are on call throughout the day. The women of the family cook soft and nurturing foods, boil fresh milk three times in a row to break down its proteins, and stir in melted ghee (clarified butter) and special spices, so it becomes easy to digest and restores the mother’s depleted state.
This rich tapestry of maternal care through the ages includes protocols that last for twenty-one days, thirty days, forty, and more. What they all share is the understanding that the story of childbearing doesn’t finish the moment the baby is delivered and taken into her mother’s arms. It continues. If pregnancy is the slow-building Act One of the story, and birth is Act Two—the high point of the dramatic arc—the postpartum period is Act Three, the story’s grand finale.
Seen through the eyes of the old ways, this several-weeks span is a nonnegotiable time of healing and recovery; it is a woman’s birthright, and it is essential for sustaining herself, her family, and society at large.
It is a far cry from what most mothers-to-be can expect today. With more and more women literally and energetically holding the home together as the primary breadwinner, and very often as the emotional center of the home as well, the postpartum period becomes a pressure cooker. The unconscious message beamed from all angles is, “Get back at it. You can’t afford to rest.”
But it seems we can’t afford not to. Anecdotal evidence strongly suggests that when deliberate physical care and support surround a new mother after birth, as well as rituals that acknowledge the magnitude of the event of birth, postpartum anxiety and its more serious expression, postpartum depression, are much less likely to get a foothold.
It is time to change our ways, to pick up the threads of knowledge that we forgot and weave them into a new kind of fabric to hold the mother. It is time to reclaim the postpartum period and reinstate it to its rightful place as the important conclusion of the childbearing story, something that deserves as much forethought as pregnancy and birth. We must do it for ourselves and for our children, because the way women become mothers profoundly affects the way their children awaken to this world. When you take care of the mother, you take care of the child.
Reproduced with permission from The First Forty Days; Abrams; Spring 2016
Photos by Jenny Nelson