The Sacred Work of Mother Care
As I was checking out at a local store with a handful of seemingly random supplies, the cashier curiously asked me what I was putting together. I explained my self-directed role providing support for local postpartum mothers and the event I was hosting. I will forever keep her response with me. She took a deep breath, staring intently into my eyes and said,
“You care for the forgotten women. Thank you.”
I carried my first child Earthside in 2014, an experience that was not as peaceful as I’d hoped or imagined it would be. From just 9 or so weeks pregnant, I felt isolated and silenced. And my choices and desires were not of value to my care provider.
My birth was shattering in ways that are hard to put words to.
I underwent unconsented drugs and procedures, was shouted at and told not to make a mess. As I stepped into my sacred window, the pressures of newly-born motherhood piled onto unchanged expectations of my pre-motherhood roles. Added to that — a heaping load of birth trauma.
At first, I tried to ignore it. But the harder I tried to silence the pain, the louder it demanded attention–demanded healing.
So much of my entry into motherhood felt wrong. And as I finally found the words to talk about it — the birth trauma, the lack of respect for autonomy, the lack of wholesome education, the prejudice against young mothers — I was met with disregard. I was sinking, and I was expected to be grateful for it.
Around six months postpartum, I had to choose between internal destruction or fighting for myself. I reached out to other women who had briefly spoken of their birth stories with grief.
This is where my work in Mother Care began. I visualized a world where every woman, regardless of exponential statuses, has equal access to essential services.
Two years later, I welcomed my second child with deep innate wisdom and commitment to choosing a different path for his birth. I had a greater understanding of my worth and the undeniable sacredness of birthing, the mama-baby dyad, and the immediate postpartum weeks. After exploring my options for assistance and meeting several poor matches, I opted out of the obstetric system altogether.
I reclaimed and accepted the freedom of independent prenatal care. This choice served as a collection of catalysts for self-directed healing.
My freebirth did not go as planned, on account of poor social support. And yet I have never had so much love for myself and my body. My second birth was an intense and pleasurable experience of diving deeply into my body, feeling the stars and serving as a portal for my baby to enter this world. I stepped aside and let him guide me (much to the disliking of those in my birth space).
Through this powerful birth of myself and the impacts of both birth experiences, I felt ready to expand my service to others.
Meet Mama Tuki
I have first-hand experience with the toxicity of multi-layered systems that leave mothers in a “gray zone” of care. And I have taken the time and energy to witness other women as they speak their experiences. Through these avenues, I recognized that I am not alone in my need for community.
In March of 2018, I founded Mama Tuki with the intention of advocating for and facilitating maternal autonomy and community-based care for women and their families. Our name is a Finnish derivative translating to “mother support.”
My initial focus was to provide a loving space for women to gather — for self and cultural exploration, wisdom sharing through storytelling, and a healthy place to speak their needs.
It is vital that we as humans feel seen and heard by each other. Women’s Circles, such as the ones I host, provide a container for exactly this. And they allow us to practice giving and receiving the support that we all need in our daily lives.
Through Mama Tuki, I also offer free postpartum baskets filled with snacks and self-care items. My team and I
deliver these baskets to freshly birthed mothers at their homes with wishes of a nourishing, restful and fulfilling postpartum time. I am excited and humbled to report that these deliveries serve as a gateway to establishing relationships with the mothers. We witness their birth stories, and encourage self-awareness as new mothers navigate early motherhood. Through hearing and acknowledging the needs of these women, my team and I identify gaps within the community-based support network. We can then work together through the integration of social and professional networks to fill these gaps.
What we create for others, we also create for ourselves.
Today, Mama Tuki consists of a team of women who come together to support, educate, and uplift women as they navigate their individual motherhood journeys. Likewise, we encourage women to embrace their maternal wisdom. We offer a lending library of baby carriers and books to the public, Childbirth Education Game Nights, and peer breastfeeding support. Our Village Prenatals serve as a space to honor and celebrate pregnant women as the truth-holders of their own bodies. We guide mothers into self-awareness through deepening their connection to their bodies, their intuition, and their babies.
Looking forward, we are creating the opportunity for aspiring birthkeepers to self-study through our growing membership library. My goal is to provide scholarships to these divine women so that they can access desired education. In turn, these women will offer service our community is so desperately craving. A Birthkeeper’s Circle is also in the near future. This Circle invites all types of care and support providers who share the work of authentic Mother Care to unite as a community.
The Gaps: Seeing the Forgotten Woman
Both historical and modern maternity care hold large fundamental gaps in care before, during, and after birth for most mothers. Less than one percent of U.S. women will birth their babies at home, with or without midwifery assistance. For the vast majority of women, maternity care is better described as fetal monitoring. It is comprised of short, impersonal, technocratic clinical visits throughout the course of pregnancy, followed by pathologizing procedural birth practices. After birth, a woman is sent home to resume her life as a new mother. She receives no further care until six weeks later. Then she receives another invasive exam to state whether or not she seems to be physically healed from her birth.
Maternity care under this model is not sufficient.
The act of becoming a mother is no small feat. It is something that cannot be undone, a profoundly transformational experience. Nevertheless, women who survive this model of care report feelings of isolation and being overwhelmed, unheard, and unsupported. Inadequate prenatal care increases the existence of postpartum depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder. It also lends to disconnection within the mother-baby dyad. As these issues combine with short-lived maternity leave, many women do not meet their breastfeeding goals. Needless to say, our culture is not set up to honor the needs of mothers and infants in the sacred window and extended postnatal periods.
We have the power and opportunity to change that.
The beauty of Mother Care is that it applies to every woman who has recently birthed. This includes women who have experienced loss at any stage of the journey, have chosen adoption, or are busy caring for their Earthside babe(s).
All of these women — of every identity, of every race, and every economical status — are equally worthy of regular access to quality physical, emotional, and spiritual postnatal care.
Imagine a world where every mother is gifted with nourishing foods, rest, and emotional support after birth — however her birth story went. Imagine the rapid increase of mama-baby (and family) bonding, breastfeeding success, and maternal-infant health in the first year after birth.
The Power of the Tribe
You may be familiar with the saying “Peace on Earth begins with Birth.” As birth workers, we can form networks within our communities that collectively uplift the community as a whole, starting with perinatal women. Each of us has something unique and valuable to offer to this mission. The modern business agenda is competition: being on top, winning the clients, and knocking out the competition. And that seems true for the birth industry, too. The obstetric agenda stomping out wise-woman care. Women terrified of their own bodies on account of advertising. And the list goes on.
It is time for change. I would like to offer that there is both room and necessity for all of us to co-exist and serve as a team.
Let’s embrace each other’s services, and restore peace, not only in each other, but in the hearts of every birthing woman.
But where do we start?
First, let’s examine the obstacles to care.
Postpartum practices vary globally by culture. Here in the United States, this sacred time is minimally recognized. Many mothers work at full-time jobs until they give birth, returning to work within eight weeks postpartum. I personally began a new job only a week postpartum after my first birth, and let me say, that did not feel good. The quick return to work, geographic and other economic factors are barriers for women receiving postnatal care.
We, as a culture, also do not teach women to honor the time around birth. One of my favorite analogies compares the birth culture to wedding culture. The energy we put into making choices and plans for these “big days” are quite contrasting.
The importance of birth as mammalian beings — as human beings — is buried under industrial gains, strategic and oppressive marketing, fear, and perceived superiority over our animal siblings.
We can serve as a bridge between a world that recognizes the magnitude of the sacred act of birth and the rest of the modern world.
We can be the microphone for mothers who feel silenced. Of course, this might be easier said than done given exponential circumstances in our roles and in the lives of the women we serve.
Yet, we can go into the homes of these women to prepare nutritious foods, offer massage, breastfeeding support, and other services. But what about the time we are not there? We can’t do it all.
To serve others, we must also have boundaries for our time and energy. We must take care of ourselves. And we must uphold our presence within our own lives, outside of our dutiful roles to our clients. This can look several different ways.
Engaging Social and Interdisciplinary Support
Helping the women we serve build a tribe prevents burnout. This in turn increases the longevity of the care and support each woman receives.
It also allows for better individualized and personal care by adding in the essential elements of social support.
We can give the mother, her family, and other members of her support network the knowledge to provide care in our absence. Maybe this looks like in-home teachings. Maybe this looks like focused community workshops. And maybe it looks like banding together with other birth workers.
Or better yet: all three!
Engaging the friends, family, neighbors and other community members who regularly interact with the newly birthed family provides an opportunity for continuous, long-term intimate care.
These people know the woman and her family, giving them better predictability of the family’s personal preferences. These folks can often provide care at little to no cost to the birthing family. Therefore this means better sustainability and increased access to care.
Close proximity to the newly birthed family might increase the probability that people can provide short-notice support. This may include household, child and pet care; meal preparation; running errands; and emotional support. These individuals may readily perceive subtle changes within the woman or the family that might be signals for more – or specialized – support.
Engaging this social system builds interpersonal relationships across the community. And it increases knowledge, empathy, and compassion for community care.
Part of our professional role is to fill in fundamental gaps in the social support system. We must recognize that not all women have access to, or trust in, extended social support. The mother’s feelings of safety (or lack of) in sharing intimate space and information may vary with family friends, and third-party support. The people providing social support may not have wholesome knowledge on supporting the postpartum psyche. Sometimes these individuals project their own traumas or negative energy into the mother’s space. Or they don’t feel inclined to participate in the new paradigm of Mother Care we are building.
To best serve the women we work with, we must have a comfortable and trusting connection with them. And the relationship must mutually feel like a good fit.
With the women I speak to, I hear a common theme around birth trauma: The mother felt she didn’t have a choice of care providers. Mothers deserve to feel they have a choice. We are much more likely to serve a community of women under this benefit if we work together to provide multiple care provider options.
For example, Maria had a premature birth in the hospital. Although her nursing team is supportive in her breastfeeding endeavors, Maria is feeling nervous about returning home. There, she does not have a lactation consultant or peer support mentor to support her. She carries the weight of trauma from her premature birth and her baby remaining in the NICU. Separation from your baby is incredibly difficult, and she is supposed to go back to work in only five more weeks! Her family is offering to help with childcare, but she is the first woman to breastfeed in generations. She fears that nobody will understand her choice.
Imagine if Maria had a team of women in which one of those women had experienced breastfeeding a preterm baby. Imagine how much stronger that connective bond and wisdom-sharing would be between two women with similar experiences.
This is not to say that showing up authentically as our best selves with the intention of serving with love and fortitude is in any way insignificant.
We should all feel the power in our willingness to be present with the families we serve, to meet them where they are at in their journeys, utilizing our unique skill sets along the way.
There is value in diversity. Having a team approach to Mother Care can help the women we serve receive better support with specific issues, such as breastfeeding, pelvic floor issues, and emotional and psychological wellness.
For example, my Mama Tuki team is currently comprised of volunteers with different backgrounds and passions. One woman is passionate about helping out with home and child care, while others are ready to serve as breastfeeding mentors. We have someone versed in options for pregnancy, birth and postpartum care. And I am passionate about working with women as they heal from traumatic birth experiences.
Through our Birthkeeper circles, we will learn from each other. This growth will breathe new life into our care for the women we work with. We also stay in communication with regional midwives, doulas, and other mother-centered care professionals. So we readily share these resources with the women who desire them.
It’s about identifying what resources are already available, helping women access them, and then creating resources that need to exist.
See, it’s not only the rise of traditional birth workers that is necessary; it’s a paradigm shift. That shift won’t happen unless we create it by involving as many people as possible, regardless of the simplicity of their tasks in supporting postpartum women.
To all of you whom are involved in this shift: Thank you for serving the forgotten women and helping the rest of the world to remember how.
Lynnea Laessig is a mother and a powerhouse community leader. She is founder and director of Mama Tuki, located in the western Upper Peninsula of Michigan.
For more information about Mama Tuki, email email@example.com. Find Mama Tuki on Facebook and Instagram @mamatukibirth.
All photos courtesy of Lynnea Laessig.