Birth Is Just One Day, Parenting Lasts a Lifetime
Why can’t prenatal education do more to help with the transition to parenthood?
Posted Sep 15, 2016
This guest post was written by Crystal Godinez, M.A., a researcher at Chapman University and UC Irvine.
Growing up, my exposure to babies was limited at best – I had no younger siblings and was not an avid babysitter. In fact, the last time I babysat I was 12-years-old and the three-year-old had a poop explosion out of his diaper and managed to smear it all around the living room while I was tending to the one-year-old. I decided then that babysitting and babies were not for me.
Fast forward to my adult life, when I pursued a career in mental health and began to develop an interest in family dynamics and parenting. I had a chance to study first time parents in the Neuroendocrinology of Social Ties (NEST) Lab at USC. Among other tasks, I transcribed birth stories, assisted with babies during visits, and listened to parental responses on different measures. The stories and interviews were interesting, but felt more like data to me versus real life experiences that I fully comprehended.
And then I became pregnant.
I participated in a series of birth classes that aimed to teach me how to ‘ahh’ my baby out without medication, and that is all I focused on. Topics covered included constructing the perfect birth plan, preparing a hospital bag, and reasons for a natural birth. I earnestly believed that post-childbirth would be (ahem, cough) easy, and that basically everything would be a “maternal instinct.” I did not read one postpartum baby book, but spent all of my time preparing for my anticipated (though unrealized) natural birth – lots of work for one day that did not even go as planned.
Then, imagine my surprise when I brought my newborn home after a few days at the hospital and found myself unsure of so many things. I had heard parents mention feeling exhausted, but had assumed this would be the equivalent level of exhaustion I had felt during the first few weeks of raising my puppies. It was not. I came to find out experientially what the first time parents at NEST actually meant when they said they were tired. One issue I definitely had not heard of (or had tuned out) was gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), which caused my precious bundle of joy to projectile vomit for months. I also discovered that the word “colic” actually meant relentless, inexplicable crying that would last for hours on end. This went on for months (newborns must be so ridiculously cute to compensate for all of this). Needless to say, my overly optimistic view of early motherhood quickly dissipated, morphing into an unprepared-for reality.
Published research on the transition to motherhood echoes my sentiments of feeling unprepared and overwhelmed at first – a majority of first time moms recount feeling ill-equipped to handle the emotional, physical, and psychological stress that accompanies a first child. This fact is especially true when a mother experiences a complicated childbirth or has a child with medical issues. Women report unanticipated, monumental alterations to life-styles and routines. A majority of women feel alone and frequently unsupported by partners, health workers, and society as they navigate the uncharted territory of becoming a mother. Emotional fatigue, lack of sleep, and demands of the newborn often drain the new mother. The loss of personal freedom and independence can engender grief and resentment.
Despite the documented difficulties many mothers face following childbirth, many of the prenatal education classes offered by hospitals and birthing centers continue to focus predominantly – often exclusively – on pregnancy, labor, and birth. Many of these programs fail to address the weeks and months that follow the baby’s arrival. Parents rank wanting to feel more secure in taking care of their newborns above the need to prepare for childbirth as the reason for participating in prenatal classes, yet there remains a paucity of parenthood information in the curriculum. Some courses, like those offered by Kaiser Permanente hospitals, incorporate a few postpartum topics, but these courses are often short in length and cursory in nature. Several studies have recommended additional prenatal emotional and informational support, but these resources can be hard to find.
The current trend for private companies is to offer separate prenatal birth classes and postpartum “mommy and me” groups. Some organizations, like Two Doulas Birth in Los Angeles, do offer postpartum workshops for expectant parents, but this group is the exception rather than that rule. And even Two Doulas’ postpartum curriculum offered before birth is covered in a single, one-day workshop. Postpartum “mommy and me” groups typically meet once a week for an hour for eight weeks. In addition to cultivating friendships, these groups often focus on learning about parenthood topics for the first time, which may be overwhelming or too late for the new mom. A better approach may be to introduce the topics prenatally and then review them in the postpartum group.
Furthermore, current prenatal classes also fall short because they do not address expectant fathers and their specific concerns. Men articulate feelings of ignorance and fear about bringing a child home following prenatal classes because they still feel unprepared to become parents. They relate wanting to know more about and be more included in infant care education – even sharing their desire to learn about historically female-only topics like breastfeeding. A more informed father could significantly help to shoulder the mother’s burden as she is typically the one saddled with most of the newborn care for reasons such as breastfeeding and traditional gender roles.
Healthcare providers that offer “labor prep” classes should enhance their prenatal education to include more information about what happens after, not just during, birth. There are innumerable moms like me who are naively unaware of the trials and tribulations that accompany the first child. A good start would be for prenatal education programs to follow Kaiser Permanente’s and Two Doulas Birth’s examples and at least introduce new-parent topics such as feeding, bathing, diapering, and breastfeeding. More in depth topics such as marital relations in the first year would be the icing on the proverbial cake. Researchers have found that mothers would appreciate something as simple as a comprehensive, instructional DVD to help educate them about parenthood prior to giving birth. Something is better than nothing. Research can help determine how comprehensive postpartum preparation needs to be – perhaps simple information about where to find resources postpartum would suffice, or more involved prenatal instruction might prove necessary.
My son just turned a year old and I cannot believe it. Despite the challenges of early parenthood, the amount of joy, learning, and love I have experienced this last year is indescribable. My journey, however, would have been much easier if I would have been educated on postpartum topics in my prenatal classes. All of the mothers enrolled in my education course spent two months preparing exclusively for one day. Based on my experience and scientific research, my hope is that prenatal education programs will heed the requests of mothers and include more postpartum parenting information in their curriculum to help better prepare women for the awesome, yet oft challenging, transition to motherhood.
Crystal Godinez is a graduate from the University of California, Berkeley and Pepperdine University, holding a Master of Arts in Psychology. She currently works as a research assistant on the Early Life Experiences & Child & Adolescent Study, a joint study through Chapman University and the University of California, Irvine. Her main research interests include family dynamics, parenting, and child development.
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