How To Ask For Help Postpartum—Because It Could Be a Matter of Life or Death

The fourth trimester is notoriously difficult. Momwell founder Erica Djossa says new parents need to ask for a few important things.

A Black family with a new baby
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One of the biggest concerns I had surrounding giving birth to our second child was the fact we would be welcoming him into the world far from family. The closest grandparent was more than a five-hour drive away, and aunts and uncles were sprinkled across the country. As transplants to our new state during the pandemic, we had been slow to build a strong social network and knew we wouldn't have long-term daily support from family when we brought our new baby home from the hospital. I knew we would need the proverbial “village” many people often reference, as two years earlier we had seen firsthand how much we relied on outside help in the first few months of our firstborn’s life.

Luckily, throughout our most recent pregnancy, we had so many of my husband's coworkers, and even a handful of neighbors, begin to comment, "Let us know if there's anything you need!" to which my husband and I would often reply, "That's so nice of you! Thanks!" 

However, as the due date inched closer it became increasingly apparent that our well-meaning community wasn’t following up with more concrete offers of support. In the end, our way of expressing gratitude actually shut down further conversations instead of opening a door for us to actually take them up on their offers. Since we hadn't accepted, we often felt awkward about following up with a request—even if help was desperately needed.

Eventually, we were able to find a better reply to offers for help. A rough script we used at the time was, “That’s so kind! If it’s not too much trouble, it would actually be amazing if you could [insert request here] once or twice! Is there a day or time that’s best for you?” The requests we had were often small household tasks like bringing a meal, taking our aging pup for a walk around the block, holding the baby so I could shower, and a laundry list of others. However, the longer I thought about what we actually needed postpartum, I realized there were even more ways our village could help us as a family and advocate for us after I gave birth.

When Birthing People Shift Out of Focus

To get to the bottom of what kinds of support new parents actually need from their village  postpartum, I reached out to Erica Djossa, a licensed therapist and founder of Momwell, formerly known as “Happy as a Mother.” You may know her best from her wildly successful podcast of the same name, in which she interviews other parenting experts and doles out weekly advice regarding some of the biggest issues new parents face. 

Weighing in on the phenomenon of the frequent lack of support for new mothers, Djossa comments, “What I see happen… postpartum is that all eyes and attention move from mom to baby. Everything becomes baby-centered. This mentally leaves moms physically, emotionally, and psychologically freefalling in their new motherhood role, while the ‘village’ as we know it narrows in on baby's needs.”

“The assumptions here are that maternal instincts will kick in, or that a child’s needs are more important than a mother's. When we buy into the mindset that a baby's needs must always come first, a mother's wellbeing gets put on the back burner.”

Djossa notes that outside support for parents who bring home a new baby is important whether it’s their first or fourth child, and says that with subsequent children there’s often an assumption the family has everything figured out. “But the more young children we add, the more physical and invisible load mothers carry, and the more at risk [mothers] are for postpartum anxiety, postpartum depression, or burnout,” Djossa says. “It is incredibly exhausting.”

While many registry “must-have” lists will detail dozens of outfits, toys, and accessories friends and families can send upon the arrival of a new baby, what many new parents actually need most from their village during the postpartum period might be something a little more intangible.

“The best practical support we can offer a mother is to help her get sleep and rest,” Djossa says, addressing postpartum needs. “Protecting maternal sleep is an absolute cornerstone to a mother's adjustment and mental health, and is necessary to prevent burnout.” 

There are endless ways to support and protect sleep for new parents, Djossa shares, from scheduling a time to take a night shift so that a new parent can fit in restorative sleep, to new parents banding together and sharing child care duties so that each, in turn, can rest. There are even ways for loved ones to support new parents from afar, whether it’s helping with the costs of a night nanny, or securing postpartum doula care to help carve out time for sleep during the day. 

One way new parents can make it even easier for loved ones to lend a hand is to have a list ready to go for visitors who drop by during the postpartum period, so guests can easily see what needs to be done. From grocery shopping to meal prep, providing transportation or child care for older siblings, cleaning, and laundry, every task that is taken off a new mother’s plate helps free up time for rest and self-care.

A Matter of Life or Death

For people of color, especially Black families, postpartum advocacy and support from their village can be even more important than for their white counterparts, and in some cases can mean the difference between life and death. 

Djossa notes that due to increased maternal mortality rates among Black women, there is an added invisible load of personally advocating for their rights throughout their reproductive care. This additional hurdle often exacerbates the often already complicated relationships many women of color have with their medical providers. Implicitly or explicitly, medical practitioners disproportionately disregard Black women’s symptoms, at times discounting their pain and discomfort. 

With these additional barriers to care, it’s especially important that people of color receive emotional support from their village both before and after birth. Djossa suggests that central to this could be a “safe support person” who could both validate their pregnancy and birth experiences and advocate for them on their behalf to ensure their concerns aren’t dismissed and they receive the care they need. 

“It is also important to recognize that maternal health carries into the postpartum period, and pain or something not feeling right should be addressed and advocated for,” Djossa emphasizes. “Fifty-two percent of pregnancy-related deaths happen after delivery or in the postpartum period—not during the delivery itself—so making sure concerns are addressed and care is advocated for is incredibly important.”

Djossa stresses that the need for help doesn’t end after welcoming the baby home. 

“There are lots of practical ways moms need ongoing support,” she says. “People don't always know what we need or how to support us in the way that we need, so learning to communicate in an assertive, clear way helps to give our support system direction and also ensures our needs get met.”

Editor's Note

Though this story addresses the fourth trimester for cisgender heterosexual parents, Kindred by Parents acknowledges that not all parents identify as cisgender or heterosexual, and not all birthing people identify as women.

Learn More About Taking Back Your Fourth Trimester

Experts share more on how to take back your fourth trimester. Here, read Parents' guide to self-advocacy during postpartum and learn how communities can come together as support systems.

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