By Jane I. Honikman
I was pregnant, single and alone. I gave birth in a foreign country, and never saw my baby. I had no emotional support.
I was married, and was finally pregnant. I gave birth, away from my extended family, but with a supportive husband. We had no emotional support.
It is these contrasting, yet similar experiences which have motivated me to become passionate about improving the outcomes for babies and their parents.
After the birth of our second child, my friends and I co-founded Postpartum Education for Parents (PEP). It was conceived from our own needs as struggling young parents, removed from our families, and inundated with professional advice. What we lacked was a supportive environment where we could share our highs and lows each week, and not be judged or criticized when we admitted to being overwhelmed, scared, or inadequate. It was about making friends, learning about community resources, and gaining confidence as new parents.
We launched the first ever warmline, staffed entirely by trained parent volunteers, 24 hours per day, 7 days per week. It has been available since July 1, 1977. I took the first shift that day and received the first call. I was an ordinary mother actively listening to the needs of another ordinary parent. We offered free emotional support to other new families. PEP became our local community’s way to help ease the adjustment of developing families.
We know that communities are human systems where we live, work, learn, pray, and play together. We tend to gather together based on our cultural values and with a common purpose. It is during pregnancy that the first shift in emotional needs occurs. The arrival of the newborn does interrupt a new parent’s existing community, as well as a good night’s sleep. Social connections, our networks, exist within each community, yet how do expectant and new families find or create them? In general, our networks help us find employment, friendship, and provide emotional support and comfort. We may relish these natural human interactions, take them for granted, or in some cases, ignore them. Then, the new baby arrives. The need for community support takes on a different meaning.
I want to emphasize the importance of community based social support. Researchers have found that we are healthier and happier when surrounded by supportive peers, family, and friends. It is with a social support network that we feel a sense of belonging and more secure. As new parents increase their self-worth by not being isolated and struggling alone, the baby will feel this as well.
Connections between people are also called social capital. We invest in material goods (physical capital), and value education (human capital). It is critical that our social networks for new families are consciously created. Academic scholars have shown that our psychological well-being benefits by having a network of supportive relationships. Even if a new family has relatives living nearby when a baby arrives, making friends with others experiencing the same life event is vital.
All new parents will experience a wide range of physical and emotional challenges. The transition from being single, becoming a couple, and then a family cannot happen without many changes. PEP refers to these as “special circumstances”. This list consists of every possible “less than easy or wonderful” situation. For example, had I given birth after PEP was established I would have called the Warmline for emotional support after our son was born. I would been connected with a volunteer who had had difficulty breastfeeding, who had also supplemented with formula. I would have been encouraged to join a new parent discussion group where I would have shared how inadequate I felt as a mother. My peers would also be new parents and eventually I would have felt secure enough to share that I’d placed my first baby for adoption.
My personal journey through parenthood would have been smoother had I had professional support as well as good friends. Unfortunately, my depression went undiagnosed far too long. It is ironic that although I had become involved with world leaders in the field of maternal mental health, it took decades to overcome my own denial.
There are many therapists, doctors, and educators who want to work with expectant and new families. Their role as professionals in pregnancy and postpartum social support networks is to serve as advisors to trained peer volunteers. A paid childbirth or lactation assistant is not the same as someone who has “been there” and offers empathetic comfort. A support group that is led by a professional is important to deal with stress and illness but it does not substitute for peer to peer support. In all circumstances, however, they are definitely essential parts of community support. When a PEP volunteer hears from a Warmline caller about a situation beyond the listeners’ capacity, the caller is referred to his or her own doctor, other professionals, and/or organizations listed in the PEP Community Resource Guide.
Families need and deserve supportive communities to bond with their peers as well as reach out to professional services. Over the decades, studies consistently show that for good health and emotional well-being we need each other. We know that social interactions are needed for optimum physical and mental health. The baby and the parents will build lasting friendships, strong personal relationships, and social ties in a community that offers this opportunity.
How supportive is your community for new parents? Don’t wait for someone else to initiate what might work. Start asking your friends, peers, family members and work colleagues if they’d like to explore the possibility of a social support network in your community. You can replicate PEP in your community. It won’t look exactly like PEP. That is impossible since each community is unique. It all starts with a few friends who understand the importance of building a social support network. Your efforts will be rewarded by meeting the needs of your own new families.
As Margaret Mead wisely said “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever does.”
Jane Honikman, M.S., is a Postpartum Parent Support Consultant from Santa Barbara, California. In 1977, she co-founded Postpartum Education for Parents (PEP). She founded Postpartum Support International (PSI) in 1987. She lectures internationally on the role of social support and the emotional health of families. Her book, Community Support for New Families: A Guide to Organizing a Postpartum Parent Support Network in Your Community, is available from Praeclarus Press.