It Takes a Village: Motherhood During Unprecedented Times

These are just a few of the many, many texts we have sent each other over the past few months as we’ve embarked on our motherhood journeys. Becoming a mom is a transformative experience (in both good and challenging ways), and all of it is trial by fire. The saving grace of it all, though, has been that we’re not alone. We have our “village” to lean on: our fellow Burness parents, our local moms’ groups, our friends who’ve already had kids and our own parents. And that village is an extra comfort right now as we navigate trying to raise our babies during a pandemic (with vaccines for our babies only recently approved), historic inflation, a climate crisis, a national formula shortage, attacks on reproductive rights and more.

The two of us sat down (with our babies also making occasional appearances as they woke up from naps or needed to eat) to talk about what this village means to us and the challenges we’ve faced becoming moms and raising kids during a particularly challenging time.

You’ve been connected to one another through these transitions. What has that meant to you?

Michele: Being able to have solidarity with other moms who are “in it” and/or have recently been in it was really helpful the first few months and beyond. I asked Sarah about her birth experience before I went into labor. I text my friend Laura a lot because our babies were born two weeks apart so we’re experiencing many of the same challenges (and milestones) at the same time. I’m in a Facebook group with other moms who are trying to find formula—a mom in Hawaii mailed me the kind we need. Having this support system of other moms has been reassuring and validating. One of my in-laws shared something with me shortly after I gave birth: that after her first child was born, she felt like she had a bond with all moms past, present and future. And that really resonated with me. You don’t fully get it until you’re in it and then from then on, you’re all in it together.

Sarah: Over-research and overwhelm is the mode for far too many new parents. But keeping in close contact through our pregnancies and postpartum helped guard against this. We counted down the weeks together, tracked our babies’ growth and shared birth “plans.” Now, we share milestones and messy scenes, always encouraging each other through the next thing—whether it’s sleep regressions, teething, return to work or travel planning. It’s all real and unfiltered and, frankly, refreshing. The space we hold for each other not only helps me navigate the day-to-day, but also helps me feel more grounded and confident as a mother.  

What surprised you? What challenged you? 

Michele: I was not prepared for how hard breastfeeding would be! Friends had told me that it was challenging but I was not fully prepared for just how hard it was going to be for me, both physically and mentally. I stopped pumping just as the formula shortage hit, which compounded the guilt I was already feeling in not being able to provide for my child and made our feeding situation unnecessarily stressful. The last thing new parents need on top of everything else they’re contending with is having to go to multiple stores only to find empty shelves and begging friends, family and strangers on Facebook to please help them out. What I have been most surprised about, though, is learning how to advocate for myself while learning how to care for a new life. I realized that if I didn’t care for my postpartum mental health and physical health, then I couldn’t care for my son the way he needed. 

Sarah: Navigating birth and postpartum during the pandemic was both a surprise and a challenge. It was quite obviously a challenge due to fears for health and safety throughout— and I remember dodging new surges and variants while traveling to see family in Poland. It was absolutely insane and stressful, but I’m so grateful I was able to be fully vaccinated and boosted during the course of my pregnancy. The surprising part was that once our baby was born, we had more license to set boundaries in terms of protecting our family and our time together. Call it a “bubble” or a “cocoon,” but we basically hunkered down. Of course, we loved it when family and friends dropped off meals and gifts— but they also understood that it wasn’t the best time to be hands-on and that we needed space to process the transition to this new life we were creating. Michele and I reflected a lot on that— and while it could feel extremely isolating for some, for me it enabled the calm and recovery rest I needed in the earliest postpartum days.

How was the transition period? 

Sarah: As a first-time mother, everything felt so abstract. In the weeks leading up to birth, I started thinking about what comes after … how to prepare for it. I learned more about how many cultures honor the postpartum period, particularly the first 40 days— observing zuo yuezi in China, japa in India, la cuarentena in Latin America and countless other names in Indigenous cultures. There are long-held rituals to care for and nourish the new mother— but they are long lost in many Western societies. I remember asking my mother and mother-in-law what early postpartum looked like for them—if there were foods they ate to support lactation, things they did to speed recovery or calm anxiety and hormonal surges. There wasn’t much they could point to. So I did what I could with the knowledge I could gather. And despite the very real challenges presented in those first 40 days, it was the first time in a long while that I felt present. Through the joys and pains, everything was heightened. I steered clear of screens. I prioritized sleep wherever I could get it. I wrapped the baby on me. Tea, baths, daily walks, massage, nourishing foods—I took what I needed, with the unending support of my partner, to be well for myself and for the baby. I was struck by what a rare thing these “indulgences” had been for me before, in the daily grind, and now try to maintain them as much as I can.

Looking back on your experience of motherhood, what has been the most transformative?

Michele: For me, it’s about learning to let go of expectations and control, which is really hard! You can’t control whether this little person is going to sleep or not (usually not!), or when they’re going to arrive (two weeks early, when our kitchen renovation was still underway) or when they’re going to reach milestones like rolling over. I’ve been most transformed by learning to give myself grace and reminding myself to pause and enjoy moments with my son, rather than trying to plan, plan, plan like I usually do. 

Sarah: Motherhood transformed the way I appreciate and experience time. You live in moments … and you learn how to stretch time, make time and take time in new ways. Time simultaneously compresses and accelerates. It’s hard to explain. Our baby is 10 months old, and those first weeks of her life seem so foreign now that she’s crawling, waving and clapping and so endlessly expressive. And because you don’t want to miss these moments, you value and prioritize your own time differently.

What do you wish every mother/birthing parent could have?

Michele: At least 12 weeks of paid parental leave—for all parents, not just birthing people but their partners and adoptive parents too. I was not mentally, emotionally or physically ready to return to work at two, six or eight weeks, and I couldn’t imagine putting my son into daycare at any of those ages because he was still so tiny and vulnerable. My husband and I are both lucky that our employers gave us 12 weeks of paid leave—but this is fairly rare. This shouldn’t be the exception; this should be the norm across the U.S. We’re so far behind the rest of the world when it comes to paid parental leave. Something has to change. I also want all birthing people to have access to the same resources I did: I had really good health insurance that covered my care and medications (including physical therapy and therapy); access to great doctors, therapists and midwives; delivered at a good hospital; and could afford the support of a doula. All birthing people deserve this level of care—and shouldn’t have to go into debt to receive it.

Sarah: Absolutely—everything Michele said. Newborn parents need time and space and resources to process the ways in which their lives are transformed. In truth, my birth as a mother was more intense than childbirth itself. But when you look at the balance of resources, everything is focused on prenatal care and birth, not what comes after. There’s a massive postpartum gap. It’s the reason why so many new mothers never reach their breastfeeding goals, let alone find critical support for their mental well-being and physical rehabilitation. And for non-birthing parents, there are often limits on their time at home—limits to bonding with and supporting their newborn and providing much-needed care for their partner. So I wish every birthing parent could have a postpartum doula—or someone equivalent. I didn’t have one myself, but I had my mother, a dear friend and a local midwife (who happened to be my neighbor!), who all formed a support team for me in those earliest days when I was struggling with the unknowns and physical and mental demands of new motherhood.

How will you translate this experience of motherhood in your work—whether at Burness or in your community (however defined)? 

Sarah: I considered myself a community organizer of sorts before having a baby, but motherhood awakened a new level of activism, a new sense of urgency. And when you think about the recent SCOTUS decision on reproductive rights and care, there is so much at stake. No one considering starting a family should face the fear of maternal death should the pregnancy not take and/or risk the mother’s life. Since giving birth, I’ve become involved in a perinatal support group, and a breastfeeding coalition and am hoping to become a postpartum doula to support new parents in my rural community. At Burness, I find myself checking in with other mothers regularly—on both our paid and unpaid work.

Michele: I echo what Sarah said: Becoming a mother has deepened my feelings that we can and we must take action with our rights and our children’s lives at stake. I was feeding my son when I heard about the shooting in Uvalde. I sat there cradling him and sobbing, thinking of the parents who wouldn’t be tucking their kids into bed that night. It’s been almost 10 years since Sandy Hook, and instead of progress, we still see these senseless mass shootings. I felt the recent SCOTUS decision deeply. Every birthing person should have the power to decide what is best for their body, their families and their futures. Becoming a mother has reignited my passion for fighting for change., Both through my work at Burness and outside of my work, I want to create a better future for my son.