5 Steps for Setting Boundaries for a Healthy Postpartum
“I thought I had set clear boundaries prior to my son’s birth, particularly around the initial moments right after he was delivered. That must not have been the case, however, because my in-laws just about came barging into the room as I was delivering the placenta.” ~ Katie BOUNDARIES have become a buzzword in recent years, and with good reason. In mainstream culture, most people do not have a felt-sense of where their desires end and another person’s needs begin. It is a skill that many of us must teach ourselves well into adulthood. Once you understand the importance of boundaries for emotional self care, there is no turning back. Clearly defining those lines for ourselves, and then expressing those lines to others, becomes paramount. And postpartum boundaries are no exception.
The kicker is that sometimes we express our boundaries, but they are not respected. This is why it is invaluable to have a postpartum doula working closely with your family, who knows your preferences and can kindly enforce them with extended friends and family who may not be as well versed in consent culture as we are.
Over my years of working with new families, I have come to believe that the 3rd and 4th Trimesters are a time of great opening; opening for birth, to the parenting journey, to trusting your body and intuition, to a new identity. In this special time, and state of being, it can be very hard to hold boundaries, and others may need to do that for us.
When Katie’s in-laws came bursting into the delivery room despite her clearly expressed desires for privacy after birth, she was bombarded during a time of great vulnerability.
“Thankfully, my nurse saw them just in time to stop them from entering. They then stood just behind the curtain asking countless times when they could come in.
I was beyond frustrated, and felt as though my space was completely invaded.
My son was born with meconium aspiration, and sent directly to the NICU. I felt like nobody gave me the space to breathe and process.
I felt so many emotions—abandoned, unheard, and just sad about the entire situation. The few minutes I had with my baby before he was taken to the NICU were overshadowed by their questions.”
Her story is a common one. Our society is so focused on babies that new mothers can feel lost in the swirl of birth, an event that should be all about them! Culturally, most women are taught to put others’ needs before our own. Stepping into a place of putting our needs and desires first can be super uncomfortable and unfamiliar.
It serves no one to abandon ourselves in this incredibly vulnerable, challenging, and magical time. When we don’t know what our boundaries are, it may be impossible to feel safe or check in with ourselves during a time of shellshock, exhaustion, and emotional rawness (let alone enforce those boundaries). The right kinds of support can make all the difference.
Postpartum boundaries aren’t just about what we don’t want. What we do want is of equal importance. After the birth of her daughter, Abbie felt like her clear requests for specific kinds of support were not taken seriously.
“We had a home birth, which resulted in plenty of dirty laundry and dishes. For the first couple of days, relatives would call to say they were dropping by and asked what we needed. Both times we responded ‘help washing dishes’ and both times we got laughed at!” ~ Abbie
As a nonbinary childbearer, Carter found themselves on an island. Rather than feeling overwhelmed with unwanted houseguests, they felt abandoned by a friend group who couldn’t relate to the experience of early parenthood.
“Among my wider friend group, there are more people without children (by choice--yes really forever--OR because they aren’t heterosexual) than with them. It felt nearly impossible to find people willing to come just capably hold the dang baby for me for a few minutes because they were all too scared of/uninterested in children.
‘Best friend’ types did NOT show up like they said they would. No older family members live nearby, and plus a baby born out of wedlock is shameful to them, so they wouldn’t be likely to get excited about my baby anyway. I needed *help* more than I needed privacy.” ~ Carter
Becoming aware of our needs, asking for help, and knowing who we can count on for the kind of support we need is a way of respecting our own limits... and respecting limits is a way of enforcing boundaries! Whether it’s strengthening a ‘no’ or honoring a ‘yes,’ taking time to prepare for these postpartum challenges before the arrival of a new baby, is crucial.
While these stories of unmet postpartum needs may be common, they do not have to be considered “normal.” There are many skills we can refine as preventative care around these common issues.
5 Steps for Setting Postpartum Boundaries
1. Tune into your body. Because disassociation, shame, or anger are common ways of coping, we must gently remind ourselves to recognize what is happening in our bodies. We can practice this skill by imagining different scenarios and noting what sensations arise as we imagine. The scenarios could be anything--let yourself go there. You don’t have to label what you feel, eg “anxiety.” Just notice what happens in your body. How would you feel about your in-laws coming into the delivery room immediately after birth? Or your friend stopping by unannounced to complain about her insomnia when you are sleep deprived too? Or strangers touching your pregnant belly without asking, etc? 2. Notice the ‘Yes’ or ‘No.’ Once you listen to your body, you'll likely have a clear ‘yes’ or ‘no.’ Often our minds jump in at this point and say, "You can't refuse that, ask for that, speak up for yourself,” so on and so forth... or, "How will you make that happen or prevent it?" Try to keep the mind out of it and sit in the clear, embodied ‘yes’ or ‘no’ for a minute. Using a mantra such as "How I feel is valid," or " My emotions and sensations are messengers of my truth" may help. 3. Allow for care. The time around giving birth and settling into your sacred window of recovery is your time to be a queen! You have every right to have lots of support, ask for what you want, honor your intuition, and feel safe. This is not the time to belittle your needs or yourself. You are bringing a new life into the world and deserve all the good things, support, and connection! Open yourself to receiving from others who are trustworthy and safe. 4. Clearly communicate. If you are comfortable, share your desires and expectations with those you want a firmer boundary with. Sometimes this is easier done in writing (email or snail mail), though tone can be hard to read. Remember the only person you can change is yourself, so use ‘I language” and make no demands, only requests. You control how much you interact with this individual, not what they do. If communicating directly doesn’t feel safe, designate a gate-keeper (someone to be the holder of boundaries for you) who can respect your wishes and be diplomatic when talking with anyone who is not respecting your boundaries. This person can also literally stand at the door of your birthing room, or home and make sure that no one uninvited may enter. 5. Remember You Are Setting the Stage Your efforts to set healthy boundaries will serve both you and your child well. It will likely feel uncomfortable for a time, but please believe that you are a good person who is taking care of herself, even when other people might be angry, hurt, or misunderstand you. A mother that models self respect and care will raise children who also prioritize their inner knowing (rather than appeasing others). For more info on this, go to CoDA.org.
In my nine-week course Life Beyond Birth 101, you can practice these skills and many more. You will leave knowing, owning, and enforcing your postpartum boundaries. By the time your family changes shape, you will feel empowered in your expectations and abilities as you set the ideal container for postpartum support.
Additionally, I offer Virtual Coaching Sessions where I can assist you with clarifying, articulating, and manifesting the boundaries that will allow you to relax into your postpartum experience. I can also assist with all of your postpartum and newborn care questions. These sessions are accessible no matter where you live, and ensure that you will have support despite any challenges you may face finding help in your wider community.
No one should feel overwhelmed or alone during this precious, chrysalis experience. Even though systems of care are often unavailable in our wider culture, we can create those systems of care for ourselves with proper intention and planning.
Life Beyond Birth provides support for expectant parents, and new babies & their families, online and in-person. Find a class or contact Molly at www.lifebeyondbirth.com.