Alexis E. Menken, PhD
NJ Coordinator/Advisory Council
Postpartum Support International
They say it takes a village to raise a child, but it also takes a village to truly nurture and sustain a new mother. Of course, friendships are helpful in every stage of life, but its the emotional bonds formed during the 4th trimester of pregnancy that are especially critical. This is a sensitive time when every aspect of a woman’s identity and body is in transition. Because there is so much uncertainty as we become mothers, a community of peers who understand, empathize and help us navigate this pivotal period can have an outsized impact on our wellbeing. And yet the importance of building a mothers’ circle during the final stages of pregnancy is often underestimated.
There is a considerable amount of research indicating that having solid friendships is good for your health. Friends help us deal with stress, recover from illness, promote brain health, reduce high blood pressure and can even help reduce an unhealthy body mass index. In fact, older adults with a rich social support system are likely to live longer than their isolated peers. In addition to your physical well-being, friends enhance your mental health. They increase your sense of belonging, boost happiness, improve self-confidence and help cope with stressors such as illness, divorce, job transition, loss and other major life changes. The transition to new motherhood is no exception.
New moms need a specific type of friendship that is particular to the challenges of pregnancy. I often call this a Mommy Circle. What’s needed is the support of a kindred spirit who is going through a similar set of experiences. This sort of friendship provides a different type of support than a woman might get from her spouse, sibling, parent, in-law or colleague. It’s also different from the role other friends who have already had children or have not yet had babies are able to play. The friend you need during pregnancy and the first few months of becoming a new mother is someone who understands the unspoken flip side to the joys of parenting, a person who is also knee-deep in diapers, sleeplessness, feeding woes, who can directly relate to the enormous strain, emotional challenges, and myriad changes that confront women during these pivotal months.
The beauty of the new mothers circle is that there is often an instant bond. No matter what station in life someone comes from, the greatest common denominator is how to survive while getting your baby to thrive. This is a primal need that women feel and when they are able to turn to each other to figure it out together, it helps relieve some of the stress and isolation. Motherhood is the great equalizer. Friendships formed at other times in life might be based on a shared intellectual, political, religious or cultural interest, but for new mothers, none of that matters when the discussion turns to subjects like mastitis and sleep. In fact, the only connection among members of a Mommy Circle might be that you had babies at the same time. And yet these relationships are powerfully supportive and provide pragmatic ways for women to come together with a problem-solving mentality.
Research shows friends tend to have similar brain structures. In fact, when watching videos, close friends have similar neural response patterns. These patterns are so similar that researchers can predict the strength of a social bond based on these brain scans. Moreover, one particular part of the brain that shows high concordance among friends is the superior parietal lobe which helps integrate sensory input and is involved in aspects of attention and visuospatial perception. These are qualities that seem particularly relevant when learning how to attend to an infant and all of the tasks that serve early attachment.
For some women, the Mommy Circle may become available if they are home with a newborn and looking for social connection. For working women, it might be found through a colleague at work. In corporate settings, the breastfeeding room can become a place to connect with the woman who was scheduled before or after you, as you begin to see each other regularly and compare notes about new Motherhood.
In addition to sharing practical survival tips, for many women, developing a sense of maternal identity offers a great opportunity for transformation. During this time, while it can often feel as if all aspects of the self have been thrown up in the air, while trying to put oneself back together, it can be helpful to look toward others for models of becoming. These new mommy friendships offer an opportunity to explore changes in body, marriage, work, family relations and so much more. We are social beings and come to know ourselves best in relationship to others. Aristotle wrote “A friend is a second self, so that our consciousness of a friend’s existence…makes us more fully conscious of our own existence.” It is through the mirror of these friendships that a new mother can find clarity about her own new sense of self as a Mother.
It’s important to seek out new mom friends because we have seen again and again the value of social support. These friends serve a purpose unlike the friendships we develop at other times in life. Some of the friends you make at this time might turn out to be true kindred spirits and you may end up with a life long connection. Others may just be friends for a season. But it’s a critical season in a woman’s life that requires social support.