Child birth is something most women imagine doing with a supportive partner – and with good reason. Ask single mother to three Liesel Bouwer (32), who’d planned to have her sister beside her during the birth of her third child, but ended up delivering her daughter without the support of a loved one.
“I took my own photos after delivery and then called my mother to tell her I’d had my daughter. It’s not much fun being in labour with doctors you don’t know,” she says.
Sandi Conradie, a counselling psychologist who specialises in the psychological wellbeing of mothers, agrees. “It’s important that a birthing mother feels well supported and cared for. The process of birth is a deeply personal and intimate experience and a woman’s perception of her birth has implications for the emotional wellbeing of herself and her baby in the postnatal period that follows.”
But the hospital protocols that make you one of many mothers in a labour ward mean that the on-duty midwives and even your gynaecologist won’t consistently and continually remain at your side throughout your labour.
Yet, having a birth partner continually supporting you, with even simple things like getting a drink, helps you to stay calm and put all your energy into birthing your baby, explains Catherine Brown, a doula and mother with seven years of single parenting under her belt.
What to look for in a birth partner
For some single mothers, a birth partner might be a sister, mother or aunt. For widow Kristen van Staden (29), it was her best friend. Mom to a three-year-old and baby of 16 months, Kristen found out she was pregnant with her third child on a Wednesday. On the Friday of that week, her husband died in an accident. Completely devastated, it was easy for Kristen to feel overwhelmed.
So her best friend arranged all her obstetric appointments, reminded her to go, attended her check-ups with her, shopped for the baby and was by her side throughout her labour. “Without her it would have been much more difficult,” says Kristen.
Kristen’s birth partner knew her well enough to anticipate her needs, which is exactly what you’re looking for, says Sandi. Whoever you choose, it is important that your birth partner is attuned to your needs. You want someone who is supportive, flexible, confident, trustworthy, emotionally available, helpful, non-judgemental and caring to be by your side, she recommends.
Consider professional support
This is often a tall order from any support partner – be it a committed life partner or best friend. Which is why Catherine advocates getting professional birth support from a doula.
A doula, she explains, is a trained and certified birthing partner who offers emotional, physical and informational support during labour. Doulas are experienced in supporting labouring mothers and have in their support arsenal:
- Tips for different positions that can ease your labour
- Tips for breathing and relaxation exercises
- Massage techniques for labour pain relief.
They also understand the physiological process of labour. This means they can be an informed advocate for your birth plan, and can answer questions, provide reassurance, guidance and information that a typical birth partner can not.
“Having both a doula and a birth partner with whom you have a trusting personal relationship, offers you a beautiful support team,” says Catherine.
Preparing your birth partner
Regardless of who you choose to be at your side, you’ll need to give your birth partner a realistic sense of what you might need and what might make you worried or anxious, says Sandi.
So talk through these important issues:
- Share your feelings, wishes and fears about childbirth
- Share your expectations of your birth partner
- Share your birth plan and familiarise your partner with your choices
- Birth doesn’t always go as planned, so discuss different supportive strategies should you have to be flexible.
If your birth partner isn’t a doula – or hasn’t experienced childbirth herself – it is helpful to prepare for your birth together. So:
- Take your partner to your antenatal classes
- Invite her/him to your obstetric check-ups and scans
- Organise a hospital tour and let her/him get familiar with your birth environment
- Share your pregnancy reading – be it books, magazines or internet articles. (“A great book for anyone supporting a labouring mom is The Birth Partner: A complete guide to childbirth for dads, doulas and other labouring companions,” recommends Catherine.)
Also, talk frankly about how your partner copes under pressure or in medical situations. You don’t want to be distracted or have your confidence undermined, because your birth partner is panicking or has a fear of blood or needles, says Catherine.
Build a support network
Motherhood is a 24/7 exercise and when you are recovering from birth there’s not much time to be doing anything else other than resting, feeding and bonding with your newborn.
However, with the absence of a partner to assist, single mothers risk being socially isolated in the postnatal period. In some cases, this can lead to anxiety and postnatal depression, cautions Sandi. So it’s vital that you build a support network. This often takes getting over the fear of asking people for help, shares Catherine of her personal experience of single parenthood.
“I found that most people want to help, they just don’t know how. So give each person in your support network a specific request. Put someone in charge of your phone when in labour. Ask a teacher to drop an older sibling off at granny. Get a friend to quickly help clean your kitchen before you leave for hospital. Ask a neighbour to drop bread and milk off on her way home until you are able to drive again. Look to your colleagues, your religious community and single-mother support groups. And build network upon network.
Get some ‘formal’ support
Other than informal support networks of family and friends, it’s useful to build a formal support network of healthcare professionals, such as doctors, lactation consultants, paediatricians, midwives, psychologists or clinic sisters, suggests Sandi.
Post-partum doulas are a particularly valuable and underutilised resource, notes Catherine. They’ll support you with breastfeeding, do a light clean, ensure there is food in the fridge and, most importantly, offer information and advice at a time when it’s daunting to be alone with the plethora of questions that crop up.
Keep in mind, urges Sandi, that your formal and informal networks offer not only a mechanism for coping with the logistics of motherhood, but also an opportunity to find support for the difficult, contradictory and ambivalent feelings that come with it.
Xanet is an award-winning journalist and Living and Loving’s digital editor. She has won numerous awards for her health and wellness articles and was a finalist for the Discovery Journalist of the Year in 2009 and again in 2011 for the Discovery Best Health Consumer Reporting and Feature Writing category. She is responsible for our online presence across social media channels and makes sure our moms have fresh and interesting articles to read every day.