The idea feels almost radical. To have in-home postpartum support freely available to everyone may sound like an unattainable dream – and yet, a small nonprofit in Santa Fe, New Mexico has made it happen. Many Mothers provides free in-home support to every local family, regardless of income level, following the birth or adoption of a new baby. I sat down for a chat with Executive Director Antoinette Villamil to find out more about their program.
Filling the gap
Many Mothers started in 1992 when its founder, Anne McCormick, was living in Santa Fe. She started to see a gap between families having babies and follow-up postpartum care. She saw that a lot of families didn’t have the kind of support we all need when we have a new baby – and she decided to do something about it. She started this program with the help of volunteers and since 1999 Many Mothers has been operating as a non-profit, running on grants and donations. Money is tight, but they make it work.
According to Antoinette they try to provide each family with 36 hours of free postpartum support when they have a baby from 0 to 6 months old. Every family living in Santa Fe qualifies for this support, regardless of socioeconomic status, race, or family structure.
Modern-day challenges, modern-day solutions
It’s not right, but it’s true: in the US there’s not much support after birth. You have a baby, you go home with your baby, and no one checks on you. You have one doctor’s visit at six weeks, they check on how you’re healing, and that’s it.
It’s no wonder so many mothers are struggling. The rates of postpartum depression and anxiety are through the roof. Official statistics say 1 in 7 moms experience postpartum depression, anxiety or other mood disorders, although some experts say the real figure may be closer to 1 in 3.
Antoinette openly talks about her own postpartum struggles: “I had just moved to a new place and my husband was working non-stop, and I felt very isolated and I became extremely depressed. It took me a long time to get out of it, and it was very difficult. But I think a lot of that depression stems from just feeling isolated.”
“I really believe that we’re not meant to be raising kids completely on our own, we are meant to be doing this in a community, in a village, with generations of women around, sharing all that wisdom – and we’re forced to do it alone in these Western cultures.”
Sometimes all it takes is somebody checking on you to see how you are. Someone coming to your home and making you a cup of tea, or going for a walk with you if you don’t want to go out with your baby on your own. Sitting at home alone with a baby can be very lonely and isolating. It’s a modern-day phenomenon: parenting in isolation is not what used to be the norm even a few decades ago.
Mothers need more support than they currently have, both for the sake of their own wellbeing and that of their children. “Our founder Anne McCormick believed that if the mother has time to nurture herself, she’s better prepared to nurture her child,” says Antoinette. “And I always think about this metaphor of a pitcher and glass: if the pitcher is empty, it’s not gonna be able to fill the glass. As mothers we have to keep ourselves filled, and it’s hard. When you’re caring for a baby, and you’re working, and you’re doing it all by yourself it’s easy to feel depleted. And we want to avoid that. There’s more and more pressure on us to do more and be everything that we can; and there’s no way that we can.”
Antoinette echoes my own thoughts when she talks about how unnatural it is to be alone with a baby: “I really believe that we’re not meant to be raising kids completely on our own, we are meant to be doing this in a community, in a village, with generations of women around, sharing all that wisdom – and we’re forced to do it alone in these Western cultures. And I think it’s so lonely and isolating, and it upsets me. We women as we get older we have so much knowledge and wisdom, and we want to share that.” This is exactly what the volunteers are doing, and it’s incredibly helpful.
Free support for everyone who needs it
When a new mom reaches out to Many Mothers – or is referred to them – the organisation meets with the family in order to get to know them as much as possible and assess what needs they have. Then the family is matched with a suitable volunteer who will support them.
The kind of support the volunteer provides depends on the needs of the family. It can be something as simple as the volunteer coming in and holding the baby so mom can sleep, or helping with the dishes, or straightening up the house a little bit, or just sitting with mom talking, validating the stresses and challenges that she’s experiencing.
For families that need more help, for example if a family is in need of social services, food or diapers, they are paired with a volunteer that has more of a background in that so they can help the family apply for services.
The 36 hours is generally one 3-hour visit a week for 12 weeks, within baby’s first six months; but the time can be flexible. Some mums need support during pregnancy, and Many Mothers tries to accommodate that. Antoinette mentions the story of a mom last year who had two children at home and she was expecting her third child. She had just moved to the area, her husband was still working out of state, and she had preeclampsia. She needed support while still pregnant and thankfully the volunteers were able to give her that support prenatally. Every family has individual needs. Sometimes there are families whose children are older but they still really need the support; and if there are volunteers available then they can help them as well.
“When there are volunteers who are willing to be there for a new mom, and the mom has the need, it’s a beautiful match.”
The program has been a huge success. “I run into people who were supported 20 years ago, and they still talk about their volunteer, how wonderful it was,” says Antoinette. “Sometimes the volunteers and the families start close relationships. We have a family, they get together with the volunteer each year for the holidays and spend time with them. Sometimes the family and the volunteer don’t necessarily connect, it’s more about the volunteer supporting the family, and less about making friendships.” There are occasional issues, but that’s why staff is there, so if there is a conflict with the family or with the volunteer they’re there to help them soothe that out.
You can start this program in your own community
If you’re intrigued by the concept of Many Mothers and you’d like to set up something similar in your own community, you can easily do that. Founder Anne McCormick wrote a guide on how to start your own volunteer maternal support program. These materials have already been given to about 30 non-profits across the US, and several have started very successful programs based on the model.
The Many Mothers website has a good amount of information about the background, but they also have a 60-page manual on how to set up your own program. They do a four-hour training for volunteers so there’s a volunteer manual, and all the applications for volunteers and families are also in the files. Antoinette says they’re happy to share all of that. “We just want this to succeed so more mums can feel they’re getting their needs met.”
If you’re interested you can send an email to Many Mothers, or a phone call, and they’ll be happy to help you. You’ll be given the guide, the paperwork, the applications; all you need to do is make a small donation to Many Mothers and they share the files with you on Google. It’s that simple.
Community-based postpartum support might just be the answer to the challenges of modern motherhood. The kind of support that doesn’t come with a price tag, that doesn’t discriminate, that’s available for every single mom. If the traditional ways of support, the extended family are no longer there, we need to find a new way. Many Mothers seems to have found just that; and I hope that communities around the world will follow their example.