When I gave birth the first time my husband and I returned to our small third-floor walk up apartment alone. We had no idea what we were doing.
Thankfully he is a phenomenon, my partner in love and life beyond compare, at once incredibly caring, kind and strong. He has a way of not only balancing me but of not letting me get mired in the details enabling me to see the sun through the clouds. Somehow we got through those first few weeks—with all the uncertainty and amazement and stress and joy and laughter and mind-blowing fatigue—alone/together. And we did it twice more.
In his culture a woman is not allowed to do anything other than rest and care for herself and her child, pampered by an army of friends and relatives who convene with joy to share the task. When I say “not allowed” I don’t mean she is tied to the bed. There is no need to do so: she is surrounded by people cooking delicious food, the smells of which fill her home, others making sure the house is clean, and all contributing to an ambiance which is full of laughter and chatter, where she is never ever left to figure things out on her own, be it nursing or diapering or how to adjust to being a mother. Everything is natural and treated as part of life. They don’t read books about it, or discuss it online…they just do what women have been doing for thousands of years.
It is almost mandatory for friends to pay you a visit soon after the birth, sometimes even before you leave the hospital. This was a bit hard for me to handle. I was exhausted, elt fat and messy, and would never dream of imposing myself on someone else by visiting them and expecting them to act as hostess when they are in such a state. But then they arrived, with smiles and food and encouragement.
Silly me. I soon realized that they had no desire to impose, but to support. Indeed in most traditional cultures as well as in mine, although a few generations back, people supported one another throughout their lives. It takes a village wasn’t some cute catch phrase but instead was the way that people lived. Traditions gave structure to this, but beyond that hearts were open and poised to give when needed, as well as to receive when offered. We are often just as bad at giving as we are at receiving.
Within these cultures all of life is shared, from birth, through marriage, to death, with everything in between and whether you like it or not, with your family and your community. People care for one another, they cook and clean and ease the burden. They keep you company and sometimes just sit by your side. They are present, constantly. In many cultures a period of 30-40 days surrounds all major events during which the person affected is cared for by others. But it extends well beyond that and the support exists always, not just for the big events.
Lovely. How lovely. But beyond that I am absolutely convinced that it is the isolation that we have in our culture—which is only getting worse thanks to our embracing of “social” media and the digital world which links us to others virtually but leaves us holed up in our little pods all alone—that positions us from an early age to suffer from depression and a slew of other conditions.
How many women suffer post-partum depression and how simple it is to chalk it up to hormonal imbalances, to medicate and tell her the problem is in her body. Anyone who has given birth knows how overwhelming it can be, but imagine if you had people around you to care for you, to encourage and support, to make it so you can sleep and wash yourself, bond with your child and your spouse in an atmosphere which is at once nurturing and which makes the experience seem natural. I’ve never found studies but I am certain that post-partum depression is far lower in cultures where women are supported, families are supported.
Same goes for mourning. Forty days after the loss of a family member, in most of these societies, when the person suffering the loss is cared for. Not like the widows we read of, the books by famed authors who describe the isolation they felt, who worked through their loss by writing and by turning inward.
Being around others is, in itself, healing. This goes for everyone, young and old, weak and strong, male and female, well and sick. They remind us that life goes on, that there is beauty and joy even in the deepest of sorrows and keep us from getting lost in the quicksand which lies within.
As I write this I realize that it is not easy, this communality. Most of us, including me, live far from family, dependent on our small family units for all these things. Our relationships with friends and neighbors are often demarcated by boundaries and formalities. We even hesitate to impose our help or support on others, not wanting to bother them. We learn from an early age that we can only depend on ourselves, and often chose to brave our way through things alone rather than reach out to ask for help. How sad, really, because in the end it just isolates us more.
Tucked inside our little lives we are normally quite content, but when tragedy befalls us or illness or despair rears its ugly head unexpectedly we realize how very alone we are.
In my husband’s culture, as well as in all cultures where tradition held strong, things are changing. Like everywhere else, people are struggling, working harder and longer, moving away fromt their families and friends in search of new opportunities. Little by little this support network is eroded by this fabulous life we all wish to lead, when secretly so many of us dream of a simpler life, a more connected life, a real life.