How is your heart today?
with Dr. Sarah Hardy Walsh
Those of us who grew up in the 1980s know that there was significant messaging about independence, doing it all ourselves, don’t ask for help. It has led to an increase in isolation and burn out, particularly among women and mothers. The conversation about the mental load has been exploding over the last couple of years. Recently, Dalhousie University researcher Dr. Michael Ungar (www.micheaelungar.com) has discovered that resilience does NOT exclusively come from within but from the strength of your external supports.
One woman who is dedicated to changing the culture of isolation and overwhelm and help new parents connect with their parenting intuition is Dr. Sarah Hardy Walsh, and she is my guest today. Dr. Sarah Hardy Walsh is a Naturopathic Doctor, International Board Certified Lactation Consultant and she has taken her long time practice out of the office and is making house calls – an old idea – new again. She is helping parents make meaningful connections, think about and determine their core values, integrate daily self-care practices into the early days of new parenthood, and teaching parents how to prevent making parenting decisions based in fear.
Dr. Sarah practices as a board certified lactation consultant and qualified naturopathic doctor in South Eastern New Brunswick. Through her community based drop-in sessions, group programs and private consultations, Dr. Sarah helps women cultivate resilience during their transition to motherhood – from pregnancy, through postpartum, breastfeeding, and beyond.
Her focus is on providing compassionate care, combined with reliable information and practices for supporting our connection with the wisdom within.
We spoke about the realities of new parenthood, particularly in a small community or rural area, and her work supporting new moms and babies. I began by asking her what prompted the change from office-based practice, to community-based consultations.
Dr. Sarah: For me, as a new mom myself, I came into new motherhood after years of practice as a health care provider and after years of supporting women and men of all ages when it comes to their health and even with that I still felt somewhat lost when it came to the mothering aspect of things. And so much information is accessible to new moms now online, that, it can become really overwhelming, in the middle of the night this is happening, I can hop online and ask Google what could this be? And there are so many possibilities and so many answers. And what I came to learn as a new mom was that not only are there so many possibilities and so many answers but they come from so many different sources. And so how do we know that those sources are reliable and what their backgrounds are? Because anyone can go online and call themselves an expert. And so, I think that was a really key time period for me. I had always been drawn to supporting moms and babies in general in my practice, but being in that place myself really dug me in a little bit further to my commitment to making that happen. And really learning how much I valued good quality information and helping women connect with that good quality information. But, also, helping to support them in reconnecting with themselves. Because, for so long, I was there too, looking outside of myself for answers of what could be going on here? And not really knowing which of those answers was the right one for me. And so I had to learn how to connect with my own intuition and that own inner wisdom so that I could gather all of the information and then go in and say, “what of this is important for me?”
April: What are my values?
Dr. Sarah: And so that really evolved into shifting my practice more toward helping moms and babies and in time I learned how much more need there was for additional breastfeeding support for moms and babies and so that started me down the road of becoming a lactation consultant as well to be able to bring that level of expertise to moms and babies. And then to take the practice out of the office, and like you say, to that kind of older practice model of going into homes. It’s just, it’s really in most cases what most new moms need, is for people to come to them for support people, whether it be family or friends or neighbours or co-workers or health care providers, to come to them. You know, historically, way back when, it was a community that rallied around a new mom so that she could focus on taking care of her new baby. Even though we have really easy access to information and connecting with people online, we’re really on our own.
April: Yeah, online support still doesn’t match with one-on-one connection.
Dr. Sarah: Yeah, it’s lovely when it comes to being able to access connection with people in general and being able to reach people who maybe are, like most New Brunswickers, outside of major urban areas, where there’s even less opportunity for them to connect. That online community definitely becomes important, but, making a really true human connection with somebody, even if it is online, but with a video, so that you can actually see and connect in that way, can be helpful as well. But, the in person contact and connecting with other moms in similar stages, and have similar questions, to know that you’re not in isolation and you’re not alone.
April: Absolutely. I remember when my first was born we were living in a metropolitan area and it still took me a long time to find a playgroup or a mom’s group that fit with my values and the way I wanted to parent. So I can only imagine, in a rural area, where you’re maybe one of two or three young families living in a place, how hard it would be to find people to connect with. It was almost like mom dating, trying to find…you know, you go out to coffee with a mom and you’re…oh, I don’t know if we really connect…and you’d have to try again.
Dr. Sarah: And that also too requires that a mom knows what her values are. A lot of times I’m not sure if there’s been opportunity for her to really connect with what’s meaningful to her when it comes to parenting. And that can make making decisions for your own health, for your baby’s health, for parenting and mothering really, really hard.
April: Why do you think that is?
Dr. Sarah: That’s a really, really good question. Maybe it goes back to, and I don’t even know where it started exactly, but I feel like there’s a propensity, somewhere along the way, that we’ve been taught to always look outside ourselves for answers. And to look to other people for what’s right and wrong as opposed to turning in and really understanding what that intuition and inner wisdom is saying.
April: I don’t know if I can even remember my own journey, because I know I did have it, with trying to listen…and I remember it specifically around sleep training. And reading the books, and feeling pressured by older family members in particular, who thought that my baby shouldn’t be waking up so many times in the night, and then also feeling pressure because I was going back to work, to make sure that my daughter knew how to sleep without me. Because, what will happen in daycare if she can’t have a nap? And I actually had this conversation with the mom of a fifteen-month old a couple of weeks ago because she is in this process right now and I said to her, like, if it doesn’t feel good, it’s okay, you DON’T HAVE TO DO THIS. But, I remember feeling so much pressure and actually sitting and watching my stopwatch, ‘okay, I’ll let her cry for three minutes, and then I’ll comfort, and then maybe I’ll try for four minutes…’ and it felt so awful. And I know people who have done it, and are very happy with their decision – it just wasn’t for me. And I think that was the point where I realized, ‘okay, I don’t need to follow the book.’
Dr. Sarah: Exactly, exactly. And in that way I think you really hit something there, April, that it’s not always what we know, or what we can figure out with our minds but how we FEEL about a process. I know that I had a similar experience to yours on the sleep side of things and I can remember hearing all of these recommendations from other moms and I can remember reading books, blogs, and all of the things, and then it just came to me. It was in one of those moments of sitting in the dark quiet with my son nursing in the rocking chair and realizing that none of what I was reading or what folks were saying FELT GOOD, you know? And so that was my kind of call to what are my instincts? What are my feelings telling me is the right thing for me?
April: And it’s something I think about a lot even as my kids get older, because those parenting decisions never go away. And they evolve over time. Generationally, maybe, we were just steered away from instinct toward information.
Dr. Sarah: There’s a lot of really valuable information that comes from science, especially when it’s good quality science. That’s some of the conversation that I have with some moms, is, yes, this piece of information comes from research, but when we dig into it a little bit further, you know, we can take a look at whether it is good quality and whether those results are actually meaningful. But, absolutely, there’s a lot of really fantastic information out there and one of my, I want to say, core values, as a practitioner, is helping families connect with that good information. And to make confident decisions. It is not my job as a health care provider to tell you what that decision is, but I want you to feel confident in that decision. If I can prevent a decision being made out of fear, or worry, or anxiety, or stress, or overwhelm, I’ve done my job.
April: Such a great point.
Dr. Sarah: It just comes down to ‘are you confident in that choice? Does it FEEL GOOD to you? Does it come from a place of certainty for you?’
April: What do you think would be the most common questions that you get from moms with decisions or skills or, what are they struggling with the hardest?
Dr. Sarah: I think that there’s an overarching theme of trying to figure it all out. Being up in our minds and trying to figure things out, no matter what the topic is. Trying to sort out what is true for me versus what everybody else tells me is true for me. It can come from a sleep perspective when it comes to supporting an infant’s sleep. It can come from a feeding perspective of, you know, ‘I set out and I really, really wanted to breastfeed and this is a really big struggle for me, and where do I go from here? So and so says give the baby formula, it’s going to be just easier. So and so says don’t give the baby formula, because you’ve got to raise this exclusively breastfed baby.’
April: YES, and there’s a lot of pressure and a lot of shame wrapped up in that sometimes.
Dr. Sarah: All of those conversations. All of those conversations. And I think, the term that comes to me right now is mom guilt. How can we get rid of that mom guilt? No matter what choices we are making for our kids, we’re making them in their best interest. So no matter what those decisions are, how do we get to a place of not feeling guilty for them, you know? If you’re really, really struggling with a certain way of mothering, there’s something to come out of that struggle that, you know, maybe part of that struggle is not for you.
April: It’s also a bit of a lesson in mindfulness, too?
Dr. Sarah: It really is.
April: And staying in tune. And I know we really have to cultivate that, I know I certainly had to cultivate that. Not only just as a mother but as a human being, as a woman, to not always be – because I am a very goal oriented person – I am always looking well into the future and I think motherhood kind of, it changes the perspective of your life and it changes how your day unfolds.
Dr. Sarah: It really does. And for me, it really changed my perspective of being in the present moment and going with the flow. Because I was very much a planner, and a doer, I still am to a lot of extent, but, what motherhood brought to me was, sometimes, the best-laid plans don’t work out.
April: You get very good at being very flexible.
Dr. Sarah: That flexibility and reduction in, I want to say, connection to certain specific outcomes. There’s so much unpredictability and so many factors that we don’t have control over in this journey of mothering, that, you know, being resilient, no matter how our journey unfolds is really a key factor.
April: How has your relationship with nature shaped this practice of yours as well?
Dr. Sarah: I think that, for me, a big part of it is taking some of those cues from nature and her cycles and whether it’s a daily cycle of, you know, being awake and productive and shifting into rest and reflection; to seasonal cycles, you know, we live in Canada where there are four season and that cold season that brings us indoors can be even more isolating sometimes for folks, and if we are in a place of always being propelled by doing, and keeping up, that a season that is asking us to be quiet, and to rest and go inward, can feel really hard.
April: Yes, I can relate to that.
Dr. Sarah: And sometimes when it comes to that connection with nature sometimes it’s just even the simplicity of a tree. I talk with a lot of women about grounding and really settling into their feet and on to the earth. You know, just like trees do, they grow those roots deep and wide, so that no matter what storm propels them, they are able to maintain their stability. And it’s the same for us, if we don’t have some kind of practice of being right here right now and feeling solid in our connection with the earth, sometimes life throws us things that just feels like they’re going to knock us right over.
April: So you’re doing breastfeeding support at several locations throughout greater Moncton or do you just have…?
Dr. Sarah: So I have from a group support perspective, I do a weekly drop in breastfeeding and mothering support. And, I call it breastfeeding and mothering support because I know there are breastfeeding moms that need that extra support with breastfeeding but I don’t want it to come to the exclusion of moms who are making choices or there is necessity for them to not be breastfeeding for some reason. Because, no matter how you are feeding your baby there are still lots of questions and concerns and challenges that come up, particularly in that first year of a baby’s life, so, that group gathering is once a week in Moncton in the North End right now at Close to the Heart (http://closetotheheart.shop). And then, the other group programs that I’m offering in the community, and I’ve been out here to Sackville a couple of times for sessions and some sessions in the Moncton area, as well, focused around solid food introduction. The when and the how and all of that.
April: That’s always a HUGE question as well.
Dr. Sarah: More recently I’ve been doing some sessions on infant sleep, a big focus there is on helping parents understand what’s “normal” because I think we come from a culture and from an expectation around how our babies should be sleeping and it doesn’t always match up with their biology and their development.
April: And that whole terminology around “good babies”.
Dr. Sarah: Yeah! That’s one thing that really stood out to me as a new mom. The question that came was, ‘is he a good baby, does he sleep well?’. Like how he slept was part of his inherent goodness. And I think that folks really still hear that.
April: Absolutely, and I had two children; my first was a dream, and the second one, as often happens, knocked me on my bum. And that question came so often.
Dr. Sarah: Those sessions, like I said, are really about helping parents understand the development of infant sleep and what’s normal.
April: And regression! Regressions terrify parents.
Dr. Sarah: THEY DO. And the terminology around regression drives me crazy, but I understand why it is used. Because it does really feel like sleep is going backwards. Or the amount and the ease of getting babies to sleep feels like it are going backwards. BUT, it is always connected to huge leaps forward in development. So that’s definitely a big part of the conversation. And when it comes to infant sleep and those sessions, part of my goal is to shift the focus from ‘how do I change my baby’s sleep?’ because in most cases it is a normal part of their development, to, ‘how do I support myself as a parent to feel healthy to feel energized despite how my infant is sleeping?’
April: What would be your best advice in that case? As someone who definitely did not prioritize her own self care, when my babies were little, I wish that I had taken more time to really look after my own well-being, what would be your biggest pieces of advice for moms who are really trying to ground themselves but also feel like their lives are, maybe, outside of their control?
Dr. Sarah: It’s really finding and connecting with simple practices that you can feel like you can integrate a little every day. A little bit every day adds up. When we think about taking care of ourselves, often times our minds leap to a spa day – and that means being away from a baby, which, in most cases is impossible. Or, even to get out for an hour-long massage, or a yoga class in a studio might be not possible. It might be too much. And that’s okay. It might shift to some slow, deep breathing while you’re rocking and nursing a baby. Just shifting back to that present moment. It might be just taking a few moments to think of really feel into some things that you’re grateful for, right in that moment or in the course of your day. So those little things, they really, really, start to add up. But, if you’re feeling really depleted, reaching out and asking for help. I talk with women a LOT about their human resources. Who are those people who can come and make you a healthy meal, or pick up a few groceries, or hold a baby while you take a shower – all of those types of things. If you’re needing some extra support and a lift with regard to, I want to say, building back up after some of the depletion of early mothering, to visit a qualified naturopathic doctor in your area is a fantastic idea if resources allow. Knowing too that here in New Brunswick that naturopathic medicine isn’t a regulated health profession so if that’s something that you’re exploring to make sure that you’re connecting with the right people who are going to support you in the needs that you have. Who are those human resources that can really help to support you?
April: And that’s really hard, that’s a hard ask, I actually felt tightness in my chest when you said ‘ask for help’ because we are conditioned to believe, that we can do it alone.
Dr. Sarah: That we can do it all. We come from a generation, and I expect that it’s probably somewhat similar for those that are following us, that independence – there was a lot of value placed on independence and doing it all yourself. That’s exhausting! I was never taught how to ask for help. Or that it was okay to ask for help. So it can feel really hard.
April: It’s interesting that it’s a skill that you would even need to be taught!
Dr. Sarah: Yes! Or just shown that it’s normal, that it’s normal and a healthy part of life. As a mom for me, knowing that my son is learning from my own actions, that’s how it became even more important for me to learn how to ask for help when I needed it, because then he could see, ‘oh, well mom asks for help, so that must be what you’re supposed to do.’ We can shift that – it’s hard – but we can shift that perspective for the coming generations. And I knew as a new mom that I wasn’t going to ask for help, so my husband and I sat down towards the end of my pregnancy and we thought, you know, what can we do to make sure that everyone who comes in to visit is helping in some way, without us having to ask. And so we made a list. We made a list of helpful things around the house then we stuck it to the fridge and we had a little sign on our front door and part of that sign said, ‘welcome, we’re glad you’re here to visit, please do one thing off of the list on the fridge while you’re here.’
April: I love that idea so much and I wish – I had several visitors, you know, who came and expected tea and sweets and I remember again, it being so…I was so depleted at the end of it. And by the time my third baby came along I got a lot smarter. I had girlfriends who brought my favourite foods, and they always came with snacks. If there’s one cultural shift I wish for, is that anyone, like you said, who comes to visit a new mom and a new baby, immediately throws a load of laundry in, or holds the baby so mom can have a shower. A SHOWER! THE HOLY GRAIL OF SELF CARE is a hot shower!
Dr. Sarah: It’s so funny that you say that because that was the one thing I promised myself as a new mom is that I would have a shower every single day and so if that meant that my infant son was sitting in his bouncy chair and I had the hairdryer going to keep him calm from the white noise while I was in the shower, that’s what I did. I had a couple of people say, ‘oh, do you shower with your baby, I’ve heard that some people do that?’ and I’m like, ‘nope, that’s MY time.’ But even for listeners who know new moms, to know that they might not ask for help, and that it’s okay for you to not only offer it, but just do it.
April: It’s a gift. It’s a real gift to be offered help without having to ask for it. Because it is SO HARD to ask for.
Dr. Sarah: It can be in how you ask too, calling ahead and saying ‘CAN I bring something with me?’ is different from calling ahead and saying, ‘I’m going to bring you a meal, what would you like?’
April: YES! Language is important because if someone said that, ‘would you like me to bring something…’, ‘oh, no I’m good, I’m good, I’m fine.’ But yeah, that language of ‘I will bring you coffee, I will bring you…’
Dr. Sarah: ‘what do you need right now?’
April: ‘What is your favourite breakfast cereal? What hot meal do you like?’ It’s also community building.
Dr. Sarah: It really is.
April: What are the biggest lessons you’ve learned out of this? What have you really seen as a culture of new moms in small and rural areas, what are you seeing that is surprising to you? Or what are you observing that do you see is the biggest place where we can improve as a community?
Dr. Sarah: It’s not something that’s unique to the area but is overall, sort of an over arching theme with regard to a shift I would really love to see, is, really, as communities rallying around new moms and babies and supporting moms more in general. So much of the focus when a new baby arrives is on the baby. You know, nobody’s really asking moms often enough, ‘how are YOU? What do YOU need?’ How things would shift for maternal health, for infant health if we shifted more of our focus to trusting that that mom is looking after that baby and that baby’s okay, and asking HER more about how she is and how we can support her to do that work of mothering.
April: Those are pretty profound words, really. So for anyone who knows a new mom, call her up right now, ask her how she’s doing!
Dr. Sarah: And REALLY how she’s doing. Because her first answer might be…I’m good. But REALLY how she’s doing. One of the questions that’s gotten me quite deeply before myself is ‘how’s your heart today?’
Dr. Sarah: Now just ‘how are you’, but ‘how’s your heart today’? Because that shifts that focus inward.
April: YES! Gets you out of your head! Yes, that’s a very profound statement, ‘how is your heart today?’ I love that! We are at the beginning of a cultural shift, Sarah, right now, today, in this studio!
Dr. Sarah: Amazing! Amazing!
I think asking how’s your heart today is a great conversation starter at the kitchen table, too, regardless of how old your kids are!
Building community and shifting maternal culture is a topic I feel so passionate about, I could talk about it all day long! A huge thank you to Dr. Sarah for joining me today. Consultations with Dr. Sarah Hardy Walsh are available virtually or via house call in the Greater Moncton, Sackville & Shediac areas. Connect with Dr. Sarah online at www.sarahhardywalsh.com. Find more resources and show notes at podcast.anointment.ca. Please subscribe to Ripple Effect wherever you enjoy your media. You can find Ripple Effect on iTunes, Google Play, Deezer, Stitcher, and Spotify. I’m your host April MacKinnon, join us again for future episodes, it’s been such a pleasure being with you today.
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