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What to expect AFTER you've finished expecting

Emma Greguska

Giving birth is one of the most universal yet life-changing experiences, and every culture deals with it differently.

In the United States, rates of postpartum depression in women have been shown to be as high as 1 in 5; 60 percent of mothers do not breastfeed as long as they intend to; and it is the only country among 41 nations that does not mandate any paid leave for new parents.

Jennie Bever thought perhaps we could do better. Last year, the mother of three and assistant research professor in the College of Nursing and Health Innovation at Arizona State University founded 4th Trimester Arizona, a nonprofit organization that provides community support for parents both during pregnancy and through the first months and years after a baby is born.

This Saturday, 4th Trimester Arizona will hold its inaugural conference at Mesa’s i.d.e.a. Museum, offering classes and workshops on topics such as conscious parenting, finance, postpartum depression and anxiety, sex and intimacy after baby, and changing identity.

“It’s time for a revolution in how we see ourselves and each other as parents,” Bever said. “4th Trimester Arizona was founded to support all parents, to be real about the challenges we face, talk about the stuff that never gets talked about and connect the village to support each other.”

The conference will also feature a “Truth Booth,” where parents can share their lived experiences of the postpartum period. Bever will be using the stories collected as research to inform intervention strategies.

“What are their challenges? What do they need support with?” she asked. “We can come up with all these interventions but if we’re not actually asking them what’s going on, we’re not creating the right interventions.”

In addition to workshops, revitalization opportunities such as yoga, massage, sound healing and dance will be available, and Teri Pipe, dean of the College of Nursing and Health Innovation and founding director of the Center for Mindfulness, Compassion and Resilience, will open the conference with a meditation session entitled "Loving Kindness for Self and Others."

ASU Now chatted with Bever ahead of the event to learn more about the fourth trimester — both the organization and the concept.

Question: What exactly is the “fourth trimester”?

Answer: There are three trimesters of pregnancy, and each trimester is three months. As a species, it’s believed that human babies are born before they’re ready to survive well in the world. Most mammals are born ready to walk around. Our babies are born very immature. So those first three months after you have a baby, you’re essentially in the fourth trimester, where the baby needs you all the time. That can be very demanding just physically but also during that time, moms are becoming moms, and it’s a dramatic transition, physically, mentally and emotionally. They go through a kind of breaking up with themselves. The person they were before, they’re never going to be again. And that can be pretty jarring.

I think a lot of people feel like having a new baby is like getting a new car; it’ll just fit right into your life, and everything will be great. But when you actually have one, you realize what an enormous undertaking it is to raise a human being. I think the fourth trimester is when you start realizing that, and that’s, a lot of the time, what contributes to postpartum depression, because we’re just not prepared.

When you go on maternity leave, people act like you’re going on vacation. Our society doesn’t support families the way they need to be supported during that time. Throughout the rest of the world, other cultures have very specific, defined periods of time when others come help out after a baby is born. We don’t have that in the U.S.

bever family
ASU Assistant Research Professor Jennie Bever (left) and her family. Bever's organization 4th Trimester aims to help parents through the transition from pregnancy to parenting. Photo courtesy Jennie Bever

Q: What’s the story behind why you founded 4th Trimester Arizona?

A: I have a private practice in the community as a lactation consultant, and the longer I did that work, the more I kept noticing the same thing. I have four children, the youngest is 3, and he had just been born at the time, and I was starting to notice that with every baby, we kind of cocoon ourselves away from everyone for a time. We’re always kind of shocked by how dramatic the change is, by how much sleep we don’t get, etc.

I had moms in my office who were dealing with that but at the same time pushing down the emotions that come with it because they felt like they had to act like everything was wonderful. “I have a baby, so I don’t get to be upset that I don’t sleep, or that my nipples are torn up or that I’m bleeding from several orifices.” They feel like they have to be warriors. What shows up on social media is only pretty pictures and happy stuff, and that takes away from our experience as a person, to only be able to talk about the parts that are beautiful.

Then I found out about the Seven Sisters Program, and I was gifted the privilege of caring for three women after they gave birth, going to their homes, bringing meals and caring for them in some way. That made me realize that the fourth-trimester experience could be different. So 4th Trimester Arizona came out of that realization.

Q: What advice would you give to someone who is about to have a baby or who just had a baby?

A: Finding a tribe of other moms is really important. Having a place where you can be real is super important. Maybe it’s just one person who you can call and say, “Oh my God, the baby just puked on me and I need to take a shower but now the baby is screaming, I don’t think I can do this.” I feel like every day I have something to share, like, “Can you believe this is my life?” Whether my kid is having a tantrum and won’t get off the floor, or refuses to get dressed, or something else — you need someone you can share those things with that are not always pretty.

That’s my number one piece of advice: Find someone to share with. If you can set up yourself so you either have a plan for who’s going to care for you during that postpartum period, or if you’re already in it, set up a way for you and a friend to do that. Maybe just show up at each other’s house and sit on each other’s couches and talk. That mother-to-mother support is critical. It’s where all of our power as mothers comes from. When we’re all alone, we can start to feel like we’re doing it wrong because we don’t have anyone to relate to. But when we come together, suddenly we can come up with solutions or even just offer a shoulder to lean on.

Q: Why is it important as a society, even for those who choose not to have children, to care about the well-being of parents?

A: Moms, and even dads, who have less support often develop postpartum depression, and we know that postpartum depression results in children who are more disconnected and have more behavioral issues. So dealing with postpartum depression or making it less likely has huge repercussions for what our society looks like. All of that starts with the parents. We have all these interventions for children, which is great, but at the end of the day, the kids go home to parents. Almost all the time, moms who have new babies are really starved for connection, or they feel like they’re not doing it right, or they’re struggling half the time to feed themselves. So maybe if your neighbor just had a baby, walk them over something to eat. It’ll be so appreciated, to a level you don’t even know. And it goes a long way in building community, too.

The 4th Trimester Arizona Conference is sponsored by the College of Nursing and Health Innovation at ASU; Agave Pediatrics; i.d.e.a. Museum; Image Legends; RBInsurance group; and Arizona Breastfeeding Center.