Slowing down before returning to work
On a busy September harvest day in 2012, our farm’s two employees drove in and out of the fields with totes. Meanwhile, my husband, Casey, and I were shut up in our farmhouse, curtains drawn, focused on a different project: the birth of our second child. Giving birth during the day with farm activity all around us was very different from the serene, quiet winter birth of our first child described in an August GFM article about pregnancy and farming.
Somehow, even though I remembered the loveliness of that first experience, we weren’t able to recreate the timing or serenity for this second birth, which ended up being more complicated and physically challenging. Finally, our daughter was born, and I began the work of healing from a hard birth during the busy late summer season of harvest. All the usual work was now complicated with the farm’s owners extra tired and going through the big life transition of adding a new child to the family.
I distinctly remember a tense meeting with our farm team just days after giving birth. While the team talked through some challenges, I gently shifted my weight around in my chair, trying to find a comfortable position on the inflatable donut I was using so I could sit at the kitchen table with the rest of the crew. This in the same room where I’d recently given birth. I sat in the same chair later that day as I did payroll.
Nicole Poburan takes her five-month-old son with her as she does her daily farm chores. She used the sled to pull her baby as well as buckets of feed for their pigs. She would usually also carry a bucket of water in her hand. “I had a prolapse during this time so if I was sore, I would scrap the carrying and just do an extra load with the sled,” she said. “Wearing him and lifting for too long wasn’t really an option.” Photo courtesy Nicole Poburan.
It was a rough postpartum period, and unnecessarily so. When I should have been focused on healing, resting, and bonding with our new baby, I instead found myself sucked back into the hard emotional and intellectual work of running a farm. There was no sense of a break at all, especially in a year when our farm was going through some stressful scaling up and diversifying.
Set yourself up for a good experience
Our story that summer is uniquely ours, but what is important are the lessons around properly preparing a farmer and a farm for birth, postpartum healing, and family changes. This article is the second in a two-part series about farmers and pregnancy, birth and postpartum healing — articles I hope will help other farmers approach these life-changing events in ways that are positive for themselves, their families, and their farms.
During my research, I connected with 60 farmers from around the world to learn from their experiences with giving birth and then healing before jumping back into farm work. From my own experience and others, it was clear that intentionality and basic planning were key to a positive experience for everyone.
The most important element (what we neglected to do with our second child) is for everyone to clear big physical, mental, and time space for the expectant farmer to give birth and heal properly afterward.
Preparing the farm for birth
Depending on the farm and the season, creating that space can take a lot of careful planning. One way farmers do this is by attempting to time the birth with a quiet or off-time of year. That was our strategy for our first child.
Brooke Bridges said that getting outside after having a baby was an essential part of her postpartum healing. “I waited awhile to really get out and moving,” she said, “but we had a few walkabouts in the garden and it was lovely getting to see the bounty that I had planted while I was very pregnant with my baby!” Photo courtesy Brooke Bridges.
In cases where a birth will line up with a busy season, or on an animal operation where there are daily chores year-round, a farmer will have to make clear plans with other people to ensure the necessary work gets done for both the farmer and their partner. Having a great team of employees can make this process smooth. Many farmers reported hiring an extra set of hands or a manager for the season they were pregnant. Be sure to write clear, specific written instructions and start training people in tasks well before the birth.
Employees aren’t the only solution. Tamara Baker-Johnson of Johnson Family Pastures in Wisconsin and her husband didn’t have employees when she was pregnant with their first child, but knew they’d need help around and after the birth. “We enlisted the help of neighbors and family,” she said. “We trained our helpers on the daily chores and leaned up our animal care routines in order to make the workload manageable.” Simplifying parts of the farm can be a big help for your helpers.
Other farmers decided to pause operations in other ways, such as not taking floral work for weddings for a month or two or taking a temporary break from a market.
In addition to careful planning on the farm, it’s also important to communicate with customers so they know there may be gaps in your usual offerings or communications.
Does farming help prepare for birth?
So, now that a farmer has prepared the farm for birth, perhaps they’re wondering if the farm work is helping prepare them for the birth experience. Farmers offered mixed perspectives.
Many farmers declared that nothing can really prepare you for birth. Fair enough. Others gave a more or less a similar response that birth is ultimately unpredictable and unknowable, yet, being a farmer helped prepare them for unpredictable and unknowable experiences. “As someone who has witnessed countless animals give birth, it allowed me to be open to all the possibilities that the birth experience could entail,” said Katrina McQuail of Meeting Place Organic Farm in Ontario. “Each species is unique and each time is unique. I knew it would be the same for me.”
Hannah Wittwer, who works at Shalom Farms in Virginia, also spoke of the positive ways her farming experience prepared her for birth. “Farming requires you to adapt, pivot and roll with the punches,” she said. “It’s a combination of persistence and planning, and flexibility and levity. I found the birth process to be the same way. Beyond that, I think I was more physically prepared for the birth experience because of the physical nature of my job.”
Tamara Baker-Johnson takes her six-month old daughter with her as she goes out to move broiler chickens. “Running strollers with the inflatable wheels handle really well on farm ground,” she said. Photo courtesy Tamara Baker-Johnson.
Many others also appreciated having good physical fitness going into birth. Brooke Bridges who works at Soul Fire Farm in New York and grows herbs for her own business, Brooke’s Botanicals, said her farm work helped prepare her for a very long labor. “Keeping my body moving while farming through my pregnancy really gave my body the strength it needed to push through it and come out the other side stronger and ready to be a mama.”
Farmers need postpartum rest
Oregon midwife Jen Holland also sees the physical nature of farming as positive preparation for the very active process of birth. When I asked her about big challenges for farmers, she was quick to answer: “postpartum rest!”
After the birth, Holland advises people to rest in bed for two weeks. “Farmers are busy, so that’s often just kind of laughed at,” she said. “I hear, ‘That’s cute, but we’re farmers so that’s not going to work for us.’” However, she says this rest time is critical for pelvic floor recovery, bonding with baby, preventing postpartum mood disorders, and building a milk supply.
Once a baby is in the world, people besides the birth parent can begin to help carry the weight and work too! Stacey Apple’s partner Alex wears their six-month old son Sebastian while washing greens. Photo courtesy Stacey Apple.
So, to reiterate, the planning and preparing the farm isn’t just to accommodate the time immediately around the birth — it’s also to provide time and space for the farmer to rest for quite a long period after the birth as well. This is time when the postpartum farmer should be lying down and resting — not doing payroll, watering starts or feeding animals (or washing dishes or making dinner).
Holland understands that staying in bed can be very hard for active farmers used to spending lots of time outside. So, she says it’s okay to be creative about finding places to rest — for example, spending time on a blanket under a tree or in a hammock on a porch. But the focus should be on lying down, resting, healing and bonding.
In addition to making sure the farm operations will be taken care of, it’s important to find help around the house with older children and with meal preparation. “I wish we had planned for more support when it came to household chores,” Tamara Baker-Johnson said. Her midwife suggested asking for help, but she balked. “At the time I equated rest with laziness.” She did all kinds of little household tasks with her baby in a sling. “Ultimately that proved to be counterproductive as it took me longer to recover both physically and mentally.”
Stacey Apple of Iron Ox Farm in Massachusetts advises expectant parents to set up a “meal train,” which is an organized list of people who volunteer to help bring meals. “We are so lucky to work in the food industry, and we got meals from farmers and chefs and family until our baby was two months. I can’t imagine surviving postpartum without that support.”
Websites such as Take Them a Meal (www.takethemameal.com) can help people schedule and coordinate.
When and how to get back to work
When and how farmers chose to (or had to) get back to work varied tremendously depending on the timing of their births in the season, the amount of farm help, and their own inclinations. Not surprisingly, most farmers reported starting back to work slowly with physically lighter tasks such as administrative or greenhouse work.
It’s important not to start full-time farm work too quickly even after that initial postpartum rest period is over. Nicole Poburan of 4 Acres Farm in Alberta stayed in bed with her baby for a full week. “I thought because I felt so good so quickly after that I could just jump back into farm life,” she said. “I was feeling great until week three. Then, I overdid it and separated my pubis and prolapsed.” This postpartum injury required her to return to bedrest for another eight weeks. She had to recruit more help than she expected to get their farm through goat kidding season.
Stacey Apple took six weeks completely off from work and then another six weeks to slowly transition back to work, beginning with seeding in the greenhouse. “It was actually a perfect balance of rest and then getting back into movement and life.”
Changing farm relationship
As farmers return to work, they may find that their relationship to the farm, the work, and employees or co-workers has changed. This was profound for me after the birth of my first child, as I stepped almost completely away from physical farm work for the first part of his life.
Katrina McQuail works in her greenhouse doing propagation work while wearing her month-old baby. “I wore them a lot when they were little and I was doing tasks that they could join me on safely,” she said. Photo courtesy Katrina McQuail.
Many farmers return more or less to their same workload but with new perspective and other responsibilities — for example, trying to balance time to nurse while working a full shift at market or finding childcare. Heidi Witmer of the LEAF Project Home Farm in Pennsylvania is still involved in the daily farm operations but had to find more balance after becoming a parent. The change in her relationship to the farm has been profound. “I love farming, and I sincerely enjoy working long hours on the farm,” she said. “I have had to pull back from that since becoming a mom and it has impacted my sense of self and identity.”
Seeking that new balance can create a feeling of stress in the farmer and their relationship with employees. “I still feel a nagging feeling that I’m never doing enough for the farm and my crew,” Stacey Apple said. “This is totally a self-created feeling, but I can’t help feeling that my crew is annoyed with me because I’m not there all the time.”
Katrina McQuail said that having a baby has fostered a more forgiving culture on her farm and with her crew. “I don’t expect as much of myself as when I didn’t have kids,” she said. “I am willing to admit I need help or can’t do something because of the timing, which would have been way harder for me pre-kids.”
Tory Shelley works at Featherbed Lane Farm in New York, and she said that she feels closer to her co-workers after having her daughter. “They know her and held her and helped me and watched me be raw,” she said about being pregnant and then postpartum while farming.
Working while sleep deprived
Heidi Witmer said that sleep deprivation was her biggest challenge during the postpartum period and first year — a nearly universal experience of new parents. “I know this sounds so cliché, but it is really hard to wrap your brain around the challenges of never getting enough rest for months on end and all the impacts of that,” she said. “For me, it looked like struggling with feeling down and more negative than is natural for me and feeling like my ability to organize myself and others was limited.”
Hannah Wittwer digs potatoes with her six-month old daughter. “It gets very hot and humid here, so I wasn’t able to work with her that often in the summer months, but I took any chance I could get!” she said. Photo courtesy Hannah Wittwer.
Interrupted sleep is a challenge that can affect both parents equally, meaning that partners may also share in the sleep deprivation as they go about their farm work and life tasks. Tamara Baker-Johnson said sleep deprivation made it hard for her partner to stay focused and efficient when doing farm work. “This is pretty dangerous and can lead to farm accidents,” she said. “We relied on our to-do lists, shared calendars, and alarms more than ever to keep us on track. In the end, our production wasn’t what we wanted during those baby years.”
Nicole Poburan, who also has older children, coped with sleep deprivation after her most recent birth by trying to fit in naps when she could. “Seriously, put a movie on for the older kids and try and sleep when the baby does,” she said. “Get rid of expectations and do the bare minimum to survive.”
Many farmers echoed this sentiment about getting through these early months of sleep deprivation in survival mode. Tory Shelley is a single parent to her daughter. “My baby didn’t start sleeping through the night until 14 months,” she said. “I am alone with her at night, so it was all me, all nursing, all night long. I did not do well at work. We made it through, but not gracefully.”
Other postpartum challenges
Sleep deprivation combined with hormones and changing life roles can lead to postpartum mood disorders, which many farmers reported. Turquoise Connelly of Global Native Farms in Ohio sought professional care during their postpartum period. “Managing new parenthood was just generally overwhelming,” they said. “Ultimately I consulted my doctor and was diagnosed with postpartum anxiety and depression.” A combination of medication and therapy helped tremendously. “The progress I’ve made shows everywhere in my life now.”
Hannah Wittwer also struggled with both emotional and physical challenges postpartum. “It took me way longer to feel ‘normal’ than I thought it would,” she said. “Postpartum hormones are the real deal.” She also developed diastasis recti (a larger than healthy gap in abdominal muscles, common after pregnancy and birth). “I don’t know if my body will ever quite feel the same or feel as ‘strong’ in the way that it did before.”
Many farmers had positive outcomes from physical therapy to address postpartum core body weaknesses or other pelvic floor challenges such as incontinence. Tory Shelley made physical recovery a priority. “I had a personal trainer via Zoom for a month before going back to work and did the exercises for 20 minutes three to four times a week, which was quite hard to do with a newborn,” she said. “I wanted to make sure that I was not going to injure myself when I went back to farming.”
Farmers who were nursing also had to consider how to balance going back to work with feeding their babies. Some farmers kept their young babies close by in the first few weeks or months of returning to work, fitting in nursing sessions around work. But working with a baby on a farm isn’t always possible in the long-term, so many farmers pumped in the hours they were apart, which presented its own difficulties at times.
Pumping at work felt ‘disruptive’ to Hannah Wittwer. “Finding a clean, private area on a busy farm was tough,” she said. For farms with workers who have recently had a baby, it’s really important to be aware of these new needs and provide logistical support as much as possible.
Finding childcare for new babies was surprisingly difficult for many farmers, and several said that they wished they’d spent more time planning for it during pregnancy. “I just thought it would magically work out and the baby could be with me all the time,” Stacey Apple said. “Realistically, it’s extremely hard to work efficiently with a baby.” She now has childcare five days a week, which has made “a huge difference.”
At some point, postpartum challenges simply evolve into parenting challenges. For more real-world ideas for approaching childcare and other unique aspects of parenting while farming, I recommend my February 2022 GFM article, “Strategies for balancing parenting and farm work.”
One consistent solution reported for every possible postpartum challenge is to remember to ask for help. Turquoise Connelly was just one of many farmers who strongly recommended asking for help in general with pregnancy and postpartum life, both from professionals and the community. “You can never have too many tools in your parent-farmer belt,” they said. “I promise you.”
Are you a farmer and a parent? Katie Kulla is looking for more farm families to help with a new book she’s writing about balancing (and enjoying!) farming and raising children. If you’d like to contribute your experiences or just get on the mailing list for updates about the book, visit Katie’s website www.KatieKulla.com and fill out the form for farm families.
Katie Kulla lives and farms with her family in Yamhill County, Oregon. You can find Katie at KatieKulla.com and on Instagram: @katiekulla.