Jessica Thomas is a former librarian who recently launched Ballast & Buoy where she offers postpartum doula services and bereavement support. In her new career as postpartum doula, she focuses on the overall well-being of new moms and their families. She offers guidance through all the decisions that parents must make for their newborns, and she ensures new moms are nourished, rested, and heard.
Jessica has also experienced the loss of a child. She knows firsthand what an isolating experience bereavement can be and provides compassionate support for parents dealing with pregnancy loss, stillbirth, and infant death.
In addition to her personal experiences as a mother, she’s trained in newborn care and pediatric CPR. She’s also a certified educator for the Gottman Institute’s Bringing Baby Home program.
Joyce Brown: What’s the inspiration behind Ballast & Buoy?
Jessica Thomas: Ballast & Buoy had a two part inspiration. My first son was stillborn in 2009 and my second son was born safely in 2011. Both births were incredibly difficult, in different ways, in the months that followed. I was suffering from depression, disorientation, and really not thriving. My friends and family were helpful and had the greatest intentions, but no one had enough time to be there for me as much as I needed. I wouldn't have felt comfortable telling anybody that I needed more help if anyone had truly asked me.
When I started to feel like librarianship wasn't going to be a lifetime career for me, I started thinking about what else I could do. My job as a librarian was helping people and that's an important aspect of my personality and goals for my life. I wanted to continue helping people, but I wanted to do it in a more personal one-on-one kind of way.
Since I had a recent experience of being a mother who needed a lot of help, I looked around at what services were available in greater Portland. I didn't see a significant group of people already doing this kind of work, so I decided to try it out and see what happens.
Joyce: What made you choose to be a postpartum doula?
Jessica: I don't have any medical background and I wasn't looking to make a leap into a medical capacity. I started to think about becoming a birth doula first, and I talked to people who were doing it. Then I started thinking about the postpartum gig, and I realized that this is my dream job. I get to do all my favorite things — organizing, cooking, listening to people’s stories — and people are so appreciative of my help. When I'm able to do things I love and it makes people's lives easier, it's the best combination of circumstances. It's very, very satisfying work.
Joyce: Was is difficult to leave your career as a librarian to launch Ballast & Buoy?
Jessica: I'd been a librarian for 15 years at the point that I decided to do this. I went into librarianship because I’m a person who is well suited for library work. I’m a firm believer in ‘a place for everything and everything in its place’. But I was also ready to do something a little less institutional and to get out on my own.
Next year my son will be in kindergarten from 9:00am to 3:00pm, so I wanted to position myself in a career that would allow me to be there for him when he gets home from school and be a more active participant in our family life. It really wasn’t a difficult decision to leave.
Joyce: What does a typical postpartum home visit looks like?
Jessica: This morning I was at a client's house and I helped clean up around the house, made a grocery list, and went shopping. I did a little food prep and stocked the fridge with things that they can grab and eat on the run. I changed diapers, swept the floor, got some laundry going, and emptied the dishwasher. I made sure that mom had time to take a shower.
I do the things that stress the parents out because they don’t have time or energy to get them done. If having a clean organized kitchen is important to mom, I’ll take care of it. If knowing that all the laundry is done helps them feel more prepared, I can do that. I find out what their pain points are and address them so they don't have to.
Joyce: Where did you find the bereavement support that you needed, and how can people find you for support?
Jessica: After we lost our first son, a friend of mine was familiar with a local support group. Someone else she knew was part of the group years before, so she contacted the facilitator. She got all the information, hand-delivered it to me, and told me to attend the next week to get help.
As I understand it, there are now a few organizations working to bring more comprehensive bereavement support to southern Maine. I hope they pull it off because a lot of people need this kind of help, and it’s hard to find.
At this point, for people to find me for bereavement support they have to be doing deep Googling on specific terms, or they have to know someone who knows about me. I'm listed in the Birth Roots Guide, although they don't have an index marker yet for bereavement, but they will in the next edition. I'm starting to become known among the medical community for the work that I do with bereavement, and I get some referrals that way.
Expectant parents aren't thinking about what they’ll need if something goes wrong. They're planning for the happy outcome. As they should be. It’s challenging to make people aware of my services without scaring them.
Joyce: What do your clients need help with the most?
Jessica: Food and validation. New moms and bereaved moms both need to be physically and emotionally nourished. We spend all of our time preparing for childbirth, preparing the nursery and taking the labor classes, and we don't spend as much time talking about what happens when you come home from the hospital. Most of us are doing it without a map. We're sleep deprived and it's a struggle. It's a crazy time in those first few weeks and it's hard to know whether what’s happening is to be expected, or whether you’ve entered the seventh circle of hell.
Joyce: Why do you think new moms feel so much stress and anxiety?
Jessica: I think it's because as a society we haven't talked much about the reality of early motherhood. Popular culture has sold us this myth that every new mom is radiant and that breastfeeding is easy and perfect. We’re led to believe that everything just falls into place. So, if you have a new baby and motherhood isn't a piece of cake, it's easy to feel like something's wrong with you.
We've got Pinterest taunting us with impossible ideals about how we're supposed to keep our home. If you're a professional photographer home on maternity leave, and you want to build an elaborate set for a photo shoot that makes it look like your baby is climbing a mountain, good for you. It’s wonderfully creative, but it's not real.
Celebrity magazines are obsessed with how our bodies should look after having a baby. They show us photos that emphasize the idea that two weeks after your baby is born you should be at Starbucks with a flat tummy. If they’re not fooling us with Photoshop then they’re lying by omission, leaving out the fact that stars have whole teams of people managing their households while they exercise for hours a day.
Nobody talks about breastfeeding either. For some people, it’s horrific. It shouldn't hurt if things are going well, but there's that trial by fire period at the beginning and it’s going to hurt like a motherfucker. You’ve just got to endure it and keep trying new techniques, but it's hard to get through.
With the rise of social media there are more people being more truthful about their experiences, and there are a couple of super new resources out there. One is The Longest Shortest Time podcast. It features moms speaking authentically about many aspects of parenthood. There are some great bloggers, too, my favorite one being Lynn Shattuck. She writes with disarming honesty about the highs and lows of parenting, and what an imperfect process it is. Bloggers and podcasters are starting to shed some light on some of the dark, dirty corners of sleep deprivation, hormonal fluctuations, and that ‘Oh, shit’ moment when things get real after the baby comes out.
There’s still a tendency for people to just put the happy moments on Facebook. There are now other places on the internet where moms are being more honest about the more challenging parts of being a new mom, and I hope that trend continues. I don't want to scare first time moms, but I think we're doing them a disservice to not discuss what the fourth trimester really looks like.
To learn more about Jessica and the services she offers visit Ballast & Buoy online or call (207) 558-BABY.