I'm writing to you in my pajamas next to a fantastically chubby, snoring like a lawnmower, half-dressed three-month-old. Because these days, this is how we roll.
I've spent a lot of my career preparing families for this special period and just now I am going through it myself, for the third time. All of the heart-melting new baby moments, that flood of happy hormone oxytocin as breastfeeding starts to click into place, the exhaustion, the did-I-brush-my-teeth-this-morning, please-don't-make-me-laugh-too-hard-or-I'll-pee, and I-just-want-to-be-asleep-right-now moments are all now mine to enjoy for the next 18 months, because that is about how long I am a postpartum mom.
18 months, you say? Why yes, I DO say. According to Postpartum Support International, the postpartum period is defined as the first 18 months after a baby is born. Let me be clear: regardless of what kind of maternity leave your job offers, regardless of what your friends and family expect you to be able to do with a five-week-old, and no matter how many postpartum doctor's visits you get, you are considered a postpartum parent for a year and a half.
Once you give birth, I invite you to take a look in the mirror and introduce yourself.
Say, "Hi, postpartum me. Nice to meet you. New and improved, regular me will be back eventually, but right now I am postpartum me. I am not the same, I have given birth. I am now going through one of the great life changes as every part of my body, mind, and life adjusts to what has just happened. I may feel extra down or up, muddled, in love, exhausted, short-tempered, accomplished, or like a failure. I will recognize that feeling differently will be my new normal for a while. I will laugh in spite of myself. I will tenderly hold my baby and recognize that, no matter how many times I've given birth before, that I am a baby, too. I will treat myself kindly and with patience, and I will ask that those around me do the same."
Now that you know you may be a different human for longer than you thought, here are some things to help you, and your partner, have an awesome postpartum recovery.
PLAN FOR YOUR POSTPARTUM RECOVERY. Friends, I am deadly serious. Imagine trying to see to your usual daily workload with a newly broken leg: going to the bathroom, cooking, laundry, cleaning, stairs, driving, commuting, trying to even think clearly while in pain. Holding yourself to the same standard as ‘‘pre-broken leg you’’ would be ridiculous. You'd need help for sure. Now imagine that your broken leg needs to eat every two hours, probably with food that you make from another part of your body, has to have its diaper changed as often, spits up, demands your undivided attention, and does weird new things that you may or may not understand.
But if you know you're going to have a broken leg, you can line up all the support you need in advance and make your recovery pretty darn smooth. When people ask what they can do to help, LET THEM! Ask for them to bring you a meal, do a load of laundry, take your shopping list to the store with them along with some money, or ask them to come by and listen to you while you recover. Plan for it now. Thank me later.
Check out this comprehensive postpartum planning workbook here. I promise you, it is 20 bucks well-spent.
GO SLOW AND SAY ‘NO’. Sheesh girl, who are you trying to impress? You can’t feed a newborn any faster than their physiology will allow. You can’t get a full-night’s rest in less time. Your postpartum period is meant to be taken slowly, and trust me, that is a beautiful thing. As part of your planning, warn people that you are going to be "off-grid" for a while as you get to know your newborn and heal. Don’t apologize for not spending more time with people. Congratulate yourself for spending time with your baby. Saying "no" does a few good things. First, it sets a precedent for all other moms that it's okay to take time to recover, too. Second, it reinforces to you that right now you and baby come first. Which brings me to my next point:
MOM COMES FIRST. Mom comes first, even if baby is a close second. I get that your kid's needs cannot be ignored. Adding to that, what they usually need is you. But if that 'you' is not up to snuff, then you could argue that you are giving your baby less than they deserve. See what I did there? Taking care of yourself is taking care of your baby.
Just like on an airplane. Before takeoff, the flight attendants always say to take care of yourself before helping someone else, because you're useless to them if you've passed out due to lack of oxygen. Same deal with parenthood.
DAD/PARTNER NEEDS TO RECOVER, TOO. Though only one of you has squeezed out a small person, both of you have become parents. It would be unreasonable to assume that the only kind of recovery is a physical one (which, by the way, your partner will also probably need to some degree). Your entire life is about to change. Hearts, minds, homes, schedules and wallets have to open to accommodate this new little one, and that takes a beat. Be aware that partners are susceptible to postpartum depression and mood affect disorders as well. More on that below.
LOOK FOR THE HEALERS. In a sea of unreasonable expectations, handheld distractions, and unsolicited parenting advice, you will also find the quiet, loving presences who 'get it'. They understand what you are going through, they will bring a meal, they will listen and give good advice, they will fold laundry and put it away without being asked, they will crawl up onto your messy bed with you and listen as you process your birth experience. They may be healthcare providers like midwives or doctors who are in tune with your specific needs. They may be family members or friends. They may be the kind woman in the grocery line who asks how you are and you know she really wants to hear the answer, which is sometimes enough all by itself. These people are healers and they come in all kinds of ways. Identify them. Include them. Invite them into your life.
SET ASIDE SOME MONEY. For every week of your pregnancy put five bucks in a jar, if you can. Use that money on yourself during your recovery. Get your hair done, a pedicure, a massage, or best yet, hire a postpartum doula for a few hours. Postpartum doulas are like the fairy godmothers of new parenthood. Learn what self care means to you, and then do it.
KNOW WHAT YOUR INSURANCE COVERS. Nobody likes a big financial surprise. Get in touch with your insurance company and find out how many visits are covered for you and your baby, who the preferred providers are, what options you have for your birth (some insurances cover birth centers and home birth) and if other treatments are covered, like doula services, massage, acupuncture, chiropractic adjustments, and breastfeeding support. Check out this blog to learn more about insurance coverage during the postpartum period, and this blog to learn about getting reimbursed for out of pocket doula expenses.
GET BREASTFEEDING SUPPORT. The vast majority of mothers are able to breastfeed, but most of them need, at the very least, a little help. It is not unusual to need a lot of help. Visit with your doula, your lactation consultant (if you’re worried that something may be abnormal like inverted nipples or prior breast surgery), your midwife or obstetrician before your baby comes to ask how you can best prepare for breastfeeding. Bring your partner to this visit. Breastfeeding goals are way more likely to be achieved with a supportive partner. You can read about that here.
LEARN TO TAKE CARE OF YOUR LADY BUSINESS. Most likely, a human will exit your vagina. But whether baby comes that route or via a cesarean birth, you will still need to know about some aftercare. If you only remember one thing it is this: start doing kegels now. But some other things to learn about are: sitz baths, dermoplast, granny panties, frozen diapers, witch hazel, yoni steams, and calendula.
KNOW HOW TO RECOGNIZE A PROBLEM. According to Jodi Pawluski, a researcher cited in this Boston Globe article, “[birth is] one of the most significant biological events, I would say, you would have in your life." Sadly, suicide is the second leading cause of death in postpartum mothers during the year after birth. Hopefully this isn't something that comes up for you, but if you find yourself feeling any of the following things, please talk to your partner, provider, doula, friend, or family member until you get the help you need:
Feeling so down or anxious that you feel unable to perform daily tasks
Inability to sleep (not due to a crying baby)
Loss of interest in your baby
Persistent thoughts of harming yourself or baby
Loss of appetite or interest in normal activities
Feeling "off" for other reasons not listed here
Lots of these things come up from time to time, but when any of them stick around for more than a couple days, please, please ask for help. Click here for the Postpartum Support International "warmline," crisis text line, and suicide prevention line.
Okay friends, I’m still in my pajamas and my chubby three month-old is now a chubby six month-old, because that’s how long it takes me to do things now, and that’s okay.
You got this.