A hangry mom is not a happy mom

Leave it to becoming a mother to teach you how to let go of any perfectionism or OCD you might have. Now, I am by no means a perfectionist nor do I have OCD, you would know this if you came over right now, but I do have some weird quirks. One of which is when and how I consume food. Eating, to me, is not something I do because I need energy and nutrition, it’s a spiritual ritual that reminds me why life is worth living.

Okay I’m mostly kidding, but seriously guys, I love to eat and I am really particular about how it takes place. Ask my husband – if we’re going to watch a movie and we gather snacks to eat during the it, I will not allow the snacks to be eaten until the movie has started. Opening credits must be rolling before we dig in. Why? I don’t know, I think it’s an unfounded fear in the snacks running out before the movie is over, and lets be honest, I am watching the movie as an excuse to eat those snacks. I also rarely eat on the go. I will keep my bagel neatly wrapped in its foil until I can eat it while sitting down and sipping my now-lukewarm coffee.

All that is fine until you become a mom and realize that eating while sitting down is actually a luxury that is taken for granted by anyone who doesn’t have children. And recently, I’ve had some hangry outbursts at home. I honestly didn’t realize that I could get hangry, probably because I am almost always eating something (see above love for food). But the combination of my food quirk and motherhood is a perfect storm of hangriness. You could say “well Sharon, your baby is eating solids now, why not put him in his high chair and eat with him” and that would sound like a really great idea until you meet my kid. The moment he realizes he is buckled into anything and unable to move freely, he will scream and cry like he’s being carted off to solitary confinement for a year. If he’s unbuckled, well, this happens:

 
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But today I had a breakthrough. I ate my lunch while sitting on the floor and playing with Miles. It wasn’t perfect, he wanted to taste some of it and got a little on the couch but there are have been worse things on our couch than lentils. It wasn’t relaxing, per se. But it was generally pleasant. It seems like such a small thing – realizing I can enjoy my meal while not sitting at the table relaxing over a book and pondering life’s unanswered questions, but to me it was a breakthrough moment and I was such a better mom for it. Today, Miles went down for his nap a little later than usual. If I had chosen to wait until he was asleep for my perfect meal experience, I would have been entering hangry territory and would not have been the mom I want to be.

Sometimes we need to let go of our expectations and just let life happen. Today I had to let go of a peaceful meal. But peace is something we can choose to have, no matter the circumstances surrounding us. My decision to eat in a less than perfect setting was ultimately a decision to be a more peaceful mom, and thus a better mom. It’s a beautiful thing when you realize that sometimes sacrificing what you want can actually make you happier.

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We all deserve to nurse to our babies

(*Note: this post was written months ago while I was still working, when more pumping sessions we’re relevant to my lifestyle. Fortunately that has changed, but the insight I got during that time is still very relevant to both myself, and the cows).

It’s 4am and the white noise machine barely covers the mechanical hum drum of my breast pump. I’m sitting on the couch trying not to disturb my husband or sleeping baby. It’s strange, choosing to be awake at this time of night when sleep is a rare luxury these days, but since I’ve returned to work, I want to make sure Miles has a good supply of milk in the freezer for the days I’m not here to nurse him.

My nipples are sore from being tugged on by a machine in the middle of the night and as I watch my milk drip one tiny drop at a time, hoping to get at least 5 ounces this time, the only thing that is keeping me going is the love I have for that tiny little human I created. If it weren’t for him, Lord knows I would be face down, drooling puddles on my pillow (now that I can finally sleep on my stomach again!).

The interesting thing is, it really is literally love that keeps me going.. Oxytocin, also known as the “love hormone” is what helps us mammals to lactate. Many working mothers who pump bring pictures and videos or even a onesie that smells like their baby, to help them lactate while pumping at work. That’s because it’s hard to get oxytocin flowing when you’re in a cold room, with your co-workers voices echoing down the hall, and your baby nowhere in sight. While breastfeeding, you have your little one right there helping those hormones flow – skin to skin contact, hearing him cry and whine out of hunger, watching him work for the right latch – all of these things are biology on our side. Hum drums and co-workers and cold closets are not. But one thing we bring with us into that pumping closet is our love for our babies, so one way or another, we get the milk flowing.

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We’re not the only ones who produce milk, as I’m sure you’re aware. Every mammal does. And just like us, oxytocin is essential to milk let down for them too. Farmers know this. That’s why it’s good cow-milking practice to stimulate the teat for a few minutes before the milking process. The stimulation increase oxytocin. There’s a stimulate teat setting on my pump, too.

But the big difference between my pump and the cow’s pump is that I willingly hooked myself up to this machine. I am choosing to sacrifice time, sleep, and comfort for my baby. Cows (and goats and sheep) don’t get to take their babies’ used blanket to the pumping room with them while scrolling through last night’s impromptu photo shoot on their iPhone. In fact, their babies are torn away from that just days after their birth, usually for humans to consume as meat.

Cows are extremely emotional beings. Their love and dedication for their babies is not far from mirroring the love we have for our own. There have even been reports of mama cows hiding their offspring from farmers, knowing from experience that if they’re caught, they’ll never see them again. Cows who have been separated and later reunited with their babies can be seen very vocally celebrating the reunion.

But these other mammals – because of their lack of voices and thumbs – have their babies torn away from them and are forced to pump milk so we can haphazardly use it in our cereal, coffee and feed it to our own babies without even thinking twice about its source or the turmoil it may have caused that family unit. With an often misunderstood and vastly underestimated capacity for emotions, cows, sheep, goats and other milk producing farm animals have hormones just like ours that cause attachment and protectiveness and rage. They have milk that flows when their babies are hungry and nipples that need stimulating when their babies are not nearby, just like us.

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As a decade long vegetarian, breastfeeding my own baby has forced me to take a long, hard look at the dairy industry and decide once and for all not to support an industry that makes it money by tearing babies away from milk-producing moms.

 

The Forgotten Trimester

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This photo was taken about 18 hours after I gave birth to our son. I was mostly naked save for an adult diaper and a wrap holding my belly in (not because I was trying to make it shrink or hide it, but because it was uncomfortable – painful really – to have all of that extra weight hanging off of my small frame). I hadn’t showered since being in labor. I was dirty, in pain, exhausted and so so happy. I had no idea what the days ahead had in store and I greatly underestimated the amount of time it would take to recover, both physically and emotionally.

Throughout pregnancy we have apps that track our progress as we count down to the due date. We learn how how big our baby is getting each week and what is happening to our body throughout those developments. There are monthly appointments where our physical and mental health is checked on by a professional. We take take classes and read books to prepare us for labor, birth and how to care for a newborn. And then it happens, finally, the baby arrives. We can put all that knowledge to use! But we often forget to research and learn about how to care for ourselves during the weeks following a birth. Those weeks can be some of the most physically and mentally draining, yet postpartum preparation and support is too often overlooked in our society today. Many women are met with some unpleasant surprises as they try to navigate those first weeks, often alone.

Physically I experienced a lot of pain and bleeding for much longer than I expected. I couldn’t walk without pain for almost four weeks. My stitches were a nightmare. Pooping was terrifying. My boobs were sore.

Emotionally I was experiencing a love so intense it made me cry everyday. After family had left and my husband returned to work, I was lonely. My days were filled with joy, frustration, adrenaline, and exhaustion all within moments of each other (which can be exhausting on its own).

While this isn’t everyone’s experience, it was mine, and I was totally unprepared for it.

Women’s needs vary greatly depending on the individual and her unique circumstances but there are a few universal postpartum needs: rest, emotional and physical support, and healthy food. As a society we need to better prepare pregnant moms for what life after baby’s arrival might truly look like. And we need to be more available to provide for these moms.

“Lying-in” is an old postpartum practice, often displayed in Renaissance art and literature, where a new mother would stay in bed for up to two months after giving birth while friends and family cared for her, brought gifts and food, and let her spend the time bonding with her new baby. Interestingly, the term is now defined as a woman in the process of giving birth. And unfortunately that seems to be the new norm. We need to return to a time when we extend our care for a new mom beyond just the labor (and we need to take better care of laboring moms too – but that’s a blog post for another day).

I’m not suggesting women stay in bed for two months, that sounds mostly awful and I can’t imagine anyone in present-day society enjoying that, even with Netflix and Kindles. But allowing for rest and bonding is crucial to a new mother’s mental and physical well-being.

 

If you know a new mom….

Spend some time with her. Let her know you’re not bothered by exposed nipples and dripping milk – she’s doing her best to figure out how to feed her baby. She’s probably worried about his weight gain or concerned with her latch, the last thing she needs is a person in her home too prude to be in the same room as a leaking boob.

When you enter her home, please, first ask her how she is doing and what she needs. Give her a hug before trying to hold the baby. Ask about her birth story, telling it over and over can be so healing for her spirit.

Bring her some food. But not just any food. Take the time to look up postpartum recipes that contribute to healing, nursing and recovery. Make her something fresh, and bring it to her on the couch. Ask if you can hold the baby while she eats. (Bonus tip: if the baby starts crying, don’t try to comfort him/her, give the baby back to mom and put her food in the oven to stay warm. Hearing her baby crying will make that meal unpleasant, and newborns really just need their mamas when they’re crying).

If something is messy, clean it. Don’t ask if she wants it clean, she’ll probably say no because she’s polite and doesn’t want someone else cleaning her bathroom. But odds are, seeing a sparkly clean bathroom later that day will bring to her a sense of relief.

 

Pregnant, first time moms….

Put the newborn book back on the shelf. You’ll have time to read it later, and more likely you won’t need it because none of us ever know what we’re doing anyway, no matter how many books we’ve read. Pick up a few books on postpartum healing. Find out what your body might be going through, try to anticipate the needs you might have based on your personality and specific situation. Talk to other moms about their experience, what they appreciated having, what they didn’t expect needing, and how long their recovery took.

If you are able to, consider hiring a postpartum doula. If you have a partner or family in town to help, the doula might be able to lead them in what to do for you. Or hire her for when your family leaves and your partner is back to work because you may be very grateful for an extra pair of hands around, even a month after giving birth.

Find local moms to spend time with. This will be crucial to your mental health. Look up local groups on Facebook and organize a get-together, or find a postpartum yoga class. Consider pelvic floor therapy a few months after giving birth, some simple exercises and massages can help your body heal and gain strength again, which can do wonders for your mental health as well.
Most importantly though, don’t be afraid to ask for what it is you need. There is someone in your life who wants to and is able to provide it for you. Find them, ask them, and don’t feel bad about it. You just gave life to a new human, it’s the least that we could do.

 

(One last note: I was very well cared for after giving birth. I had many loved ones come visit and bring meals and take care of me. My husband provided the best support and took care of me in every way possible. But despite all of that, I was not prepared for how much I would need that support. This is what was most difficult. And not every woman feels this way. Many women give birth and feel fairly back to normal soon after. Some take even longer than me to recover. Every single birth is different, and every single recovery period is different – which is exactly why we don’t know what to expect and must prepare ourselves for the endless possibilities).