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).