I meant to write a post like this, about the post-partum period, after Ari hit three months old. I have it saved in my drafts still, and the first sentence is, “So long, fourth trimester!” But then I went back to work and whatever ground I had made with figuring out how to take care of my baby and still do other things was pretty much lost as I dealt with yet another new frontier: working motherhood.
Come to think of it, even though this post is going to be largely about the relative lack of support for new moms in our culture, I think there is even less support for women going through the transition of returning to work outside the home. The fact that we have to return to work so much earlier than women in many other countries is part of the general lack of support for new moms, but the transition itself is traumatic for many women. I’ll save that for another post.
Then I thought I should write this post in honor of Mother’s Day, but I’m a little late for that! Anyway…
Ari’s nanny is also studying to be a doula, and she left this book, Mothering the New Mother, at our house.
I picked it up and could hardly put it down! It reminded me of how hard the first few months of motherhood were and made me think about what I could have done, and what our society could have done, to make those months better. It also prompted me to mourn – for the umpteenth time – for all the women who have it so much harder than I did and do. I cried reading it, and would put it somewhere near the top of my list of books I would recommend to pregnant women.
The cover makes it look like a how-to guide, but it seemed to me more like a collection of research, resources, and personal stories. The gist of the book is that around the world and in more “traditional” cultures, there is a period of time after a woman gives birth when she is expected to do nothing but rest and bond with her baby, and that this is missing in American culture. The author also notes that this period of time is typically about 40 days or 6 weeks long, and she suggests that we should think of the “post-partum” period as lasting at least 6 weeks. (I know women here who went back to work full time at 3 weeks, or 5 weeks!)
The book also goes into how the transition to motherhood is often ritualized and celebrated in other cultures, and we don’t have ceremonies and rituals for those early weeks. When we get married, we have traditional ceremonies we can choose to follow and a customary honeymoon period afterward, but not so much for welcoming a new baby.
Reading other women’s stories helped me remember and connect with how crazy I felt in the first days and weeks. I tried to go on pretty normally, but it was almost like an out-of-body experience sometimes. My head was crammed full of new emotions and worries and responsibilities, but I was also freaking out about how I didn’t have shirts that I could fit into that were appropriate for breastfeeding and I didn’t have anything to wear to the wedding we were traveling to when Ari was 9 days old that would fit me that I could breastfeed in, and I wanted to show my visiting family members around Portland, and I had to make a bunch of phone calls and arrangements for my maternity leave and “disability” insurance pay. And I went days without sleeping more than an hour or two at a time. I was kind of in shock without realizing it. The first day after Ari’s birth, I wanted to show my parents where I worked (in another part of the hospital), but we weren’t allowed to take Ari outside of the floor we were on, so I made two separate trips to the floor where I work, one with each of my parents, while the other stayed behind with Ari. Then I walked around my WORKPLACE in pajamas (because I was a patient, after all!), intermittently drenched in sweat from hot flashes, feeling weak and light-headed, not remembering any of my coworkers’ names. One coworker saw me and looked at my belly and said, “He’ll be here soon!” and I blubbered, “No, I just had him!” and she looked SO confused. I was in crazy town. I walked, wearing Ari, to his first pediatric appointment. What on earth was I thinking? We went out to our favorite breakfast place when he was five days old and the owner said, “five days?!? What are you doing?” Then she gave me a nice, graphic little description of what she was doing at five days post-partum, and how overwhelmed and terrified she felt. I appreciated the congratulations of how well I seemed to be doing, but I was also extremely grateful she told me about her own experience, because inside I was going, “Yes! That’s how I feel, too! I feel like sitting in a heap and crying!” And it gave me permission to feel that more.
Maybe it’s not just our culture…maybe it’s ME. Hmmm…
I got mastitis when I wanted to spend a day driving around going to IKEA and running errands during the first week. Another day, we were out shopping and I started to absolutely panic – what was I doing with my newborn baby out in all these shops, being cooed over by all these (very nice) strangers? We should be home, cuddling in bed! I just sat there, trying to breathe, but not wanting to cut the outing short.
My visiting family members were wonderful. None of them seemed to think I should be out doing these things; that was all me. They cooked and cleaned and held Ari late at night and early in the morning so I could sleep. Actually, they repeatedly told me to take naps when I was trying to keep up with my to-do lists and Ari’s eating and pooping log (er, chart?). I’m really glad I had those family members there, especially since A. only got three days off of work (small companies don’t have to follow FMLA), and those were pretty much used up in the hospital.
I’m also actually glad we made the trip to Canada for the wedding when Ari was 9 days old. I wouldn’t recommend that sort of thing to other new moms, but I had my husband insisting that I pump every two hours during the car trip, whether or not I thought the truckers could see me, and we got to stay in a beautiful hotel room that was much cleaner and more peaceful than our house, and my computer wasn’t there, and being in Canada meant I couldn’t use my cell phone. It was exactly what I needed! That was also when I started letting Ari sleep in the bed with us and I slept FOUR HOURS IN A ROW, nursed him in bed, then slept ANOTHER FOUR HOURS and felt miraculously refreshed in the morning.
My hardest day as a new mom was at day 8, I think, when the relatives had left and I was on my own and I got mastitis and had this sudden onset of chills and fever and I was in my bed with Ari and could not even sit up. I had no idea how I was going to change his diaper, or feed him, or get myself to a health care provider. I called A. and he couldn’t come home. I called the clinic where I had my prenatal care and sobbed on the phone when the receptionist said they couldn’t see me and that I had to call my primary care provider and I didn’t even know who that was. I started googling (on my phone) to see if there was such a thing as emergency post-partum doulas. I got some help and things worked out that day, but I was a wreck!
I can definitely also take the perspective that demanding that women stay home in bed for six weeks or however long is patriarchal and oppressive, or that getting out even just to walk around the block as soon as possible helps ward of post-partum depression (does it? I don’t even know). But here is an interesting article about this sort of thing and how first-generation immigrants to this country may have some health advantages because of their post-partum traditions.
In any case, I want to make some recommendations for the pregnant women out there! When I was pregnant, I spent a lot of time thinking about how I would take care of my baby but not nearly enough time thinking about how I would take care of myself after the birth.
So, basically my recommendation is this: Think about how you will take care of yourself – and help other people take care of you – after the birth.
Some suggestions for how to do this:
- Decide who will be around the first few days and where they will be staying
- Some people talk about setting time limits for how long visitors can stay, but we had very respectful visitors and this wasn’t a big deal. I wouldn’t have been able to do it, anyway!
- Get organized BEFORE you have a new baby! (Easier said than done, I know.) Write down your basic housekeeping routines, rules about laundry or whatever, when garbage and recycling days are and how recyclables are sorted, and so on to make it easier for people to help out.
- Print out your favorite recipes so you don’t have to make those decisions and search for them if people want to cook for you.
- Have things on your gift registry for the people who want to buy gifts after the baby is born. Just answering questions about what you want or need for a gift can be overwhelming in the early days.
- Figure out everything there is to figure out about getting approved for maternity leave before you start your maternity leave! If there are things that have to happen after the birth, like submitting a proof of birth or whatever, make a simple list of those things with any phone or fax numbers or addresses you will need. You don’t want to be tracking things down when you have a new baby in your arms.
- Everyone says it, but seriously – prepare and freeze some food ahead of time. Buy prepackaged snacks. Make eating easy.
There are lot more lists out there, with a lot more ideas for pampering yourself. Don’t get overwhelmed, though, and keep your focus on the basics – eliminating anything with the slightest potential to stress you out. I really didn’t need any frozen witch hazel pads, for example, but comfortable clothes, nursing pads (I liked the cotton, reusable ones best), lanolin ointment (I’ve heard coconut oil is good too), nursing bras, and shirts with easy access for nursing were essential.
Most importantly, expect to be thrown for a loop and not even know who you are at first, know that you WILL gradually recognize yourself again (I’ve heard this described really well by someone with a kid older than Ari – this takes TIME), and know that you’re not alone.