The transition to motherhood is a beautiful time, and can also be very challenging. The truth is, most women in their childbearing years struggle at some point. Statistically, about 10-15% of women suffer from Postpartum Mood Disorders. Most women will experience the Baby Blues, which is very different from Postpartum Depression. The Baby Blues usually occur shortly after having the baby and can last several hours or weeks. It is more fleeting and less severe that postpartum depression, and many times women do not need formal treatment for it (though it is always helpful to seek support, regardless of where you might fall on the spectrum). You’ll never know how your Postpartum period will go (it may simply be an exhausting but joyful period), but the case stands for everyone that it is a major transition and change, regardless of if it’s your first child or your fifth child.
Here are various things you can do to best prepare yourself and your family for a smooth transition to the postpartum phase:
- Time off. Research indicates that countries with longer maternities leaves also have higher levels of women with correlate good maternal mental health. Though the paid parental time off in the United States is unfortunate, families often piecemeal as much time as they can get off by combining their work’s time off, FMLA, vacation days and sick days. If your partner gets paternity/spouse parental leave, even better. If this is not a possibility, some women who have worked at their companies for longer periods of time can find ways to negotiate going back part time in the beginning, or arranging for work from home days or other work flexibility. It never hurts to ask.
- You can never get too much (healthy) support. This is the time to draw upon your village. If you have a difficult time asking for help, this is a good time to begin challenging that. If it’s not possible to have your spouse take time off, think about the healthy supports in your life (parents, siblings, cousins, in laws, aunts/uncles, grandparents, stepparents, friends, neighbors, members of your religious community) who can offer support in different ways. Is there anyone who can be really proactive and step in? Even if there are healthy people in your support system who may not have a clue about infant care or postpartum recovery issues, they may be able to offer help in different ways (ie, transporting older children to school, delivering you a meal or coordinating a meal train, or just someone who can offer a sense of humor or a listening ear). Postpartum doulas can also be a wonderful resource.
- In a similar vein, think about the people with whom you need to set boundaries. Whether it’s the well meaning but nosy aunt, or on the more extreme end, an unstable or toxic relative, it’s always good to think about how you can draw boundaries with these individuals, especially if you know they may be present or visiting during the postpartum period. Is this a person who needs to have an agreed upon, clear time limit with their visits? Is this a person who may not be a healthy influence during the postpartum period with whom you need to keep your distance during that vulnerable time? Who can help you set and maintain these boundaries? How can you prepare to do this in a healthy and calm way that best serves you and your family?
- Know your history and potential vulnerabilities. If this is not your first pregnancy, have you had Postpartum depression or anxiety before? Are you vulnerable to depression or anxiety? Is there a history of these issues in your family? Do you tend to have a difficult time during the more hormonally laden times of your cycle (eg, phases of depression correlated with your period?). If you suspect you may be vulnerable to postpartum mood issues, talk about this with your OB/GYN or whomever is helping with your perinatal care. Even just having a list of therapists and psychiatrists who specialize in women’s mental health can be helpful, and your OB/GYN may also be able to provide you with Postpartum Support Groups in your area or online.
- You and your baby have to get to know each other. Even though your baby has been growing in your body for 9 months and you have been physically bonded, the truth is, it takes time to get to know this person. This baby will have her own temperament, quirks and personality, and it will take time to get to know her. It’s OK if you can’t predict this baby or even feel like the baby is a stranger. On top of all of the many dramatic growth related changes that babies experience, especially in the first year, you may feel like you know them one moment and then are baffled the next. This is normal.
- It’s OK if you don’t feel immediately “bonded” with the baby. So often the message in our culture seems to be that mothers must instantly feel flooded with joy and unconditional love for their baby. Though this is common, it’s also not uncommon to feel overwhelmed, numb, anxious or other difficult feelings when you first meet your baby. It usually is a powerful experience to hold the baby for the first time, but not for every mother. This is especially true if you’ve had a difficult birthing process, as your body is still running on adrenaline and is in survival mode. Sometimes it takes time to feel that bond with the baby, and that’s OK. Don’t put pressure on yourself to have to feel filled with nothing but joy and gratitude when you first hold your baby. This process evolves at a different pace for every mother and baby.
- Your body will be different after you give birth, and it will take time to recover. It may seem obvious that yes your body will be different after having just delivered a baby, but many first time mothers are usually surprised by their bodies. When you leave the hospital and for many weeks following, you will likely still need your maternity clothes. It takes time for your uterus to return to its normal size; if you think about it, it took 9 months for your body to change very dramatically. It’s an amazing process but also very taxing on the body, and it takes time for the body to go back to what you might be used to. It may have a few extra stretch marks and loose skin, testament to the process your body has just undergone in creating and maintaining a new life. If you’re nursing, you will definitely need to be mindful of not losing too much weight too quickly, as your body will need extra reserves to create and maintain your milk supply. If you choose not to nurse, it is also important to keep in mind that your body will recover, as that’s what it’s made to do, and the most important task is bonding with and raising your new infant. Bodies are resilient and they recover.
- If you have a C Section, it will take longer to recover and getting as much support as possible will be helpful in a quicker recovery.
- Emotional Reactions to Our Birth Experiences Vary. There are so many different ways a birth can go: they can be long, difficult and complicated, they can be straightforward and fairly quick, they can end in an emergency C section, or they can be anywhere in between. Even if your birth was fairly straightforward, the birth rarely plays out in the ways we have imagined. There’s usually some element of surprise in the mix. Make space and time to process your birth experience and reactions to it, and talk with your partner about it.
- Breastfeeding can be challenging. Though some babies have a perfect latch and some women are natural born breastfeeders, many women encounter a few bumps in the road regarding breastfeeding. It’s OK and it’s normal. First time mothers can be surprised at how it turns out to be harder than they envisioned. Be aware of your lactation support resources in your community (your OB/GYN or baby’s pediatrician can provide those for you). You can also find support through La Leche League: http://www.llli.org/ or postpartum doulas. Breastfeeding takes patience and time as your body adjusts to nursing, and as you and your baby continue to get to know one and other.
- The Postpartum Period can be challenging for overachievers and perfectionists. Though overachievers and perfectionists have many wonderful skills that can augment their parenting, it’s hard for these personality types to adjust to the unknown, to not always having the answer, and to accept unpredictable. During the first three months of life especially, your baby’s schedule will likely be all over the place because they grow and change so much. Even for the laid back, flexible, very adaptive people, the fourth trimester has its moments. Be aware of the need to have to control and predict everything, as this is a common coping mechanism for individuals with this personality type. The fourth trimester is a good time to challenge yourself to slow down, and to let go (even if it’s just letting go of seemingly minor things). What are small ways that you can be pause and be present?
- Older Children Will Have Their Own Reactions. The reaction of your older children really varies by age. Some children love having a new sibling and there’s very little resistance. Acting out is however not uncommon, especially for younger children, and it is a temporary phase. Your child is adjusting to the many things that come with a new baby: less attention in the beginning, more noise in the house, having an offset schedule, people coming in and out of the house, mom and dad being more preoccupied. Some parents like to give their child a small gift or representative token to acknowledge the child’s transition and adjustment to having another sibling in the family. It is helpful to set aside special one on one time with the child after birth with one or both parents, whenever it can be scheduled. It’s also helpful to prepare the child with age appropriate literature or media explaining what it’s like to have an infant in the home. Any gesture to help the child feel loved and special after the baby comes, no matter how small, can go a long way. If they’re old enough to understand, you can also talk to them about how the initial phase with the infant (especially the first 3-6 months) is a time where there’s a heavy focus on the infant, but is also a temporary phase; it won’t last forever and the baby will grow to become more independent as time goes on.
This blog will be continued, but I would love to hear your initial thoughts and reactions!