By: Jamie Beth Schindler
Your friends might not want to tell you these things, so let me…
Not everyone’s post-partum period will be as hard as mine. And to be fair, others’ will be worse. I didn’t suffer from post-partum depression; I had terribly supportive people around me and a healthy baby. That said, being a new mom kicked my ass.
Here are some things I had learned by the time my daughter turned six-weeks old:
1. PAIN: IT DOESN’T ALWAYS END WITH LABOR
I feel like everyone knows labor hurts. I was prepared for it to hurt. And some people even told me that the first 10 days after birth weren’t fun, but I don’t think they made their point, well, pointy enough!
My post-partum pain started right away – I had had a fairly good labor. It lasted 36-hours from start to finish and I only spent the last 10 hours of that in the hospital. Although the first 32 hours of my labor were pretty bearable (aided for sure by an epidural 29 hours in!), I ended up pushing for FOUR hours and the last hour I was doing it without any pain medication. After all of that pushing with very little progress, my daughter’s head just popped out before they even called in the doctor. So while I had spent nine months worried about the “ring of fire” (the pain women feel during crowning) I didn’t experience it at all because I crowned for about 30-seconds. But that was the only good news. This “uncontrolled” delivery left me with three separate tears to my “lady parts” and required 30-minutes of stitching while I was trying to bond with and nurse my newborn child. It was miserable. I was miserable. The doctor actually threatened me with sedation because I couldn’t hold my legs open wide enough for his stitching. The whole thing was a big mess, but thankfully, my daughter fared very well through the entire labor and delivery – even the four hours of pushing didn’t seem to bother her one bit.
But for me, the pain didn’t end in the delivery room. I was really raw. It hurt to do almost anything: sit, stand, walk, sneeze, go to the bathroom . . . They had offered me Vicodin, which I refused, but I should have known it was going to be bad when they were handing out the good stuff!! I ended up with prescription strength Ibuprofen which I weaned myself off of around two weeks. However when my daughter was seven weeks, I was still in pain “down there.” At my six-week check-up I had to have a treatment with silver nitrate to chemically cauterize my lady parts back together (yup, it means what you think it means). It was a terribly painful procedure and landed me right back on the couch, because apparently I had been doing “too much.”
Let me make this very clear: I was barely doing anything at all. I was trying to take a walk around the block once a day because they say that’s good for your mental health. Occasionally I would go out to eat while wearing my baby in a wrap. Twice I went to the grocery store with my husband, but I didn’t lift or carry anything. Basically, I was sitting on the couch, feeding, “soothing” my daughter: my husband was doing EVERYTHING else. And yet, somehow, that was “too much.” After the procedure at my six-week check-up my mid-wife recommended cutting out everything but feeding the baby, including soothing her. I thought this was insane and impractical. If she was crying I was going to soothe her, even if it meant, as it did in our case, walking around with her, bouncing her, rocking her and swinging her. Moderate discomfort was not going to stop me from caring for my newborn. In the week since that appointment, I have tried to ease up. I’ve used the swing more to soothe her and I’ve “nursed her down” rather than walking with her, but sometimes she just needs to be bounced!
So to anyone who has a difficult vaginal birth, I implore you to stay on the couch with your legs closed and buy a glider or a rocker (we did not, but I wish we had).
If you can do some good healing early on, hopefully you won’t end up like me: back on the couch just when you’re ready to go out and about!
2. THE FIRST TWO WEEKS ARE HELL; THE SECOND TWO ARE A LITTLE BIT BETTER (AND SO ON)
I have a history of post-partum depression in my family. Whether or not that puts me at greater risk for post-partum depression remains to be seen. What it does do is make me more aware of the possibility. Everyone was on alert: my husband, my brother, my best friend, my care-givers. And at four weeks a few of them were very, very concerned. I was not. I knew that the first two weeks had been hell (my milk didn’t come in until day four which caused a whole host of problems for me and my baby) but I knew the second two weeks had been a bit better. And I trusted the third two weeks (weeks 5 and 6) would be even better. And I was right.
The best thing I did for myself and my daughter in those first few weeks was power through and cut myself some slack.
My adrenaline carried me for the first ten days … she would cry in the middle of the night and I would shoot out of bed ready to feed her no matter what time it was, no matter how little sleep I had just booked. I would feed her, put her down and I would immediately fall back to sleep. But after the adrenaline wore off, getting out of bed was harder and going back to sleep was too. Although it was hard to see, I knew it couldn’t continue like this and I also knew I had no choice. I was committed to breast feeding and that meant when she was hungry, I was up. I didn’t enjoy it. Sometimes I hated it. And sometimes I just wanted her to go away. But I cut myself some slack and kept reminding myself that it was ok not to be joyful. When my best friend got very concerned that I wasn’t feeling joy at the end of week four I just told myself my joy would come. And it did. By the end of week five my daughter was smiling at us and by the end of week six there was some laughing. We were also sleeping more and feeling more confident about being parents. Week five made all the difference. I am not saying that wishing it will get better will make it so. And I know some people experience true post-partum depression and I know I still might. But what I am saying is, trusting it would get better helped me to not be so hard on myself.
I suppose some people bond automatically, and some turn the corner at week three or week four and some turn the corner much later. For me it was week five, but I’m sure it would have been much later if I allowed myself to feel guilty that I wasn’t bonding sooner. I gave myself a 100% guilt-free pass and I think that saved us all.
3. LOOKING FOR PATTERNS IS FUTILE, AND SOMETIMES THAT IS A GOOD THING
My daughter tended to do things in two-day stretches. An apparent pattern would seem to emerge and then, on the third day, she would look/sleep/eat nothing like she had the prior two days. In the beginning this frustrated me, but then I saw the positive side to this: if there were a day when I thought she was going to drive me mad, I could find solace in the fact that there was no way it was going to last.
Things were constantly changing and ultimately that was a very, very good thing!
4. HAVE THE RIGHT PEOPLE AROUND
A friend of mine had a baby 16 months before I did. She talked about how nice it was to leave the hospital and be alone with her husband and her baby. I wistfully imagined that moment my entire pregnancy – being alone for the first time with my husband and my daughter. Of course we knew we’d need help, but I arranged for my mom to come a week after my due date so that my husband and I might have a chance to try things out for ourselves before help swooped in.
As luck would have it our daughter was four days “late” and my mom arrived the night we got home from the hospital, just one hour after we arrived – thank god! The first few days of my daughter’s life were trying, to put it gently. My milk didn’t come in for four days but I didn’t realize it at first. Consequently she would nurse, pull off my breast and still be painfully hungry. I didn’t know this, so I just thought she was screaming for no reason. She barely slept and consequently we barely slept. Once we figured out what was going on (see below) we were put on a syringe feeding regiment that required my husband to squeeze formula into our daughter’s mouth as she “nursed” from my breast. It was an acrobatic feat that took a lot out of all three of us. Given that, having my mom with us was a life-saver. She cooked, she cleaned, she did dishes, she did laundry, she went grocery shopping. She brought me my pumping supplies (required to stimulate milk production) on a silver platter (it was an aluminum deli tray, but it made us feel very fancy!).
I had no idea we would need so much help … I don’t know that there is any way that I could have anticipated it and I also don’t know that everyone would need this much help, but I highly recommend having help lined up.
And a note of caution: just because a person is a mother, even if that person is your mother, it doesn’t make them the right person to have around. Another friend of mine who had a child twelve months before I did tells a great story about her mom who came to town to “help” after her child was born. Her mother cooked for them, but she insisted on making three course meals and inviting extended family over to enjoy bottles of wine with dinner. That may be the kind of help you need, but it didn’t work for my friend and it wouldn’t have worked for me. My mom was busy cooking to fill our freezer and literally feeding me (by the forkful) while I nursed. I don’t know how we would have done it without her.
We also had a professional. E was our Doula – we used her as both a birth doula and a lactation consultant. I cannot overstate how important to us it was to have a doula (and specifically E) around. I could go on and on about the little, but crucial, ways we were aided by our doula, but here are two very concrete and big ways that she positively impacted our delivery and post-partum period.
Time To Push
We initially wanted to work with a doula for two reasons: (1) Our health insurance/health care provider, Kaiser Permanente, does not call your doctor/mid-wife when you go into labor. The doctors and mid-wives work a set schedule and whoever is on duty when you deliver is the person who will deliver your baby. (2) We have no family in the area. Although I am lucky to have close friends in the area, we didn’t have anyone we could line up to come with us and be an extra set of hands. Because of these two factors, we felt that it was important to have someone with us in the delivery room whom we knew, liked and trusted and specifically someone who knew what was going on. Some people couldn’t understand why we wanted a doula – they thought that the delivery was something that should only be shared by the parents and that my partner would be the only support I would need. But as my best friend pointed out, my partner would be just as lost and confused in the moment as I would be.
Having a birthing professional that we knew and trusted would allow my husband to focus completely on me and my emotional needs while knowing that there was someone else in the room looking out for the safety and best interests of me and our soon to be born daughter. This proved to be true.
When I started to investigate the birthing process I didn’t have a strong feeling one way or the other about using drugs to cope with the pain. As I did some reading during my pregnancy I started to lean towards a natural childbirth. I wasn’t 100% committed to going drug free, mostly because I wasn’t sure I was capable of it, but I did decide that I wanted to hold off as long as I could due to the fact that I wanted to avoid a C-section (if possible) and I knew getting an epidural too early would increase the chances of a C-section. As it turns out I made it past 5cm and about 30 hours into my labor before getting the epidural. The placement of the epidural, however, was not ideal and even after the drugs took effect I could still feel contractions, though somewhat dulled, in the bottom right quadrant of my uterus. To address this issue the nurse and anesthesiologist continued to increase the dose of the medicine which numbed the left side of my body almost completely while only somewhat calming that lower right quadrant. And then the lower right quadrant wasn’t calmed anymore and E thought it was time to push. The nurse did not agree. They went back and forth several times about whether my dilation should be checked. The nurse insisted I would feel something in my “rear” when it was time to push and I kept insisting I didn’t have a “rear” (the epidural level was up so high it certainly felt like I didn’t have a rear!). Finally it was decided I should be checked and in fact I was fully dilated. Had E not been there the nurse would have upped my epidural and prolonged my labor even further. Needless to say, I’m glad we had E to steer us in the right direction at that very crucial moment. It was nothing my partner and I could have figured out on our own!
The other very concrete way E helped us was in the area of breast feeding. I love to breast feed. From the moment our daughter was born she has had a good latch and a good suck and in general she is a very easy baby to feed. I have not suffered from engorgement, leaking, pain, or any of the other things that many women have to endure. The only issue I have had is with production. As I mentioned before, it took my milk some time to come in and consequently my daughter lost a great deal of her birth weight in her first few days of life. E was instrumental in preserving my ability to breastfeed while still getting my daughter the nourishment she needed from formula in those first few days. I don’t know how we would have figured this out without her – I frankly don’t know how I would have done much without her.
It’s amazing to be able to talk to someone who understands the many biological and emotional traumas that go along with the birth of your first child and is able to both wallow in and encourage you through the growth.
5. READ WHAT YOU CAN
I spent a great deal of time during my pregnancy reading about pregnancy. I did not spend too much time reading about parenthood. I think I was just scared and as my due date approached (and then passed), my anxiety increased and my desire to learn what was ahead of me waned. That said, I did read Happiest Baby on the Block and I am sooo glad that I did. Would I have been better prepared if I were able to read more? Maybe, but I just couldn’t bring myself to do it. Am I making horrible mistakes because I didn’t do enough research? Maybe, but I don’t think so. I believe, as do many of my friends, that Happiest Baby is the only thing you need for the first three to four months. But, to be fair, you never know what you don’t know.
6. “IT WILL GET BETTER …”
As I have already mentioned, in the first several weeks I was struggling quite a bit. People kept saying “it will get better.” People I trusted. People who knew what they were talking about.
But for some reason, I didn’t hear “it will get better,” I heard “you will get used to it.” There is a huge difference between these two things and I implore all new moms to BELIEVE it will get better.
It’s not just that you will get better at it (which you will) but that each day you do it, it will get easier to do. I learned to read my daughter’s cues. I learned how to sooth her. I learned the checklist to go through in my head if she was crying and I learned what things worked to get her to stop. I also learned that sometimes she just needed to cry and I learned that those moments would eventually pass even if I couldn’t figure out how to help her.
7. SOME PRACTICAL THINGS…
Cover your furniture – I didn’t do this, I wish I had.
Make a list of bills to pay – I do a lot of bill paying “by feel.” I sort of know if it’s getting towards the end of the month and I need to start thinking about paying rent, making the car payment and making sure my credit card bills have been paid. I lost this “feel” for a while and I was certainly glad that even though she was 5 days “late,” I wasn’t faced with any late fees for missed payments.
Bras – If you plan on nursing/pumping, as soon as you feel up to going out, go buy bras. This is not something you can do ahead of time. I bought one nursing/sleep bra to take to the hospital with me and I lived in that for weeks. When I finally felt up to trying on bras I realized that I was going to have a hard time finding one and then it took weeks and many internet orders and returns to find one that is, at best, ok.
8. And finally, “IF YOU’RE ALL ALIVE AT THE END OF THE DAY…”
As a new mom at a somewhat advanced age with a tendency towards perfectionism, one of the hardest (but most important) things I learned in the first few weeks was that there was NO WAY I was going to be perfect at motherhood. Luckily I wasn’t screwing up too badly, but at times I was trying to hold myself to a standard to which I couldn’t live up.When someone said to me, “if you’re all alive at the end of the day, you’ve done a god job,” a light bulb went off in my head.I wasn’t expected to be perfect and if something didn’t go the way I wanted to one day, I could try something different the next. I was only expected to do my best, to try my hardest, and I knew I was capable of that.
Jamie Beth Schindler is a working mom who is lucky to have a (working) partner who cooks and cleans. When she’s not at work or laughing with her daughter, she blogs about her family at nora-bear.blogspot.com