Wednesday, August 02, 2006

A word from the trenches – 4 ½ weeks postpartum

Life after baby surprised me. I guess most of my research during my pregnancy focused on the birth, and I didn't really think very much about what life with a new baby would be like. I did some research on the postpartum period and knew that it would be overwhelming but I didn't really consider what overwhelming would actually feel like.

Perhaps my experience is different because I had a difficult labour and cesarean to recover from (both emotionally and physically), but I found myself feeling VERY vulnerable and really needing to be taken care of in order to care for my baby. I found I really needed my mother in the days and weeks following Ezra's birth. This embarrassed me a bit because the other new mothers I knew didn't have their mothers to stay after their children's births. I cried every time she left in those early weeks (she stayed for a week and a half, then left for a few days, returning for a few more days, leaving again and returning again), which further embarrassed me. (What self-respecting 29-year-old needs her mother?)

I didn't expect just how uncertain I would feel about absolutely every element of baby care. I knew I had very little experience of caring for a baby and figured I would have to muddle through it but I didn't know just how scary that would be. Our little one is so important that every decision and action has enormous impact in my mind, even if babies are nothing if not resilient in the face of our mistakes.

Partly I needed my mom because she was able to take care of me and my husband while the centre of our universe shifted. Perhaps more importantly, though, after she left when Ezra was about three weeks old, I realized that she had also initiated me into motherhood. By then, I felt confident that I could care for Ezra and even gave him a bath all by myself.

The midwives and nurses at the hospital talked about the baby blues and how normal the feelings are. But what nobody mentioned was just how intensely I would feel them. “Baby blues” sounds like you may feel a little bit down, like a few days of the winter blahs. But I felt intensely sad, scared, anxious, angry, joyful, magical, and a ton of other emotions I can't remember or couldn't name anyways. And it felt awful at times. I didn't care if it was normal, I didn't like feeling that way and I really didn't want it to continue. But the worst of those feelings passed within a few days. At four and a half weeks postpartum, I have come to terms with Ezra's birth and no longer cry when I think of what he had to go through to join us; I do feel anxiety and fear but I think this may just be a fact of life for parents and now it's usually about specific things (is he breathing? is he too hot? too cold? is that snorting sound normal? etc.) instead of just a general feeling of dread that something bad will happen to him; I only cry occasionally when Ezra is breastfeeding and am struck by just how beautiful and amazing he is.

Postscript: just after I wrote that, Ezra went through another growth spurt and nursed every hour for 24 hours and then every hour or two for the next couple of weeks. Just when I thought I was getting things together, this nearly put me over the edge. I remember one night, I woke my husband up and said, “You have to do something, I just can't take this anymore.” Obviously he couldn't do much but just having him sit with me while I fed Ezra yet again was enough to get me through the night, knowing I wasn't alone. During those days I felt really trapped by the breastfeeding relationship – not that I wanted to stop breastfeeding him but I just felt like no-one could help me. I remember at 5 ½ weeks thinking that I was obviously going to be diagnosed with postpartum depression since nothing could change in a few days, but miraculously they did, and by my six-week appointment I felt much better – more confident, able to cope. I'm sure another curve ball will come my way but hopefully when it does I'll remember that it will pass.

Other surprising things about new motherhood:

I knew we would have to do a lot more laundry, but what I didn't realize was that I would be responsible for at least half of it and not just from baby spitup. As my milk supply established itself, I leaked... a lot. Overnight, I would wake up in a pool of milk, when I nursed Ezra, my other breast leaked, and of course sometimes I just leaked spontaneously between feeds. I'm still not happy about being wet most of the time but at least I bathe enough to avoid a cheesy smell. Also, I discovered Bravado breast pads, which are awesome.

That meeting and getting to know my baby really is like falling in love, with all the fear and vulnerability, though obviously it's different from adult love. I was also surprised by how physical this love is – not sexual but physical – probably mostly because of the breastfeeding relationship. I find myself needing to touch and cuddle Ezra and loving it when he first started reaching his hands out to touch me.

If I found myself talking to a pregnant or postpartum woman, I would want to share some of my learnings with her:

Don't be embarrassed by needing help or feeling vulnerable. I found that when I shared my feelings with those other mothers who seemed to be coping so much better than I was, they in fact were feeling or had felt many of the same things. Ultimately, though, every woman is different and if ever there is a time for asking for help it's during the first weeks following the birth of a child.

Find someone to help initiate you into motherhood. My mom gave us many tips and tricks for things like bathing the baby, how best to hold the baby's legs out of a poopy diaper, how to nurse lying on my side when I was too tired to get out of bed, and more. Being my mom, she also reminded me when it was time to sleep and took the baby off my hands so I could do it. Having someone else there who can do laundry and grocery shopping while you become enveloped in the timeless world of your baby is a big help. My mom also helped organize our home better, both for the baby and for a woman recovering from a cesarean.

The baby blues are horribly misnamed. The feelings are intense and overwhelming and far more various than blues but they get less intense fairly quickly (or they did for me). Perhaps a mantra of the postpartum period should be, “This too will pass,” whether it's your baby feeding every hour for 24 hours, or your feelings.

Maybe my experience was exceptional in some way, but maybe it wasn't and anyways I wanted to record some of my experience before amnesia sets in.

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