A neonatal nurse’s reflections on her own early postpartum period.
The fourth trimester. Postpartum. The period that begins after a baby is born. Some say it is the first 12 weeks, while others say it never ends.
As a pregnant woman, there are common expectations when thinking of that fourth trimester. The general lack of sleep, difficulties with learning how to nurse, and how scary that first postpartum bowel movement is.
And then there are other things we do to get prepared. We make sure our bathrooms are stocked with our tender lady part needs. Homemade padsicles? Check. Sitz bath? Check. (Or you might be like me and have an unplanned cesarean and purposely skip over any cesarean recovery tips and tricks while pregnant because “I’m not going to have one of those” and then end up not being able to use all of the clever items you prepared to heal after vaginal birth. Heh.)
We can’t forget all the snacks we’ll need for when we’re nursing our little munchkins. How romantic it will be! Hospital bags packed, and of course, the baby’s space is organized and ready to be broken in.
I was ready. I was a neonatal ICU nurse. It was literally my job to take care of newborns. I knew I had extra tools in my toolbox, but I also knew how difficult and cantankerous babies could be, so I was ready for the challenge.
But, of course, postpartum is wild. There was no way to prepare for certain aspects of the fourth trimester, no matter how many books I read.
Here are four unexpected things I learned from my unique journey.
1. The newborn part was “easy,” it was taking care of myself that was the hardest.
Babies are born with unique personalities from the get-go. I know this firsthand from my job. Some are very tranquil and others are very vocal. Both are normal, but one requires a little more… attention. So, I was prepared for a more “challenging” baby — a screaming newborn who refused to be put down and would only sleep on my chest. Oh, also, needed to nurse every hour around the clock.
Well, my kid took on a more tranquil temperament. He was sleeping 3 to 4-hour stretches while in the hospital. After two weeks, my baby was sleeping 5 to 6-hour stretches. He didn’t cry too much, and he loved his bassinet. I mean… He was a “dream” baby.
Y’all, I actually said, “This is way easier than I thought it would be.” (Let’s remember, I take care of sick babies so I am used to seeing IRATE babies, and baby care is my profession…)
What wasn’t easy? Taking care of me. My beat-up body. My lack of mobility. The nerve damage. The pain.
Recovering from a cesarean was one of the most demanding challenges of my life. I was in tears – I felt like I couldn’t take care of my baby to the best of my ability because I could barely take care of myself. I am so thankful to my husband for caring for two “babies” and the family that stepped in to cook and clean for us (another obvious reason why I had the audacity to say “it was easier than I thought.”)
I don’t know how women without a village do it, especially belly birth moms. Because taking care of me was hard. But I suppose as mothers, we do what we must for our babies.
2. I didn’t realize how long it takes for a mommy body to “bounce back” (if it even does…)
When I was pregnant, I was certain that by six weeks I’d be running and going to CrossFit again and by 12 weeks I’d be back in my pre-pregnancy clothes living my best life.
Let’s all laugh at that together.
First, let’s get rid of the phrase “bounce back.” It’s icky. Bounce back to what? Premom bod? We’re moms now, not premoms, so why is that even an option or an obsession?
My reality is that I’m seven months postpartum and haven’t started running yet. Wanna know why? Because my boobs feel like they’re going to rip off my chest because they are full of milk and five times bigger. Where are supportive bras for busty women? Seriously, if you know, please let me know. Also, my incision scar yanks, causing discomfort. I’m still three sizes larger in pants and am unsure if my hips will ever fit into medium leggings again because HIPS.
So, there’s that.
By the time my son was born, I was about 50 pounds heavier than when I started. It took ten months to gain that weight, so it’s probably going to take at least that to “peace out.”
Comparison is the thief of joy. I saw moms rocking their bodies, going back to the gym, and looking like they were living their best lives before their first six weeks were up when I could barely lift one leg at nine weeks postpartum.
But everyone’s journey is different. And that’s okay.
3. I didn’t think I would be so sad.
If there is one thing that was certain in my life, I desired to be a mom. Postpartum depression? What is that?
Well… It is a common ailment that affects more women than one might think (regardless of how badly they want to be a mother.) In fact, the CDC reports that 1 in 8 women who have had live births experience symptoms of postpartum depression.
While I never got diagnosed, I remember around week five, something shifted in my spirit, and it wasn’t good. I was holding my happy, healthy baby, and I was staring at the wall with silent tears streaming down my face.
Why was I crying? Was I not happy or thankful for my baby? Isn’t this what I always wanted?
This feeling of loneliness and sorrow lasted for several weeks. I was easily triggered and resentful too (sorry, husband.) In fact, I didn’t even know how to explain what I was feeling, this utter loss of self. When a dear mom friend reached out, articulating exactly what I was feeling without me having expressed it out loud, I felt less alone. She knew. She had felt it too.
So, if you’re feeling out of sorts after the birth of your baby, don’t hesitate to reach out to a trusted friend, family member, or provider. You aren’t alone.
4. Having a baby changed me fundamentally.
Before my son was born, I knew that I would change. Of course, I would change. I knew I would be emotional. I knew things would be different. I’d be me, but with a baby. And babies are a big deal!
But I didn’t know that the very foundation of my being would change. I didn’t know that the birth of my baby would also birth another — me, but as a mother.
I took pictures with my baby at around seven weeks postpartum, trying to mimic the growing bump pics I had taken throughout pregnancy. I remember thinking it would be so amazing to see how much my body grew and changed. I couldn’t wait to put them together in a sequence.
But what I didn’t expect was how sad it would make me (which brings me back to item number three…) The girl I saw in the 13-week pictures was a stranger to the woman I had become.
But I didn’t know the woman I had become either.
I looked in the mirror and I was utterly unrecognizable, spiritually, mentally, emotionally (and physically too.) I wanted to reach into those pictures and shake that girl and tell her to quit smiling, to quit being so excited because sh*t was about to get hard.
I realized then that I was terrified of getting to know this new woman, this new me. First off, yikes for wanting to do that to that poor, joyful girl in those photos. Angry much? Also, who was she, this new mother? What was important to her other than her baby? Would she ever find herself again? Would she ever feel normal?
As toxic as social media can be, I saw a few different “mommy” pages that stated that most women report that it takes nearly a year to feel like themselves again and I felt that. I don’t know where the science is if there is any at all, but that sounds much more realistic than 12 weeks. In fact, I’m inclined to say that the postpartum period never really ends. In those early months, I was petrified by the complete identity crisis I had after having him, but I’m slowly finding myself.
I am discovering new priorities in my life, the most important being my son. I am learning to accept my body for its ability to grow and sustain life, even if someone else had to cut him out of me. I am learning how to be a wife and romantic partner again, and even a daughter to my parents. Because now I have so much more appreciation for my mommy than ever.
Despite these hard truths I faced, despite the pain and fear, being a mother has been the single most rewarding title I have ever beheld. It took a few months to get there, but I made it to that place of gratitude. And I wouldn’t trade it for the world.