When I think back to the early months of my firstborn’s life, the memories are a crackle of black and white. I am walking all over the house trying to calm a crying baby, or bolting out of the shower to lift him from his crib. It seemed every time I settled on the couch for a nap or sat down at the table with a sandwich, he would need me, and I ran to him every time.
I thought I was doing everything “right” as a new mom, diligently tending to my infant and putting his needs above my own. It wasn’t until I sobbed through his four-month checkup that his pediatrician suggested I might not be doing so well. She insisted I see my OB, who diagnosed me with postpartum depression that day. With time, therapy, and medication, I started to heal, and, as I took better care of myself, the color started coming back into my world.
When I got pregnant again two years later, I knew I had to do things differently with my second baby, and I largely credit the joy I’ve felt the second time around to the intentional ways I have cared for myself.
Here are ways I prioritized myself after the birth of my second baby, and how putting myself first has benefited my family.
I Opted For Pain Relief During Childbirth
I chose an unmedicated birth with my firstborn, and stuck to those intentions even as the pain of labor completely absorbed my body and mind. His birth left me so debilitated and in such severe pain that I was falling asleep as the nurses put him on my chest. It was not at all how I pictured meeting my baby.
Needless to say, I intended to better manage my pain the second time around. I was worried that my labor would progress too fast to get an epidural, but I ended up being able to get one, and I’ll never forget the feeling of sweet relief when the medication took effect. I was happy, cognizant and present when my daughter was born, and not so physically depleted that I couldn’t take in the moment.
I Assembled A Team To Help Me Get Sleep
Sleep deprivation no doubt played a large role in my declining mental health after the birth of my son. I simply was not prepared for how severe the sleep deprivation would be and the way it would disrupt my already anxious mind. I knew if things were going to be different this time, I had to prioritize my sleep and treat it as the vital medicine it is. I came up with a plan, leaning on my husband and other family members, to get at least a four to six hour stretch of uninterrupted sleep every night after my daughter was born. Yes, losing sleep is part of life with a newborn, but sleep is also critical to my mental health, and prioritizing it makes me a healthier and happier mom.
With my first, I was on edge about always being the one to calm and feed him through the night, but this time I know there’s no shame in leaning on others and asking for help. My husband and I planned to trade off night-duty shifts, and when our mothers stayed with us for a few days after our daughter’s birth, we put them in the nightly rotation as well. By allowing others to help care for my baby in the night, I was able to get the quality sleep I need.
As I dug myself out of the depths of depression, I realized there is nothing valuable about neglecting my own needs.
I Didn’t Put The Same Pressure On Myself To Breastfeed
My decision to breastfeed my son was in part because of the intense pressure thrust on new moms to do so. Luckily for me I was able to breastfeed him with relative ease, once we got through some initial hurdles. I planned to do the same with my daughter, but with one important caveat: I would quit if it felt like too much. While I was willing to go to more extremes to breastfeed my first baby, I prepared for my second baby by stocking the cabinet with cans of formula, just in case I needed someone else to feed her so I could catch up on sleep or simply take a break. So far, we haven’t had to use them, but if it at any point I feel breastfeeding is negatively affecting my mental health I have no qualms over switching to formula.
I Gave Up The Notion Of The Heroic Self-Sacrificing Mom
With my son, I bought into the notion that good moms are selfless, and I embodied this ideal until I hardly recognized myself. All the advice I was reading as I prepared for my baby’s arrival emphasized his health and wellbeing over mine. Sacrificing sleep, giving up my hobbies and losing touch with my friends were all things I thought just came with this whole parenting gig.
But as I dug myself out of the depths of depression, I realized there is nothing valuable about neglecting my own needs. When I started taking better care of myself, my relationship with my son blossomed. Thanks to the lessons given to me by my son, his little sister has a different kind of mother: A mom who values herself enough to model for her children what self-love looks like. A mom who takes time to reset so she can meet her kids with patience and grace. A mom who goes to therapy and takes antidepressants so she can stabilize her mood. A mom who actually loves being a mom, who isn’t just going through the motions, who is unapologetically herself and who knows that taking care of herself first is always what is best for her kids.
If you or someone you know is experiencing depression or anxiety during pregnancy, or in the postpartum period, contact the Postpartum Health Alliance warmline at (888) 724-7240, or Postpartum Support International at (800) 944-4773. If you are thinking of harming yourself or your baby, get help right away by calling the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255, or dialing 911. For more resources, you can visit Postpartum Support International.