You Can’t Understand The Postpartum Period Until You’re Out Of It
Looking back, I can say that the postpartum period was the single most intense time of my life. Those weeks after each birth felt like years. They were incredible, wonderful, blissful. They were also painful, confusing, stressful, frightening. I was elated. I was terrified. I was also exhausted. I took so little care of myself as I tried to figure out how to take care of someone else, all the while asking my body to do things it had never done before. I absorbed endless information, worried incessantly, and zoned out over hours and hours of mindless television in the dark on my iPad as my newborn baby nursed and refused to sleep anywhere but on my chest.
When I think about all the things my mind and body were trying to do at the same time back then, is it any wonder that those six or eight weeks feel like the longest phase of my adult life? I was so deeply in the black hole of brand new parenting that I couldn’t see beyond it, and yet it really was over in a flash.
I want to say that if I — a mother of elementary-school-aged children — could give my postpartum self some advice, it would be not only that everything would turn out all right but that everything was already all right. But there’s no way I could have understood any of that at the time. I couldn’t understand that period of our lives until we were well beyond it.
I panicked that things were not fine. And yet here we are. She does have a disability. It is a major one. And this is our life, and we are all fine.
In the weeks leading up to the birth of my first child, I felt so overwhelmed. What brand of diaper do I need to get? Does the baby need onesies and sleepers or real clothes? Or a combo? What size should I get and how much clothing do they really need? What soaps and shampoos and detergents are safest? What’s the difference between a bassinet and a layette, or between a changing table and a dresser? What will I feed the baby and how much and how often? It felt like learning a new language. I remember a friend of mine tsk-tsking my anxiety, saying all anyone needed to have a newborn were diapers, some baby pajamas, and a blanket or two and the rest you could figure out as your kid grew. She warned me I’d never use half the things I thought I needed and argued I could save myself a lot of time and money and stress if I kept it more minimal. (As it turns out, she was right.)
Back then I thought she was nuts. When my babies were born, I didn’t go anywhere or buy anything without the latest edition of Baby Bargains. Last year’s copy would not do. I researched every baby item carefully, convinced that it really mattered whether we had a Bugaboo or an UppaBaby stroller or whether we used a Diaper Genie or a regular Simple Human Trash Can or whether we were too dumb to learn how to install the car seat or if we really had to pay the Car Seat Lady to do it for us. I asked people if I really needed a wipe warmer and questioned myself for deciding not to buy a video baby monitor. I spent hours reading about attachment parenting, baby-led weaning, and baby wearing. I fretted about the various ways I could not manage to tie my Moby wrap, worried what people would think if my daughter used a pacifier, and stressed that I was ruining her brain by giving her a plastic toy or sitting her in front of Baby Signing Time so I could take a shower.
I spent exorbitant amounts of money on fancy nursing bras I got specially fitted for, I brewed teas from nettles and thistles I bought at specialty herb stores to protect my milk supply, and sweet-smelling lotions, ointments, and creams all intended to make my nipples more supple and my c-section scar less visible. I drove myself crazy.
I didn’t need to; it was all fine even when I didn’t know it. Even when it wasn’t fine, it was fine. My stomach was in knots about the big stuff: I worried about money, I worried about space. I worried about our pets, our families, our obligations. Our first baby was perfect in nearly every way and yet I agonized over every inch of her and every second of her life even though she was fine. When our second baby was born, I felt outnumbered and afraid. I barely had a handle on one child; I had no idea how we would take care of two! One early morning when she was just a few days old, I generously decided to let my spouse sleep in. I figured I’d take both girls for a walk. Easy peasy! This, however, proved to be the most daunting thing I’d ever attempted. Just getting out of the apartment took an hour. By the time we made it around the block, I was so spent I had to bring everyone right back. But you know, it was fine because the next time I tried, we made it all the way to Target. When my second one was a week old and I started noticing signs of a disability, I panicked that things were not fine. And yet here we are. She does have a disability. It is a major one. And this is our life, and we are all fine.
My panicked postpartum behavior seems amusing to me now, but I think I needed to go through every minute of that time.
I had my kids relatively late in life; I was 37 when I had my first, and 39 when I had my second. But I wasn’t ready to have them a moment before then, and I know if I’d decided to do it sooner, I’d wouldn't have been the same kind of parent.
Today, I am in a new phase where I realize that for me, being their mom means I am their guide. I am their chauffeur, their Sherpa, their nag-in-chief. Their payer of bills. I enjoy trying to expose them to new ideas and teaching them what is important to me. But I am kidding myself if I think I am capable of much more than that. They are hardwired the way they are — the great irony in believing that you can engineer a perfect childhood is that they will be their own people, no matter what you do — and I don’t want to force my way on them. Parenting has been more about me finding ways to let my kids be themselves than it has been about how in control I am of what kind of humans I want to raise. I am doing the best I can to raise the children I have, and guide them towards kindness, patience, creativity, and commitment.
I try to lead by example rather than by lecture or by rule. I want my kids to be readers, so I make sure they see me read. I want them to be good sleepers, so I make sure they know I, too, need to get to bed early and please don’t wake me up before 6:30. They see their parents fight and they worry about raised voices, angry grownups, or worse. But watch, I remind them. Watch for when we make up. Everyone fights, but not everyone can make up and mean it. I tell them to look for the love. They do, because it’s there.
When my girls were babies, I was so rigid, so judgmental of how everyone else did things, so sure of how things would go if only I willed them to hard enough. My panicked postpartum behavior seems amusing to me now, but I think I needed to go through every minute of that time.
I don’t want to condescend to my brand-new-mama self and tell her to knock it off or that she doesn’t need this thing or that life won’t work out that way. Doing it all wrong was the right way for me to learn that neither of my children nor I are perfect, and that is what I have come to love best about all of us.
If you're in the postpartum phase now, go easy on yourself. I might not have grown to be the parent I am today if I’d done a single thing differently then. Everything is fine now and — thought it was hard to see in the fog of the newborn period — it was then, too.
After a very frustrating first birth experience, this Deaf mother wanted a change. Will the help of two Deaf doulas give the quality communication and birth experience this mom wants and deserves? Watch Episode Four of Romper's Doula Diaries, Season Two, below, and visit Bustle Digital Group's YouTube page for more episodes.