Becoming a mother and caring for baby postpartum has been in some ways more challenging than I remember birth to be. Memories of my birth experience have come to be tinged with feelings of trauma, in a way, despite such a positive outcome (you can relive my birth story here). The home birth we had planned didn’t result, but I was able to deliver naturally and achieved the sense of empowerment I had hoped for. Maybe it is the hormones that have swept away a clear memory of the experience, but I feel as though I surmounted the challenges of labour with strength, and so it’s not memories of pain that haunts me now or bothered me in those days that immediately followed. Despite these positives of my own delivery, I found it difficult to relive the experience in my mind for some time.
Recently, I’ve read, reflected and discussed with thoughtful friends about how our society views birth. Through these dialogues, I’ve come to see that we can do more to support women in processing and coming to own her experience in birth. (See this article about how “A healthy baby is not all that matters” by Milli Hill) In our society, do our conversations surrounding birth properly prepare women with accurate representations of labour to help her visualize her own delivery? Do our family and community networks adequately prepare women for this experience through stories of birth or during the postpartum stage as women come to terms with their labour? Does our media misrepresent birth in a way that gives pregnant women false impressions of the birthing process? These questions remain on my mind as I come to terms with my own birth story.
Despite my initial reluctance to call to mind my birth, I think at any point postpartum I might consider birth to have been the comparatively easier of the two experiences. Maybe because birth lasted two days rather than the unending sleepless nights, self-doubt, physical exhaustion, and rebirth into this role of selfless (at my best) mother that has come since. Becoming a mother has been the most challenging thing I have done and will ever do. Of course, the corollary to postpartum being my most challenging life’s work is the joy that comes alongside the hard, uncomfortable, raw and plain awful in parenting: that is the joy of having my baby in my arms.
So, what about my postpartum experience brings me to describe it as such a hardship. Here’s the thing, my experience is so like that of every mother encountering life with a newborn for the first time. I am so lucky in that my baby is healthy. I wasn’t challenged with any unusual side effects of birth, just some physical, emotional and psychological healing. (Make no mistake in thinking that birth isn’t a traumatic experience. The enormity of it makes certain that you emerge from the experience altered. This, of course, is the beauty of creation. I only mourn that more isn’t made in our modern society of the rebirth a mother experiences with the birth of her child.) My husband is extraordinary and helpful and I wouldn’t have traded him for anyone else in the world to move through this season of our lives with. Really, there’s nothing extraordinary about my story. But that’s just it. My experiences are worth telling because there are mothers out there who, like me, ask themselves the question “I can’t be the only one out there who feels this way.”
Becoming a parent is hard. It’s hard in a myriad of ways. Every way that becoming a parent is incredible in its awesomeness is balanced with some trial.
This I learned, and learn still, in my journey with Finn.
Immediately following birth
In some ways memories of the moments in the delivery room are forever and clearly etched in my mind, but in another sense these memories are shrouded in a fog. It’s not often in life that you experience such pivotal moments, which makes those moments more poignant in the mind than others.
With the force of two contractions, my baby’s head was dragged from the cocoon of my body with forceps and my confused efforts at pushing through the pain of the instruments. From the moment my baby was released from my body and came into this world the fog descended and memory is coloured with a haze. I am stunned, in this moment. There is celebration all around me as my baby is brought immediately to my chest. He’s here! I’m holding his warm, slimy, tiny limbs. He folds easily into a bundle on my chest. I hold him as I deliver the afterbirth and succumb to the buzz of activity all around me. Our baby comforts me as I comfort him and together we recover from the experience of birth and adapt to the newness of life with him on this side of the womb.
The hospital stay
Not long after his birth we attempted breastfeeding, and Finn latched so well. Learning to breastfeed seemed to me from the start to be yet another challenge we faced together. He seemed to work just as hard as I was at adapting to the newness of everything.
Reluctantly, I admit that during that first night the nurses offered to take the baby between feeds to allow me to sleep. This will always be a regret I carry with me, and not because anything in particular happened to make me feel this way. Simply that a baby’s place is with his mother, and I should never have entrusted something so precious with anyone else. At the time, after days of labour and faced with exhaustion, catching a couple of hours of sleep seemed like the most alluring suggestion. I gave in.
The truth is that those first 48 hours were so hard for Joel and I. We were stunned with the realization that we didn’t know what we were doing, and it was scary. I struggled with finding my confidence in breastfeeding. I required countless demonstrations on getting the baby to latch and finding comfortable holding positions. We were discharged by our midwife at 9 or 10 pm Wednesday evening, but we decided to stay another night for fear of going home so late and in the dark of night to figure this out on our own. We had hoped for a home birth, but in the end we found the hospital stay to offer us support when we needed it. For each feed of the second night I had assistance in breastfeeding. For some reason I was filled with doubt when it came to this natural bodily function.
By morning light we felt ready to head to the comfort of our home and more than ready to settle into our new roles as parents at home.
The first week
We were greeted at our house by my sister and her two children. Knowing from experience what a new mother needs most, she had prepared three of the most delicious, nutrient-packed, salads made entirely of organic ingredients. I couldn’t get enough of them. She helped to get us organized and offered me reassurance in breastfeeding, which I also couldn’t get enough of. I bemoaned all the time I spent preparing for birth with very little time spent learning to care for baby. In the end though it really comes down to instinct and learning on the fly. I have Joel to thank for doing most everything else while I focused on resting when I could and becoming comfortable breastfeeding.
That first night at home was spent nursing Finn seemingly non-stop. Joel would change him, swaddle him, nurse him or any combination of these and we couldn’t find an order that resulted in our baby comfortably sleeping in his bassinet. As I was only learning the ins and outs of a proper latch and proper sounds in breastfeeding, I found it difficult to know whether or not Finn was sleeping or feeding. This question plagued me for weeks. Despite everyone telling me more than once how I could know, it didn’t seem to sink in. It was almost as though I hadn’t yet learned to trust myself; I felt woefully in over my head.
Saturday morning, Joel’s parents arrived – and thank goodness they did. The aftermath of our abruptly abandoned home birth remained all over the house, and we had been so occupied with learning to be parents that we left the house as it was. I barely saw my in-laws that weekend, and they drove four hours to barely see their new grandson, who nursed ceaselessly, but I know who mopped up the blood splattered floor and who spent hours picking up after the dozens of Canadian geese whose droppings littered our beautiful lawn, and it wasn’t Joel or I.
On Saturday our midwife paid a visit to the house to check in, and though I worried over my milk supply – using the excuse to devour the Mamas Milk lactation cookies my friend Jena thoughtfully baked and left at our door – I was told that my colostrum had already made way for the milk and that my baby had been happily receiving nourishment at my chest. Such relief! It was empowering to know that my body was the source of nourishment for our baby.
Saturday was a big day, as it turns out. This is also the day that the postpartum hormones raced through my body giving me the most delicious daydreams. Never before have I leaked from my eyes in such a way. This was more than merely crying tear drops. Emotionally, I had never been happier. All afternoon, I nursed my baby while memories of all the fun things I had ever done with Joel played in my head. Memories played like a movie in my mind, reminding me of all our happy memories in a succession of joy. The tears flowed out of love for Joel and the baby we made together. The memories were so vivid and it was the best movie I ever ‘watched’. I’m grateful for this happy day, amongst some dark nights that followed.
Nights especially during the first week with Finn were the hardest in that they introduced me to the intensity of sleep deprivation. We continued our attempt to have him sleep beside our bed in his bassinet, but he would always wake, regardless of swaddling. Each night, as twilight approached I found myself in tears afraid of the night to come. I would nurse Finn and we’d go through the same motions again and again only to have him wake when he was placed in the bassinet, or while he was swaddled, or because of a wet diaper. Just when I thought I was going to get to sleep at 1, then 2, then 3 am, I’d be up nursing him to sleep until sunrise before he finally crashed in his exhaustion and allowed me a bit of rest. When Finn was a week old, I finally gave up on the needlessly unending nights and asked my midwife to approve my positioning for side-laying nursing. From that night on, Finn has slept easily and peacefully beside me in our bed.
The weeks that followed
Those first weeks adjusting to life with Finn were filled with the greatest joy and hours spent marvelling at the little life we created, but also enormous doubt. I questioned everything we did and sought reassurance at every turn. I fretted about diaper irritation and heat rash, humidity, sun exposure, whether my baby was hot or cold. Small decisions seemed enormous in their impact. I’ve always had a baby who loves to sleep at the breast, and so I weighed whether or not I should introduce a soother, but worried over my milk supply and introducing an artificial version of myself. Only with each weigh in was I reassured that Finn was getting enough milk. Countless preoccupations caused me angst as a new mother and to wonder at every turn whether I was doing it ‘right’. For weeks, this persisted. Well, honestly, I carry self-doubt with me always.
While coping with the newness of it all, I was surprised by how difficult it was coming to terms with my new life and shedding the selfishness of my pre-mother self. The one who was free to leave the house at the drop of a hat. Who could while away the days lakeside with friends. Summer has always been for me a season full of life, friends and a busy social scene. While pregnant, I saw a summer baby as a blessing thinking I could easily take my bare naked baby with me wherever I went. I didn’t anticipate how easily he would overheat or how heavy his breathing would be even in the shade of a tree on those humid afternoons. You really just can’t anticipate all the ways a baby changes you. My struggle with this change was just as unexpected. It took time for me to mourn the loss of freedom that came with only living for myself.
My expectations seem laughable now, but I was actually surprised that my baby wouldn’t tolerate laying anywhere but on my chest or at the breast. Of course he wouldn’t! This ‘problem’ was solved by shifting my perspective and expectations. Think about it from Finn’s point of view; he has just come barrelling into this strange new world in which everything feels differently. Suddenly he has to wear clothes which is a new feeling to adjust to. Temperatures vary, sounds and smells are all different in this new world he now exists in. He has to work – exhaustively, I might add – to be fed after he masters this new skill of breastfeeding. He’s coping with all of this newness when all he wants is to remain cocooned in mama’s arms (inside her womb is preferred but anywhere near her will do). Realizing this made everything I did for Finn about comforting him and building his trust in me. If he cried, I responded as immediately as I could in each circumstance. It became my mission to anticipate his needs and offer him reassurance. And if this meant spending my days snuggled up with him at the breast, as it did in those early weeks, then so be it – pass the snacks and a good read. I was content to meet him wherever he was at.
Baby wearing changed my ability to be mobile while still meeting Finn’s needs. I only regretted not learning to tie my gorgeous Didymos Magic Forest Tussah wrap earlier. I’ve tucked that wrap away for my next baby, but just looking at it brings back such strong emotions of the many hours spent carrying my little baby. Baby wearing allowed me to feel more free and able to do things around the house — you know, like feeding myself — or outdoors while comforting and maintaining the attachment with baby I craved.
Finally, at six weeks we had settled into a bit of a rhythm and I felt as though I had a handle on caring for Finn and life in our new roles. Eventually three months came and went and then four and I increasingly felt more confident as a mother. As Finn sailed through milestones and delighted us with his happy disposition, the worries, doubt, and mom guilt became replaced with pride, satisfaction, and confidence.
Challenges continue to confront us and emotions come and go on the roller coaster that seems to be the first year (life with children?), but I’m becoming better at this motherhood thing. Sleepless nights break at dawn with the most rewarding smiles on the change pad, and suddenly I feel like I have boundless energy. Those deep giggles have the magic to make all things better.
I count my blessings daily for the opportunity to work so hard for the health and happiness of this little person. He gives my life meaning and purpose. I wouldn’t trade my role of mother for any of the now rare moments of alone time. I wouldn’t trade the patience, tolerance, strength, compassion, appreciation for my body, empathy, or shift in perspective I gained in becoming mother. I could never go back to life without Finn. In comparison, those days lack the richness of life today knowing what it feels like to sacrifice this much, to feel this much. I’m forever altered.
Adjusting to life with a baby is never easy. What were some of your struggles? How did you survive postpartum? I’d love to hear some tips that helped new moms cope.