Having a baby is celebrated as very exciting, and it is so wonderful to welcome a child into the world, your home, and your family. Often as a culture we focus on the baby: “How is he/she sleeping? Feeding? Doing?” And while how the baby is doing is so important and so connected to how the mama is doing, the same is also true that the mama’s well-being impacts the well-being of the child.
The postpartum journey often goes much better when the mama’s well-being is taken into account, prioritized, and nurtured.
The postpartum experience is different for each mama and child, yet what is common in each postpartum story is the significance of the transition and the exhaustion physically, emotionally, and mentally. There is a complexity of emotions, in that there is often joy and excitement, yet also the range of so many other emotions. It can be incredibly overwhelming, anxiety provoking, and traumatic for some. Some moms are overladen with guilt and shame. “Why am I feeling this way? What is wrong with me?” And yet, the reality is that you can love your child deeply and struggle at the same time.
Depression symptoms can range from the “baby blues,” which are extremely common and more of a mild, fog-like experience of sadness, weepiness, and overwhelm right after the baby is born to a persistent postpartum depression experience. The “baby blues” are a common part of the adjustment and go away on their own as you walk through the adjustment, whereas postpartum depression really sets in and does not easily let up. Postpartum anxiety shows up as excessive and intense worry. Care-taking for an infant requires such vigilance and care that it naturally intensifies anxiety. With postpartum anxiety, it’s incredibly difficult to rest as you are constantly fearing danger which may then affect your sleep, appetite, and just overall well-being.
While some sadness, grief, and anxiety are part of the experience to a degree, pay attention to when and if it crosses into more concerning territory, where you no longer feel like yourself, where the emotions are taking over, stealing joy, affecting your sleep and appetite, and above all else, if you begin to have any thoughts of harming yourself or your child.
Some complicating factors for the postpartum period are navigating how the birth went, difficulty nursing or with feeding the baby, as well as any kind of medical challenges, etc. Often, moms dream and plan for the birth experience, even writing down a birth plan, and it can feel devastating when things shift, get scary, something traumatic occurs, and then there is grief of perhaps a dream for the birth that is so far from reality.
The birth story is important. It’s how you meet your baby, and if you need to grieve how it went, let yourself grieve it. Yet, the parenting journey is such a bigger story of getting to know your child and learning to care for your child and yourself in an ongoing way. As much as you can, ground yourself in the larger context of your parenting journey, processing the birth, but keeping perspective on the larger invitation to parent.
Similarly, many moms have ideals of how feedings will go, and it can be really difficult to ask for help or to shift gears and know that it’s okay to look at some other options. Ideals are great to aspire for, yet when they affect the mama’s well-being because she is holding so tight to how things “should” go, it can be really helpful to give yourself permission to find an option that supports both your and your baby’s well-being.
Support for the postpartum transition
- Soften your internal experience. Remind yourself that it’s normal to not enjoy your baby every minute as some moments are really hard. It’s also normal to experience exhaustion and to be overwhelmed at times.
- Check your expectations of yourself. The postpartum period is a time for softening standards around the house and with how your clothes fit. It’s meant to be messier at home when you are busy nurturing an infant. Clothes are not supposed to fit after you have just given birth. Give yourself grace and room to adjust to caring for your child, to learn new rhythms around the house, and to heal in terms of your body.
- Redefine productivity. Often we tie our thinking about productivity to what we accomplish, and taking care of a child can be hard to measure. It’s ongoing, yet it’s of incredible value. You are being productive when you care for a child.
- Nourish yourself. Sometimes in the postpartum transition it’s hard for moms to stop and eat or to even drink a glass of water because of all the needs around you, yet you need nutrients and energy for the job before you.
- Give yourself permission to rest. You are not being lazy to sleep in the middle of the day, to go to bed early, or to go back to sleep after an early morning feeding. Rest and recovery are a vital part of the postpartum experience.
The value of support
This is not a time to go it alone. Build social connectedness. Communicate specific ways you would like help from your partner, a close friend, or family members. If the budget allows, consider tangible ways that you might be able to build in some support, like home cleaning, meals, help with an older child, etc.
Above all else, know that your well-being is incredibly linked to the well-being of your child. If you don’t feel like yourself, you are having trouble functioning, or you are utterly overwhelmed, reach out for support. This does not make you weak or incapable or not good enough; this is about being self-aware and intentional in not suffering alone.
Many times, significant life transitions call for more support, and keep in mind that adding a child to your family is a significant life adjustment! Counseling, coaching, or talking with your doctor about medication are all possible supports. Connecting with other moms can also be an encouragement.