The further away I get from being the mother of a newborn, the more perspective I get on what a unique and vulnerable time in my life it was. It’s only really now that I feel like I can float above it, detach myself from the emotions of it all and understand what I was experiencing and moving through.
The intensity of every moment, minute, day and night of those first few months was in every fibre of my being and just living it was exhausting because I was always on. There were so many conflicting events going on in my mind and in my body. For a long time, I was physically and emotionally on a high. The exhilaration from giving birth was nothing like I had ever experienced in my life.
Adrenalin, oxytocin and prolactin coursed through my veins and put a tingle in my touch. Those hormones gave me a buzz that kept me up when I should have slept, and made me jumpy and sensitive. Every experience was huge. I was wide-eyed, hyper, frightened, giggly, teary, defensive, protective, touchy, panicked, nervous, ravenous, chatty, confused and totally head over heels in love. It was amazing but it was so hard. And everything was new. There’s no experience in your life you can draw from to compare to what it is actually like to give birth to and then take care of your own, completely all yours, baby.
I have often heard people talk about how susceptible a labouring woman is to suggestion, both positive and negative, and in my own experience I found this to be true. I soaked up the atmosphere and vibes humming from my husband and the midwife and responded to their direction and suggestions unquestioningly. Looking back at that delicate postpartum time, I think that susceptibility to suggestion stayed with me for many weeks afterwards.
I felt pressure. External pressure – real or imaginary, it was there – to get on with things, to be ready, to be coping, to be out and about. Internal pressure from myself to do exactly the same thing. I didn’t give myself a break and kept beating myself up about how well I was or wasn’t doing, how terrible I looked, comparing myself to perceived notions of how others were doing, all of those things. Some days I felt like my wrists were bound and I was being dragged along with my feet running to keep up but tripping and falling when I couldn’t.
I have regrets about not taking better care of myself. I wish I’d stayed in bed more and rested. I wish I’d gone to bed earlier. I wish I hadn’t let the influx of visitors into our home so early and so often. I wish I’d had the nerve to ask people to help out more or to ask them to leave when they were stressing me out. I wish I’d questioned authority more and I wish I’d said “no” sometimes.
Recently, I have really embraced this idea of acknowledging and marking the “fourth trimester” of pregnancy – those first three months after a baby is born and treating a new mama with the same delicacy and tenderness as when she was pregnant. This encompasses both others being mindful of her needs and supporting her and also a new mama giving herself permission to take it easy.
We treat expectant and new mothers so terribly in our culture really. We demand them to act as if there’s nothing out of ordinary happening when they’re growing their babies. They must work at the same pace and intensity as before, they must not show weakness, they must carry on as normal. When in fact, what’s happening to them is nothing but extraordinary and so very special.
We heap the same pressures on the new mother, who must bounce back and get out there as if nothing happened. Back to pre-pregnancy body, pre-pregnancy fitness levels, pre-pregnancy interests, pre-pregnancy social life. The glare of society down on top of you to get on with it is smothering. New mothers should be putting all of their energies into their new families and restoring their energies and their bodies, not trying to fit an unrealistic and unattainable ideology of supermotherhood because everyone else is doing it. They’re not by the way. They’re trying to figure out how you’re doing it. We’re so tough on ourselves, it’s awful really.
Of course, it’s very easy to say relax, just mind yourself, no one else but putting it in practice is another story. I promised myself that I would do all of the things that I now regret not doing but the reality was very different. In some ways I feel like I wasn’t allowed. Who was I looking for permission from, I don’t know – but I didn’t feel like it was given. That isn’t to suggest that I’m looking outside myself to allocate blame, my behaviour and my decisions are ultimately my own.
In the same vein, a little bit of me believes that if I was encouraged to take it easy on myself, then my extended susceptibility to suggestion would have responded. But who knows…
Tell you what though, at that exact time – not before, not after – I think it would have been really nice to hear this:
“Take it easy new mama. You deserve it, you need it and your baby will thank you. How many times are you going to have this special time in your life? Keep your eye off the clock and the calendar. Find your own feet and your own groove in your own time. Get your energy back, it will serve you and your family in the long run.”