While the postpartum period is usually defined as the first six weeks after the baby’s arrival, the physical and emotional adjustment to postpartum life can take much longer. When you combine the cultural pressure moms feel to “bounce back” to their old selves immediately after giving birth, combined with the fact that the U.S. is the only developed country without paid parental leave, it’s no wonder our postpartum experiences can feel rocky.
Moms are under immense pressure to return to “normal” life but given little time to make the physical and emotional adjustments needed to do so. While everyone’s postpartum journey is different, the good news is that there are steps you can take to smooth your path as you navigate those first few weeks and months of motherhood.
Read on for six things no one tells you about postpartum life and how to manage it.
Lower your expectations
The first few months after having a baby are not the time to remodel your kitchen, finish your novel, or train for your first half-marathon. Both pregnancy and the act of giving birth are extreme tests of your body’s capabilities. Once baby is here, your primary job is making sure you are both well cared for, physically and mentally. This means resetting your expectations about anything beyond that for at least a few weeks in order to rest, recover, and bond with your baby.
If you’re the type of person who lives and dies by your to-do list, this can be tough. You may find yourself exhausted at the end of the day but feeling you have little to show for it. Be gentle with yourself. In the postpartum phase, making it through the day is an accomplishment.
Be gentle with yourself. In the postpartum phase, making it through the day is an accomplishment.
Keep in mind that there is a wide spectrum of experiences when it comes to adjusting to postpartum life. For example, for some women, hormones regulate back to pre-pregnancy levels within six weeks, while for others this can take as long as six months. While your doctor can provide insight into whether what/how you’re feeling is within a normal range, the only real benchmark for postpartum recovery is your own.
While it can be tempting to look at celebrities, friends, or the freshly-showered woman with the perfectly behaved child in the coffee shop as examples of how your life should look after baby, comparing your experience to that of others is a dead-end pursuit. For one, it usually involves comparing how you feel inside to other people’s outsides—hardly a fair assessment.
Understand that your identity has shifted
Becoming a mom is a major identity shift. You may find yourself longing to feel like your old self as you’re coming to terms with the fact that everything about your life has changed.
It’s not uncommon to find that many of your former top priorities now feel secondary or unimportant. It may take time to re-engage in work, hobbies, or certain relationships. In some cases, you may find yourself letting go of some of these things all together. This is completely normal. Motherhood has a way of upending the way we think about ourselves and how we spend our time. The more open we can be to those shifts, the sooner we’ll feel at peace with our new existence.
Put on your own oxygen mask first
While it can be tempting to pour all your time and energy into the new family you’ve created, this will only backfire. If your tank is empty, you’re no good to anyone else.
This can be confusing, because we’re often deluged by cultural messages praising the mothers whose kids never taste a store-bought cookie or cry themselves to sleep—typically at the expense of maternal physical and mental well-being. The truth is that martyrdom is just a stopover on the way to the twin destinations of unhappiness and resentment.
I hesitate to use the phrase “self-care” lest anyone confuse the concept with a face mask or 15 minutes to yourself in the laundry room. Those things are only bandages for the deeper needs we have as mothers for supportive partners and communities, equitable distribution of household responsibilities, and the time and space to nurture our identities outside of motherhood.
Needless to say, the important thing is to get clear on what you need, personally, to replenish your energy and feel ready to plug back into caring for your family.
Take the long view
If I were to get one phrase tattooed on my body, it would be “Everything is a phase.” Nothing gave me more comfort during the postpartum phase while I navigated sore nipples and sleepless nights. Equally, nothing helped me more to savor the good moments, like baby’s first smile or a glass of wine with my husband after the kids were asleep.
It’s a cliché to say it all goes so fast, but clichés are often true. In the end, postpartum life is only a short piece of the long road of motherhood. You will get through it.
Ask for (and accept) help
After I returned home from the hospital with my new baby, one visitor arrived bearing a tray of flowers for me to plant in the backyard along with a bag of potting soil. While I was tempted to ask, “Does this gift come with its own gardener?” I kept quiet. After that, however, I learned to be specific in asking for what I needed.
If someone wanted to stop by and asked what they could bring, I told them. (Lasagna is good. Yard projects are not.) I accepted dinners from neighbors I barely knew and free babysitting from friends who probably thought I’d never say yes. There were also a handful of really hard days when I didn’t hesitate to call my husband at work and insist that he come home early to help me. I’d do all this again in a heartbeat.
When I look back on my postpartum phase, I have mostly good memories. It’s not that there were no hard moments or that there’s nothing I would have done differently; it’s that I feel pride in having come through it as a whole, healthy person. For me, it was the beginning of truly understanding what it meant to take care of myself and someone else.