Transitioning to parenthood can be a bumpy ride whether you are doing it for the first time or the fifth. For over a decade I’ve been working with families that are going through the postpartum phase – experienced it twice myself – and I have compiled a list of tips to help you have a kickass postpartum.
What kind of a postpartum (or transition) you have doesn’t depend entirely on your birth experience. While it certainly is outstanding if you had the kind of birth you planned, prepared, and hoped for, it’s not all that matters when it comes to rocking your postpartum. Everyone is susceptible to face struggles during the transition to parenthood and it’s my hope that having a better understanding of what to expect will help you be better prepared to face anything that you may experience.
Know Thyself, Know Thy Supports
Take inventory. Who do you know? Who wants to help you? What do you need, or think you’ll need? What resources do you have access to and what resources might you need to consider? For example: are you planning to breastfeed? If so, locate the contact information for the local La Leche League and consider visiting one of their meetings before you have the baby. Is babywearing something you’d like to try? Find out if there are local meetups with volunteer experts and lending libraries. What about mommy and baby circles at the library or other ways to get out of the house? Don’t like getting out of the house? Considering hosting a small group yourself or connecting with mom groups online (you might want to join several as they all tend to have a different flavor and this will give you a chance to find one that suits you best). Finally, read up on ways that a postpartum doulas can help and consider the ways ones might be able to support you during your transition.
Let People Help You
If you have people in your life who are genuine, loving, supportive, and willing to help you — let them! The American cultural narrative puts way too much emphasis on our strengths and successes coming from our ability to do it all ourselves. This is not only unrealistic, but it goes against our very nature. We need each other. We are not meant to do it alone. If you’re going to let people in, (I think if they are all those things mentioned above, you should), make sure you do so on your terms. Make it clear that you do want and need help, but give specific ways that they can help. Many new moms worry about having to “share” their new baby with all these well-meaning helpers; and many well-meaning helpers think the best way to help is to come over and do baby-care related things (like hold that baby while mom takes a nap, etc.). Instead, think of ways that these eager helpers can best support the mother-baby dyad. Your job, new mama, is to bond with and get to know your baby. Therefore, give your helpers tasks that support this role. What helpful tasks can you give to your helpers that would make that job – bonding with baby – easier on you?Make a list and be specific and then welcome those helpers into your life!
Hard IS Normal
I know that we want it to feel like bliss (and sometimes it is), but often it’s not. The reality is – it’s hard. Parenthood is hard. Early postpartum can be especially hard. In this day and age we can be overwhelmed by constant images of picture perfect poised families, who look like they fell off the pages of Better Homes and Gardens magazine, via various social media outlets. I call this Pinterest Perfectionism. These images can leave us struggling to reconcile our own experiences and realities with that which we are seeing all around us. In short, we can be left asking what is real and is this normal? I hear so many mothers (and partners) asking me if what they are experiencing (hard days) is “normal.” We have an inherent need to compare ourselves to others; “Where do I measure up?” This is normal. There is nothing “wrong” with looking to our peers to see if we’re “doing this right.” The problem comes when what we’re looking to isn’t “real” life. And these images are everywhere making this challenge very real for many families during their transition to parenthood. Here are two key things to keep in mind with this one: 1) hard doesn’t not mean that you don’t love your child. Say it again – admitting it’s hard does NOT mean that you don’t love your child and 2) hard is normal.
While it’s perfectly normal to feel that it’s hard and overwhelming at times it’s also important to take note of how often you’re feeling this way. While the line between normal and problematic can vary for everyone there is a point at which you and your partner may benefit from outside resources and support. One of the best ways to measure this is by talking about it with someone you trust. Tell your partner, your mother, your friend how you’re feeling. Ask them to not try and “fix it” for you – unless problem solving is what you’re needing at the moment – but just to listen to you. If you find yourself feeling this way (i.e., this is too hard and I’m too overwhelmed) more often than not you may be teetering on or have crossed over that line between normal and problematic. That’s when it’s a good idea to seek some outside help and support.
It’s Rarely 50/50
Regardless of how amazing and loving and supportive your partner is, having a newborn at home, especially during the 4th trimester( but even through the first year) is a lot of hard work; and a lot of that work falls to what is commonly referred to as the default parent. The default parent is, more often than not, the mother. This default doesn’t mean that the baby isn’t bonded or won’t bond with your partner. It doesn’t mean that your partner doesn’t love the baby or that the baby doesn’t love your partner. In most cases, the mother was the baby’s first home (except in cases of adoption or surrogacy) and as such this means that baby knows the mother in a different way. Home means safety and comfort. If you’re breastfeeding it also means food source (which relates to the safety and security issue). Baby knows the way your heartbeats, the way you smell, the canter in your voice; all of these things say “home” to baby. It’s natural, and hard, that baby would want to be with the person who makes them feel safe and at home. This means that partners can often feel at a loss for ways to help share the load, but not for their lack of ability or desire to do so. The idea that a couple would be able to split up all the diaper changes, nighttime feedings, and the walks around the living room singing and swaying the baby to sleep is simply unrealistic. In most cases, it’s just not going to happen that way. I don’t say this to shatter your bubble. I don’t say this because partners don’t care or don’t want to help. I say this to help you, as a couple, set realistic expectations. Rather than assume that “baby tasks” can be split up evenly, take stock around your home and look to other areas to try and find a balance. Recognize and expect that mama is, most likely, going to be that default parent. That doesn’t mean that the other parent can’t or shouldn’t try as much as possible to jump in and help, but rather, recognize that the baby may disagree with the adults about who they’d like to have helping meet their needs. The best thing you can do to prepare yourself for this is to 1) anticipate it and 2) start the dialogue about it now. Developing strong and healthy patterns of communication around the challenges of parenting will serve you well (way beyond parenting). Remember that it’s okay for both of you to express frustration and for neither of you to be able to “fix it” for the other. Practice good listening and empathy with each other!
Make a Postpartum Plan
Like many people you most likely made a birth plan. Even if you didn’t make one, you’re probably familiar with the concept. We spend a lot of time during pregnancy focused on the birth and rarely much time on what comes after. Set aside time to assess what you want your postpartum to look like and then ask yourself what you need to achieve that. A postpartum plan can be just as beneficial as a birth plan. Take some time to process the suggestions I’ve made above and reflect on how you’d handle some of the situations and expectations. Then, share your thoughts with your partner (or other members of your support system). From these discussions, you should be able to lay out an idea of what your expectations and hopes are for your postpartum and also make a plan for how to meet these. Whenever you’re making a plan for anything (from building a house, to planning a wedding) it’s always important to be flexible and ready to pivot and adjust when necessary. While this flexibility can be essential to your success, it’s not the same thing as not having a plan at all. When we know what we want and we make a plan to achieve it, we’re much more likely to get there (or pretty close); than when we don’t take inventory, understand our expectations and our abilities, and establish realistic and achievable goals in the first place.
Sometimes You Need to Talk
One thing that is pretty universal for all new families is that after the baby arrives it’s all about the baby. Is the baby eating? Is the baby eating enough? Is the baby sleeping; too much, too little, in the “right” spot? When was the last time the baby pooped? Did I bathe the baby? Do I need to bathe the baby? What does that cry mean? The umbilical cord is all….weird, what does that mean? It’s important to focus our energies on the new baby, of course; however, mamas and partners too, can sometimes feel a little lost in the mix. This “losing” of ourselves is both a beautiful and brutal process. Transitioning to parenthood is a metamorphosis, not a gradual evolution. You become something entirely new. As such, sometimes you need to talk through things. Sometimes you need some outside supports. Seeking help from a professional, who will focus on YOU and not just the baby, can be really helpful as you go through your metamorphosis.
One of the most important things that I want people to know about seeking mental health support is that you do NOT need to meet the criteria for a perinatal mood or anxiety disorder (or otherwise) to benefit from talking to someone. Approximately 1 in 7 women will be diagnosed with a perinatal mood or anxiety disorder, like postpartum depression. And while it is helpful to know the signs (see a good list here) it’s not necessary to meet any or all of those signs to want or need to talk to someone. Often I meet with clients for just a few sessions to process what they are experiencing and to help develop or refresh their coping skills to increase their status as a Rockstar parent. There are many benefits to sitting with someone in a non-judgmental environment to say whatever you need to say (the good, the bad, the super ugly).
I’m here to listen. I get the privilege and opportunity to meet with parents during a pivotal time in their lives. I love hearing their stories and working with them to kickass at postpartum and beyond!
I am a licensed as a mental health counselor (LMHC) with specific training in perinatal mood and anxiety disorders (PMADs). I began working in the mental health field in 2005, after completing my masters in psychological counseling from Monmouth University. From 2009 until 2011, I took some leave to re-enter graduate school and work towards a PhD in Human Development and Family Studies from Iowa State University. My doctoral studies and post-graduate work focus on childbirth, child development, parenting, and the intersectionality of these three. I am also a birth doula and childbirth educator. I was certified as a birth doula through DONA, Intl. in 2008 and a childbirth educator with ICEA in 2010. Additionally, have worked with several national and international birth and human rights advocacy organizations over the years promoting improvement to our maternity care systems.
Find out more about Dr. Hardy by visiting www.AmandaHardyPhD.com
Photo credits:Andrea Oleson, Photography (Des Moines Birth stories) and Angie DeWaard – Singular Focus Photography