My Postpartum Journey
I read a scary thing the other day: women in their childbearing years account for the largest group suffering from depression in this country. According to PostpartumDepression.org, “Approximately 70% to 80% of women will experience, at a minimum, the ‘baby blues’. Many of these women will experience the more severe condition of postpartum depression or a related condition” AND “these numbers only account for live births. Many women who miscarry or have stillbirths experience postpartum depression symptoms as well.” Also, many women, like me, don’t report how they’re feeling and therefore aren't even accounted for.
I never really understood or fully respected postpartum depression until I started feeling the baby blues myself—so I wanted to share a little about my own journey.
A few months ago, I wrote about feeling anxiousness and a mix of other emotions as I anticipated the arrival of our second baby. I was surprised by how much this post resonated with others. This is clearly something that isn’t discussed enough. Pregnancy is not strictly joyous, it can be an emotionally complicated season for many women.
Postpartum is another emotionally complicated season.
My second postpartum experience has been more challenging than my first and has made me realize (in that way that living through something hard can do) how different each postpartum experience is—not only from person to person but from baby to baby.
If you’re lucky, you have a lot of support during your postpartum journey: you have people cooking meals for you, washing and folding laundry, cleaning your home, doing your dishes, holding the baby while you shower, making sure you have water every time you nurse, watching baby while you and your partner spend much-needed time together, taking care of the baby while you pump or while you exercise. If you are not so lucky, you may be feeling pretty envious just reading this paragraph right now :-)
The arrival of my daughter coincided with several crises and illnesses in my family and so my postpartum needs understandably took a backseat. My usual support system wasn’t readily available and I found myself alone a lot.
I felt completely overwhelmed in those first few weeks so I was incredibly grateful when two friends offered to drop off dinner, another offered to go grocery shopping for me and a few others offered to take my first-born off my hands for the afternoon.
Some people—amazing people—show up in big ways for others because they understand how meaningful help is when you're postpartum.
I had to navigate my second postpartum experience differently than my first. I think this is true for a lot of parents. When you’re welcoming an additional child (or children), you usually get less support but, sadly, the opposite should be true: the more kids you have, the more help you should receive.
The silver lining for me was that being alone forced me out of the house more, even though all I wanted to do was stay in bed in my PJs all day, un-showered and covered in spit-up. Instead, we went to the playground, the library, the farmers market, to soccer practice, to swimming lessons and to many other activities. I found I was braver the second time around. We went out to dinners in those early weeks at restaurants (we never did that with our first!), we took the baby to the movie theater (she slept through the whole thing), and more. I found great babysitters and mother’s helpers. I cobbled together help when I needed it most. But damn was it hard. It still is. I cried all the time. Adjusting to two kids is challenging. You have less breaks from parenting and it’s harder on your mental health. And in my case, being alone so much made me sad.
As the saying goes, raising a child takes a village, but I think it also takes a village to properly support a new mother. And that support is sadly lacking for most. In fact, we are doing women a huge disservice by making them feel like discarded vessels once they have children. All focus turns to the baby and very little remains on the mother.
I remember calling my OBGYN office and asking when my first appointment would be after the baby’s arrival and they said “Eight weeks.”
I said, “Oh. Is there anything before then?” “No, just the eight week.”
In those first eight weeks, a mother may be learning how to breastfeed, healing her body and mind from the trauma of birth, learning how to be a parent (or a parent to new children while still parenting the old), experiencing huge hormonal shifts, wondering over and over again what is normal (for your body, for your child), managing sleep deprivation, wrestling all these strange and new mama bear instincts, adjusting to changing relationship dynamics, and so much more.
At my eight week appointment, my midwife said, “You look great! You don’t even look like you had a baby!” On the outside, I guess I looked pretty good, all considering. But I was 20 minutes late to the appointment because the baby had been screaming so loudly in the car that I couldn’t hear the GPS directions and missed a turn. The person who parked next to me didn’t leave enough space for me to open my car door to take out the car seat so I had to park elsewhere and walk further, lugging the awkwardly heavy carseat. The baby had a blowout at the doctors office while I was being checked out and I had forgotten a change of clothes. I had to breastfeed her as soon as we arrived in the lobby to calm her down. “When do I come back for another appointment?” I asked the woman I had come to love during our many visits throughout my pregnancy. “I’ll see you in a year!” she said happily. And I realized this was it. I drove home with the screaming baby and thought about how crazy it was to go from having so much care during pregnancy to having absolutely none postpartum.
What’s my takeaway?
We desperately need to shift postpartum care in this country—and it starts with us. All of us.
If you are currently postpartum, don't be afraid or too proud to ask for help. I mean it. Be specific about what you need, be honest about how you're feeling.
If you are no longer postpartum but reading this has made you realize that you didn't get enough postpartum support, it’s ok to feel anger and sadness and frustration. It’s ok to process whatever it is you are feeling, which for many of us is a strange mixture of joy and sadness, fulfillment and emptiness, gratitude and resentment. As the saying goes: parenthood is the hardest thing you will ever love. Maybe you’re well past those years but you still remember what it felt like to be alone, what it felt like to fill up your children’s cups when your own cup often remained empty.
If you had enough postpartum support but you still found the transition to parenthood incredibly difficult, you are not alone. It's hard for all of us, no matter what your circumstances are.
What can you do? Treat other postpartum women the way you would want to be treated or the way you WISH you had been treated during your own postpartum journey.
The reality is not every postpartum experience has the same amount of support. Most women don’t have the “village” needed to feel healthy and happy during what is arguably one of the hardest life transitions. When you are spending every waking (and even non-waking) moment caring for a helpless being, you tend to neglect yourself.
Here are a few things you can do to support a postpartum person in your life:
ALL of my students agree this is one of the biggest helps: Cook a healthy meal and drop it off. One of my friends made me meatloaf, a perfect postpartum meal, another made beef bolognese, equally amazing, and both dishes were really good for postpartum recovery. Chicken Soup, Chili or Shepherd's Pie are a few other good options.
Offer to drive other children to school or activities.
Offer to babysit, even if for thirty minutes so the new parent can take a shower.
Send fresh flowers or something that's just for the mom to enjoy.
Reach out and say you’re thinking of them with no expectations that you’ll hear back in a timely manner.
Be understanding if they cancel plans.
Offer concrete ways to help, don’t just say, “I’m here if you need.”
Do their laundry. Offer to drop off their fluff & fold or dry cleaning.
Wash their dishes.
Hold the baby and talk to them. Or let them hold the baby while you entertain them with stories from the outside world. Some people want a break from holding their babies, others want company while they hold the baby.
Bring over coffee or tea or other tasty treats.
Invite them on a walk, with or without baby.
Get them a massage (even one at their home) or give them one while you visit.
Make a postpartum care package with lactation friendly treats.
Walk their dog(s).
Offer to be a breastfeeding support buddy.
Don’t just say, “This too shall pass. It gets easier.” Acknowledge how hard the situation is right now and be empathetic to their current struggle. Listen to them.
Get them a manicure, facial, haircut or other pampering appointment.
Go grocery shopping for them or with them.
Send them good books, podcasts or tv show recs.
Offer to join them for doctor’s appointments.
Offer to join them on other errands.
This list is by no means exhaustive but these are little ways you can make a big difference in a postpartum person’s life. You may come up with other ideas that fit a certain individual. Even if you do just one of these things once, it helps. A lot.
My daughter turned 6 months old recently and it felt like such a big milestone. While I'm grateful to be through those hard newborn days, in many ways I wish I could do the last 6 months all over again, this time with more support and less baby blues. But sadly I can't. What I can do is learn from my experience and help others going forward with their own postpartum struggles.
I can be the village for others, and I can encourage others to do the same.
What were your postpartum struggles? And what kind of support was most meaningful to you?
Thanks for reading,