A Few Ideas to Get You Started in the Challenging Postpartum Period
Thank you to student, Shalini for suggesting this (long) blog post!
It’s no secret that having a baby brings a lot of challenging life changes. If you are expecting your first, it’s hard to know what exactly these changes will be and how best to prepare for them. Even if you are expecting your second or third, there are unknowns regarding how to juggle more than one child or how the needs of this baby may differ from your first. Here are a few tips from my own personal experience. By no means is this list exhaustive, but hopefully it will get you started.
First and foremost, create your support system. Often family and friends can be a great help, but not always. Consider their strengths and weaknesses. Your mother may be a great baby holder so that you can shower or have a nap, but perhaps she won’t change diapers. Your father in law may be excited to share his culinary skills, but will not hold the baby. Perhaps your best friend will be a great person to share your struggles with, but doesn’t have the time to come over and help with the household. Recognize the strengths of the people in your support system so you won’t be disappointed, hurt, or frustrated when they are unable to come through for you. Keeping a list of chores that you can hand over to a willing person and letting them choose a job that is a good fit for them may be a lot less awkward than say, asking them specifically to clean your toilet only to be met with an uncomfortable reaction. In addition, recognize that as time wears on your friends and family are likely to be less available than they are in those first few weeks when everything is new and exciting. It doesn’t mean you will need less help- know who you can call on later on.
Sometimes the biggest support is being allowed your own personal space. Don’t feel bad about setting boundaries with well-meaning people who may not understand your needs as a new parent (even if they happen to be the new grandparents). Your only responsibility in the first couple months is to take care of yourself so you can care for this baby. Sometimes people are excited to meet the new little bundle and will want to come by when you are not feeling up to it. Don’t feel bad about saying no. You can also put a sign on your door indicating you are not taking visitors in case someone shows up unannounced. A tip I got in my first pregnancy was to wear a robe and look harried even if feeling fine, so that people who come by won’t feel comfortable to stay long (or at all). On the flip side, some new parents find that nobody reaches out for a visit because they are worried about putting the new parents out. If you need company, don’t hesitate to reach out to your friends and family.
The best emotional support often comes from other new moms who are right there with you. Start creating your peer community while you are still pregnant. Birth classes and prenatal yoga are two great ways to meet other new moms. Once your baby is born, there are tons of groups and classes for new parents. In Sunnyvale, my Mom & Baby class on Tuesday mornings at Yoga @ Cindy’s offers community support, just as much (if not more) than the actual yoga practice. New moms love Eva’s groups at Blossom in Palo Alto, and Harmony in Campbell is another great resource for facilitated moms groups. Las Madres is a South Bay organization that offers activities organized by neighborhood and your child’s birth year. The Peninsula has PAMP: Parents Club of Palo Alto and Menlo Park. Your parenting community is critical- it is so much easier for two adults to watch ten kids than it is for one person to be alone with one kid (especially if that kid doesn’t even talk yet). The days I shared my space with other mothers of young children made getting through the day so much easier, even if we were still doing all the same mundane baby care tasks that we did alone. (Shout out to Julie Martinez, my moms’ group pal and now forever friend!)
Have a list of professional support on hand. You may need a lactation consultant, a chiropractor, physical therapist who specializes in postpartum healing, or a postpartum doula to care for you as you learn to care for your baby. Household services- food prep delivery, housekeeping, or anything that can be temporarily outsourced can be especially helpful as well. Even if you end up not using any of these services, it’s a good idea to ask for referrals and reach out while you are still pregnant, so you have options available when you are too tired to do the research. Don’t delay if you need any of these services, particularly breastfeeding or emotional support- things can become exponentially more challenging in the days you delay seeking help.
Postpartum Mood Disorders
With all of the hormones that course through the body of a new mom and the lack of consistent sleep, most new moms will have some moments of “baby blues.” Nationally, one in seven will suffer full-blown postpartum depression. That number jumps to one in five in Silicon Valley, according to an article published in 2016 in the Mercury News. That number could be even higher because currently, there are inconsistent screening measures in the medical community and many cases go unreported. I know from personal experience- I struggled with my first to an extreme degree. She cried a lot, didn’t sleep consistently, breastfeeding challenges were beyond the range of normal, and I felt isolated much of the time. Since I had a supportive partner, a healthy baby, and secure home, I felt like I was supposed to be happy and so I didn’t reach out for help. There are many resources for moms suffering from postpartum mood issues- you don’t need an official diagnosis. In addition to Blossom and Harmony, there are multiple resources in the area for new moms that are struggling. Supporting Mamas is a non-profit organization based in San Jose that offers support groups, counseling, and other resources and El Camino Hospital offers Maternal Outreach Mood Services. There is also the PPD Moms Hotline at 1-800-773-6667. If you are struggling with motherhood in any way, PLEASE REACH OUT!
If you are partnered, carve out time for multiple conversations about parenting values before your baby arrives. A book like Becoming the Parent You Want to Be by Laura Davis and Janis Keyser is a great read to guide you through these conversations. It’s worth taking a look at your respective childhoods and discussing what you would like to repeat and what you wish to do differently with your own children. We humans tend to default to what we know- so if you are looking to do things differently, it will take extra planning and support from your partner. Make an effort to align your values before your children arrive, so you have a starting place to navigate from as your children throw you curve balls. Funny story: I have a degree in Radio and TV (really!) with an emphasis on media literacy. When I was finishing college, I had a plan that I would offer my children so many exciting opportunities in the day to day, that they just wouldn’t be interested in TV. It’s so far from reality it’s hilarious! First of all, who the heck has that kind of time to constantly offer stimulating activities to their kids? And second, my kids, like most of their peers, are completely addicted to screens, no matter what I do. Fortunately, my partner and I discussed this issue before we had our children and continue to communicate as media evolves. We know we’re on the same page and continue to support each other and hold the boundaries as our kids (constantly) attempt to bend our rules. This not only creates a stable home for our children, it also strengthens our marriage.
Along with discussion of values, have multiple conversations about division of labor. Until you are a parent at home all day with a baby, you have no idea how you could be totally busy all day, yet never get anything done. Sometimes a working parent will assume that the partner home with the baby will be able to take care of household chores since they are home. My reality was that even folding one load of laundry while home with my babies was a herculean feat! Make a list of every little household thing you can think of and assign each task: grocery shopping, cooking, taking out the trash, buying birthday/ holiday gifts, making medical appointments for the baby (and taking them), cleaning the bathroom, sweeping the floor, replacing the batteries in the smoke alarm, night feedings, car repair, paying the bills, organizing date nights, home repair, yard work, pet care, laundry….this short list is just the tip of the iceberg! Not only will you want to assign responsibility to each task, but discuss what exactly the task entails: it may feel good to trade dinner responsibilities, but not if one person always cooks, while the other orders out every time. Make sure you agree on the definition of each task. And discuss a Plan B if the assigned person can’t tackle the chore at any given time- that’s bound to happen with the unpredictability of life.
Despite all of this discussion and planning, you may find that a lot still does not get done. No worries! Just lower your standards for a while. Someday your house will be tidy again and you will laugh that you once resorted to eating cereal for dinner (more times than you care to admit!). You will never look back and proudly say, “I had the cleanest house when my babies were little,” but you will feel proud that you enjoyed those precious baby moments. It may not feel like it when you are wrapped up in getting through each day with a new human, but it’s absolutely true that they grow really fast. Don’t waste the time worrying about the stuff that doesn’t get done and instead give yourself a pat on the back for the little things that do get done. Some days that may simply be, “I kept the baby alive today.”
Nutrition is important, of course, as you recover from pregnancy and birth and it deserves it’s own category. With a new baby, who has time to cook?! (But you shouldn’t eat cereal every night!) There are numerous ways to make meal time easier. Make entrees in your third trimester and freeze them. Be sure to label each dish with dates, ingredients, cooking instructions, and any other pertinent info so you won’t be thawing out a mystery meal.
New babies often inspire your community to provide a “meal train” in which your friends sign up for a different evening, make a meal and drop it off. There’s even a website to organize it! You can leave a cooler on the porch if you are not up to having visitors. This is an easy way for friends to help- when I have been on the giving end, I simply doubled whatever I was making for my own family. We are lucky to be part of a community who likes to cook and after we had Arya, we got all kinds of creative, ethnically diverse dishes. This could be a great “gift” for a baby shower- have a sign up sheet available at the party in lieu of gifts.
Postpartum may also be a good time to try out the many meal delivery services that are available, like Hello Fresh, Gobble, or Sun Basket. Some deliver ingredients and recipes and have you doing the rest. Others deliver meals and you just need to reheat. And of course there is GrubHub or DoorDash if you want a favorite restaurant brought to you (which can be a great way to have a date night when your baby is still too little to leave at home with a babysitter.)
My mother gave me a great piece of advice when I became a mom: “It took nine months to grow a baby, it takes at least nine months to recover.” Be kind to yourself. When you see a celebrity mom on the cover of a magazine looking great just days after giving birth, remember that she has lots of staff taking care of everything- housekeeping, personal training, nannies, stylists and more. And of course, there’s Photoshop perfecting those photographs once the shoot is over. In other words, she’s living a much different reality! Do not let what you see in the media set these completely unrealistic standards. Even that mom at your moms’ group who looks totally put together, may be falling apart the other 23 hours each day- looks can be deceiving. Don’t worry about losing the baby weight or fitting into the pants you wore before you got pregnant. It will happen eventually. For the first six months to a year, let the food you eat be healthy and nourishing, but don’t waste mental energy counting calories. Let your workouts be about getting outside with your baby and gently building core stability, rather than pushing yourself to look a certain way. Your joints and ligaments are still loose, so you are much more susceptible to injury in the first six months after giving birth.
One of the most effective things you can do for core stability is simply breathing in a coordinated way (belly/ pelvic floor softens on inhalation and draw in on exhalation) and being sure that your postural alignment is optimal (neutral pelvis with perineum facing the floor, ears/ shoulders/ hips/ ankles lined up with weight in the heels). If you are not sure, a pelvic floor physical therapist or an experienced postpartum yoga instructor can help. My students know this is a major focus of all of my pre and postnatal classes. I’m here if you have questions or concerns.
We all know that having a baby is expensive, right? In my experience, babies are cheap. Growing children are expensive! In other words, you really don’t need that much gear in the first year or so, even though Buy Buy Baby wants you to believe the opposite! I found a basic wardrobe (onesies and footie pajamas), diapers, a baby carrier (Moby Wrap, Ergo, and a ring sling were my faves), blankets, co-sleeper (or bassinet) and a convertible car seat to be all I truly needed. If you plan to breastfeed and are a working mother or find yourself with the challenge of low milk supply, a quality breast pump and accessories are essential, as well. Fortunately, quality breast pumps are now covered by insurance. Once you meet your baby and settle into a routine, you will see what else may also be helpful, but you may not have to spring for new items. My son wasn’t a good sleeper in the first few months and I really needed to put him down once in awhile- a baby swing seemed like it could help. A friend lent me hers after her baby had outgrown it. It worked great once or twice and that was it. So glad I didn’t spend a cent and I had someone to give it back to when it was just another thing to trip over in our small house. As your baby grows, buying gently used clothes and gear at second hand stores, like Blossom’s Beanstalk or rummage sales like PAMP’s, is a great way to get lots of stuff for little cash. And check in with your friends or the moms you meet in yoga- our Facebook group has often been used to swap items.
If you already have a toddler or preschooler at home, it may feel a little scary to add a newborn who will need 100% of your attention to the mix. The anxiety goes through the roof when you are trapped on the couch under a nursing newborn as your two year old climbs onto the counter with nobody there to pull him down! (True story.) I learned how to nurse on the go to try and prevent these little mishaps. While often a necessity, it was still rather exhausting! And trying to get the baby down for a nap while occupying the toddler was difficult, too. I often had to rely on TV and holding my breath. (Don’t feel guilty if you have to do that!) A better solution, however, is to hire a mother’s helper. I knew a few homeschooling families- I was able to find a couple of 12-year olds who were interested in coming over for a few hours a few times per week to play with the toddler while I tended to the baby. Those days were the easiest! Other days, I sometimes had two crying babies with needs I couldn’t fully meet by myself and I just sat with both of them in my lap crying until the moment passed- I welcomed it as an opportunity to practice mindfulness meditation.
If your older child is in daycare and it is financially feasible, continue, even if one parent has months of leave from work. It provides stability to your older child who may be having a hard time adjusting to a new sibling and allows the at-home parent a less stressful experience. Anything you can do to maintain your older child’s routine will help lower stress for the whole family.
Do expect some setbacks though. It’s developmentally normal for your older child to act out when a new person is threatening their connection to their parents. Set time aside to be alone with the older child. But be flexible. In our case, my mom was willing to spend time watching Arya so I could take Mace for short outings away from his sister, but he wasn’t having it! He didn’t want to leave his new sister, so we packed her up and Nonnie came with us.
All of the responsibilities that come with welcoming a new baby can be completely overwhelming. Know that you are not alone- every parent before you has struggled to some degree as they welcomed a new child and many more will struggle once your turn has passed. Having an idea of what to expect ahead of time and a bit of a plan for coping with the challenges should reduce the stress, if only a little. Do the best you can in the moment and realize that every day is a new one. If you are like me and find the baby stage to be the most difficult as a parent, take comfort in the fact that it is a relatively short period. In other words, hang in there mama!