Suffice to say, I’m not a medical professional. I’m not an OB or a midwife. I’m not a trained doula, or a lactation consultant. The two births I’ve witnessed have been my own. The postpartum healing I’ve witnessed has been limited to a few close friends and one sister and even that has been observed somewhat from a distance. The truth is that apart from professionals in the field, many 0f us don’t have an intimate experience of the postpartum experience. But start to talk about what your experience was like postpartum among a group of new parents and there will often emerge a seemingly collective question:
Why didn’t anyone tell me?
While it would be foolhardy (and perhaps even dangerous) to imply that postpartum recovery looks the same for everyone, I do think it’s helpful to at least broach the subject; to enter these stories into the record, so to speak. My own story is, of course, particular to me. I’ve had two unmedicated vaginal births following very rapid labors. I’ve experienced first and second-degree tearing with both births, but I’ve recovered without exceptional difficulty. I’ve breastfed two babies—knock on wood—without anything beyond initial discomfort. By most accounts, I’ve had things easy. I have not given birth to a baby who was already lost, or lost soon after delivery. I have not recovered from a Cesarian section or other major surgery. Beyond the first week’s experience of tearful “baby blues,” I have not experienced postpartum depression. I have not been mistreated or misunderstood by medical professionals. I have not welcomed a new baby by adoption or surrogate. These are also real, important stories of postpartum recovery that need to be shared and listened to.
On lifestyle blogs that delve into the realm of parenthood, the most we often get is a note that the writer has taken some time off to enjoy baby snuggles. For my part, when I’ve mentioned that I’ve just given birth and might be slow to respond to emails, I’ve often been met with a response along the lines of, “so glad you get to enjoy that time with your new baby.” Or, “treasure every moment.” Or, “relish this precious time.” These are all things I’m doing and the notes from friends and perfect strangers along these lines are lovely and warm and very much appreciated. And yet, I think we all deserve a nuanced understanding—and recognition—of what welcoming a baby into the world looks like. We deserve to reframe the postpartum period of rest and recovery as being an essential part of welcoming a new baby and not an optional or luxurious one. This goes especially for parents for whom adequate postpartum care has been historically—or is still—absent, including poor parents in our own country and in resource-poor communities worldwide.
It’s no surprise that in the United States the postpartum period is not framed as a necessary, healthy, essential moment. I live in a country whose federal government provides exactly zero weeks of paid parental leave. On a policy level we largely ignore new parents; on a cultural level we reward their resilience and their ability to bounce back while mostly failing to acknowledge the challenges inherent in the task.
Without a doubt, for me welcoming a baby into the world is a moment of great, indescribable joy. It’s also a moment of terrific tenderness. There’s discomfort. There are hormonal swings. There are hunger pangs and heart pangs and bouts of feeling overwhelmed just as much as bouts of feeling euphoric.
For me, the postpartum period is filled with baby coos and impossibly tiny wrinkly feet, and the smell of a baby’s velvet head that evades description, but there’s also a bedside table stocked with ibuprofen and acetaminophen and stool softener. There are soft and absorbent breast pads to soak up milk leaking from engorged breasts. There are cabbage leaves to ease the pain of overfilled milk ducts. There’s painful shuffling to the bathroom. There’s postpartum uterine cramping as intense as labor contractions. There’s frantically gesturing for more cold water to quench a terrific thirst that comes on just as I’ve propped myself into bed to nurse. There’s postpartum bleeding that lasts for weeks. There’s a peri-bottle to clean a stitched-up vagina. There’s witch hazel to soothe the same spot. There are herbal sitz baths. There are groggy (and grumpy) night feedings. There’s losing and regaining patience. There’s terrible cabin fever and blubbering tears.
I don’t have uniquely challenging circumstances. (Indeed, I have most everything going in my favor.) I am not exceptional. My experience is, to use a difficult word: normal. But beyond clichés about new parent exhaustion, almost none of this side of things gets widely talked about, read about, or heard. Let’s put an end to that today. Below, a few resources to prepare yourself if you or someone you love is expecting a new baby. Read them, share them with the new (and old!) parents you know, and share your own stories and resources, too.
A few resources:
Cesarean recovery support: International Cesarean Awareness Network