Back when I was pregnant, I spent a lot of time trying to prepare myself both for the birth, and the postpartum period afterwards. I believed wholeheartedly that a big part of the reason for the high rate of postpartum depression was that new birthing parents just didn’t get enough postpartum support.
I’m a planner, so it seemed reasonable that if I just planned ahead, I would be able to line up the support that I needed, and if I didn’t breeze through it, that support would at least make it tolerable. I was wrong.
A lot has been written about how to prepare for the postpartum experience, and how to get through it. I’ve read it all. Because of all that information, I skipped postpartum pads and just bought a huge pack of depends. I agreed to let my mother come and stay with us right after the baby was born, with the understanding that she was coming to help with chores while we got to know the baby, not the other way around. I recruited a friend to organize dinner drop-offs for us. I had a freaking herbal bath planned.
For crying out loud, I was ready. But life does not actually care about my plans, or your plans, or anyone’s plans.
This is not a guide for how to deal with the average postpartum experience, which is challenging enough. This is what to do when everything goes wrong and you’re completely screwed and you just need to make it through these weeks so that eventually, someday, you can learn how to be the mom you want to be. This is for when postpartum is not just hard, it’s hell.
If that’s your life right now, I feel you. It’s different for all of us, maybe your baby was in the NICU and you were stuck going to and from the hospital, maybe you weren’t well enough to care for the new baby and had to outsource that to someone else, maybe you really, really wanted to breastfeed but it just didn’t happen. It’s hard, and you are allowed to be not okay.
In my case, my cozy home birth plan turned into a C-section, but only after a week of labor that left me with PTSD. Then my C-section incision got infected and had to be re-opened. Then my gallbladder went nuts and had to be removed. Then my mom had taken too much time off while I was in labor, so she wasn’t available to come help after the baby was born like we’d planned, and I wasn’t allowed to take any baths, herbal or not.
If you are wondering how on earth things went so horribly wrong and how you’ll make it through the nightmare, this is for you. These are my hard-won tips for making it through to the other side.
Throw out the plan.
You may have had a really great plan. There may be an number of reasons that plan is not working. That can be hard. Like really, earth-shatteringly, mind-numbingly HARD. And one of the kindest things you can do for yourself is to try to let go of that plan. Sometimes your needs change, sometimes your abilities change, sometimes you need a new plan.
When this happened to me, I became obsessed with the idea that if I could only return to my plan and get back on track, everything would be alright. Please don’t do that to yourself. Do not waste your limited energy on trying to change reality. Instead, put it into getting the help that you need now, rather than what you thought you would need before the baby was born.
Lean on your support network exactly as hard as you can.
There will be times in your life as a parent when people will offer to help, and you’ll say, “oh no, I can handle it.”
Now is not one of those times. Do not pretend now is one of those times.
If someone offers to help, the answer is, “Yes, please.” If they ask how they can help, give them whatever task you do not have time/energy/physical ability to accomplish right now.
Do not be embarrassed. Do not worry that they don’t actually want to come over and do your laundry. If they don’t, they’ll backpedal and find a way out of it. But many people do really, earnestly want to help, and now is the time to let them do so.
Ask for help when you think you might need it, don’t wait until you KNOW you do.
During the dark days of postpartum, I had many moments when I thought, “I’m not sure if I’ll be able to do [whatever task], but I’ll try first and only ask for help if I really really need it!”
It’s a nice thought, and the desire to be more self-sufficient is, arguably, admirable. It’s also unrealistic if you are in really rough shape following a traumatic birth. If there’s something you think you might have trouble handling without assistance, reach out right away. Sometimes getting help can take time and, in my experience, waiting until it’s urgent often means waiting until it’s too late.
Just take the pills.
If you’re prescribed medication by your doctor – such as pain meds after a C-section, or antidepressants for postpartum depression – please do yourself a favor and take the damn pills. You don’t have to be on meds for the rest of your life, but they can act as an important bridge to get you through.
My doctor suggested that I might benefit from low dose antidepressants for my postpartum depression, and I said no. I waited and waited, and tried to convince myself that I could get through PPD and PTSD without the support of medication. Eventually, I had to call and beg the doctor to send a prescription to the nearest pharmacy right away, because it had become dangerously urgent.
You know what? I regret my hesitancy. There are a couple of weeks of my son’s life that I can’t even remember. Those precious early days? I lost some of those because I was too proud and too afraid of medication. If I could do it over again, I’d take the medication at the first suggestion.
As with all of the other kinds of help offered to you, you deserve relief. You deserve to be able to be present for yourself, and your newborn baby.
Breastfeed if you can and want to, but don’t feel guilty if you don’t.
For some people – myself included – breastfeeding was a godsend. For others, it’s a nightmare. In my case, it was one of the few things that kept me going when everything was going to shit around me.
It helped me to connect with my baby when that seemed almost impossible, and kept me in my physical body when I would’ve otherwise completely disassociated. I heartily recommend breastfeeding if you’re able.
But! It’s also your body, and you shouldn’t feel obligated to do anything with your body that you don’t want to do, and that includes feeding your kid. Many people have a difficult experience with breastfeeding and, if it’s not your thing, you absolutely should not beat yourself up about it.
Again, you deserve to make decisions that are best for not only your baby, but for yourself too.
Keep The Baby Weight
Look, if you want to try to lose weight later on, you should do whatever makes you feel best. But right now, especially if you are having a particularly rough postpartum experience, your body needs a damn break. Eat whatever the hell you want. Eat everything that you enjoy.
Women, especially, we are under constant pressure to be the smallest we can possibly be. Give yourself a break from all of that, at the very least for right now, if not forever. If you’re breastfeeding, bear in mind that you’re going to actually need more calories now than you did when you were pregnant. So, eat your fruits and veggies! But also anything else that you want.
Zoom In On The Tiniest Joys
It can be hard to enjoy having a new baby when you’re sleep deprived and exhausted. It can be even harder when everything is going wrong, when you’re sick, when the baby is sick, when you don’t have the support you’d hoped for, when you can’t lift your newborn. I’m not going to tell you that all of those things don’t matter, because we know they do.
Still, there are tiny moments of joy to be found. Look for them. You don’t have to try to be happy all the time, of course it’s ok to be sad, and it’s ok to grieve the way you thought things would go. But try to find those little moments. And when you do find them, soak them up as completely as you can.
When that new little human falls asleep on your chest. When they grab onto your little finger as tightly as they can. When you see that they recognize your face, and you know that you’ll love them forever with the ferocity of a thousand mama bears. Just be in those moments. Everything else can – and will – wait.
Remember that you are still a person.
I found that there was a huge push to stop being me, that everyone had the same message, “well, you’re a mom now.” As if being a mom suddenly negated all of the other things that I was, and am. I felt really lost.
But you are still you, even if you’re different now, even if you have a few more scars. Do whatever you have to do to tap into that. It’s not selfish, it is necessary.
Remember this: you’re still a person, and you’re going to make it through this.
I believe in you.