At a gathering of pre- and postpartum professionals, one woman, an Indian immigrant, asked the group, “Why do American woman feel the need to be on top of things right after their babies are born? When I had my babies in India, I was in bed beside my baby for 40 days, had someone serving me special herbs and foods, and both I and my baby got massages every day. What’s with the ‘hoist yourself up by your bootstraps’ mentality here?”
That was the first time I heard it; but it certainly wasn’t the last.
As I joined other groups of postpartum professionals, I heard time and again about the importance of self-care and taking it easy during the postpartum weeks. Indigenous cultures all over the world have ritual care for new mothers, often lasting for about six weeks. As I read books and talked to professionals, I learned so much about postpartum rituals and care from around the world … and then I thought back to my own postpartum experience.
The transition into motherhood is overwhelming for most mothers; for me, though, it was doubly overwhelming. My firstborn were twins. After a long pregnancy with many ups and downs, at 37.5 weeks, my babies were born. Suddenly I was plunged into a world I didn’t even know existed. I was clueless about everything. There was so much to do, and despite having just had a C-section, I refused to be confined to bed.
I was up and around for most of the day those first few weeks, busy with tasks that I cannot even remember. Somehow, despite the fact that my husband pitched in a ton, despite my mother, sister, and mother-in-law visiting for a week each to take the load of housework of my shoulders, despite the friends who sent meals over and the cleaning help we had every week, I hardly ever napped. It wasn’t just not napping, though; I hardly stopped moving. In short order, I was shopping for food and clothes, and even attending my friend’s son’s bris.
Now, I look back in shock at my postpartum activity. But then, it didn’t seem so crazy. It was freeing not to have 50-pound watermelon of kicking baby strapped to my middle. Sure, I was zombie-eyed and exhausted, but I could move again, and it felt great. I felt like a different person — certainly not like an invalid! And I hear that sentiment repeated again and again by new mothers: “I’m not an invalid! I can get it myself. I feel fine.”
That could totally be true. But that doesn’t mean that you’re ready to run a marathon. Or show up to your son’s bris a week after birth, replete with makeup and heels. Or attend a wedding less than a month later, baby in tow. Or that your baby is up to the task of entertaining lots of loud adults (or even just a few!) for hours.
Your body’s just been building a human being for nine months, and, whether you’ve undergone labor or not, had a vaginal or a Cesarean birth, getting that baby out of you was a major trauma on your body. You’ve got a placenta-sized wound in your uterus that needs to heal, hormones that need to settle, and a new baby — or in my case, two — getting in the way of the sleep that’s usually recommended. That’s a whole lot going on at once!
A local midwife here in Chicago recommends the rule of 5 days: 5 days in bed, 5 days on bed, 5 days around bed. But even after those two weeks, she and other postpartum professionals around the world talk about the importance of respecting your body. It’s okay if you take things easy for a little bit. It’s okay to have a mummy tummy for months after your baby is born. It’s okay to accept for, and even ask for, help.
And then, there’s our babies.
Sometimes I feel bad for them. There they were, enjoying an idyllic existence of perfection. Never hungry, never overstuffed, never cold, never hot, always surrounded by comforting regular noises muffled by the sound of their little swimming pools, no gravity weighing them down, no bright lights, no loud sudden noises, nothing new to look at, smell, feel or taste. In a matter of hours, with no warning of what is to come, they enter a bright, loud world. And we expect them to grow up and be adults about it. But as a mom and a baby sleep consultant, I’ve found that newborns can’t really handle stimulation beyond 45 to 60 minutes. When there’s too much going on, they’ll just shut down — in an attempt to minimize the stimulation they’re being exposed to.
Entering the world of postpartum care, and as a sleep consultant, in particular, I had the opportunity to meet with women with different cultural values and learn more about what is going on in our bodies and our baby’s minds in those weeks after birth. It was eye-opening for me. I’d never realized how much the American go-getter mentality has affected the way we view our needs as postpartum mothers and, by extension, our new babies’ needs.
Having just given birth to Baby No. 3, this time I know that it’s okay to relax, to stay in my pajamas, accept and ask for more help, and focus on my baby’s and my own adjustment. Now I know how letting go of any expectations of myself and my body can transform my recovery, how respecting my body’s and my baby’s needs and limits has the power to transform the postpartum period into a more relaxing, enjoyable and energizing period for my whole family.