It’s said today that the postnatal period lasts 6 weeks or 40 days. Such duration takes into account only the physical aspects of the period, as 6 weeks is the time it takes the uterus to go back to its normal size and place. However, the emotional aspects of postpartum last a lot longer!
We, from Motherly Hug, advocate the importance of dedicating a few hours during pregnancy to the planning of the postnatal period. Only a few hours of practical postpartum planning will help a lot. We are talking, for example, about thinking of who is part of your support network, talking to your support people to establish who will be in charge of cleaning the house, cooking (or freezing food), who will handle the visits, and other mundane tasks. Organizing the practical side will allow the new mum to dedicate exclusively to the baby and to herself, which is fundamental in the postnatal period. If the new mum doesn’t have to worry about the world around her, she will have the space, mind and energy to deal with the emotional roller coaster that happens to all of us as we become mothers.
The physiological explanation for the emotional ups and downs blames the hormones. With the sudden drop in progesterone and estrogen, which were high in pregnancy, and also prolactin (to facilitate breastfeeding) coming on the scene, we do get really sensitive.
Apart from that, we have to consider that we have just been through one of the most important events of our lives, an unforgettable moment that will mark us forever. Whatever combination of hormones it is, it is impossible not to be more sensitive, touched, with an open heart and soul. The mother’s satisfaction with her birth experience, be it normal or surgical, greatly interferes with the emotional roller coaster of postpartum.
That woman who has good memories of the birth of her baby, even if it was not exactly as she dreamed, may feel stronger and empowered to face the change of life that is happening. But the feeling of frustration and pain that some mothers may have when they remember their birth experience only contributes to make them fragile and even more sensitive.
The loss of identity
Another very important thing in the postnatal period, which plays a fundamental role in our emotions, is the loss of identity. We are no longer who we were, but we don’t know yet who we are. That which is familiar to us is far from our reality – work, hanging out with friends, having a coffee, family lunches, going to the movies, etc., now seem like a distant memory. But these events “told us” who we were. Now, on the other hand, we are dealing with new situations – doing things for the first time can also make us nervous. To make this even more dramatic, now it is serious. I mean, it’s not simply butterflies in the stomach when driving for the first time after getting your driver’s license, it’s not the anxiety before going up on the stage. It’s a human being who depends on us. For. every.thing. A little baby who doesn’t come with instructions and doesn’t know how to talk. It’s such a responsibility!
Sleep deprivation adds to the equation. Whether it’s because the baby cries, or because we get up every hour to breastfeed, or because we worry so much about the baby that we open our eyes from time to time during sleep to check if baby is okay, whatever it is for – after all, every baby is unique and every family has their own experience –, the fact is that the loss of uninterrupted sleep has its impact. Any tired human being becomes more irritable, with more mood swings, more emotional. What about the new mum? I remember the nights when I saw the sunrise, desperate because I hadn’t slept even one hour in a row, gave rise to the days when I cried the most, when I asked myself: what did I do with my life?
Not to mention the baby blues, a subject for an article on its own. And also the weight of the responsibility of taking care of such a vulnerable human being, a “weight” that may be felt on your shoulders for a good first few months…
There are women who go through postpartum alone, feeling disconnected from their partner, with no family or friends around, and without the possibility to delegate the household tasks to others. There are women who, on the contrary, cannot be alone because the visitors don’t stop coming, and with them many times come opinions, sometimes judgments. In these situations, the postnatal period takes proportions that I don’t even know how to measure.
How to help?
There is a lot to be said about the emotional roller coaster in the postnatal period. But what I’d like to make clear is that emotional support can be simple. A mere demonstration of affection, a question about the mother’s wellbeing, simple things that can make a difference: How are you today? How can I help you? We can’t just focus on the baby and forget about the mother. Creating opportunities for her to have small pleasures (a cup of tea sipped quietly, browsing a magazine, a long shower or bath) helps the mother reconnect to herself. Other times, all you have to do is listen to the new mum, let her talk about her feelings without judging her.
The emotional roller coaster in the postnatal period can be complex. Dealing with it when you are a support person to a new mum can be simple.
“When mothers find spaces in which what happens to them is not only shared, but, moreover, it is normalised, postpartum is no longer a feared monster and can turn into a magical crossing.” (Laura Gutman, Maternity: coming face to face with your own shadow – my translation)
*written by Dulce Piacentini