It’s very common to see pregnant families preparing their baby’s room, buying baby’s clothes and accessories, also planning for birth, reading about it, making their choices… What we don’t see often is families preparing for postpartum. Antenatal courses touch briefly on the subject and are more focused on newborn care, showing families how to change nappies, swaddle, feed and burp their babies, all important subjects of course, but very little is said about the emotional rollercoaster of postpartum and what you can do to have the mind, space and energy to deal with it when time comes.
We, from Motherly Hug, always think of the postpartum period as a whirlwind. A whirlwind that happens physically and emotionally; in the body and in the soul. It’s easier to talk about the physical part. The body slowly going back to what it was before pregnancy (excluding the part of breastfeeding), the uterus contracts and returns to its place, you bleed for at least two weeks, the care with the scar of the surgery if you have gone through caesarean section, the recovery of the perineum, especially if there was laceration or episiotomy, the sudden drop in hormones, especially progesterone (at the same time as prolactin levels rise, if you breastfeed).
Based on bodily changes, there are those who estimate the duration of the postpartum period in 40 days, but the truth is that, emotionally speaking, it lasts longer than those six weeks.
The emotional rollercoaster comes to mark us forever. We may oscillate between intense joy and immense sadness. Between familiarity and strangeness. Between satisfaction and restlessness. Between gratitude and questioning. So much happens in this crossing between what we have been and what we will be! Like the chrysalis, we are transformed. And it’s intense, very intense. But it can be smooth. Intense and smooth, in this apparent contradiction.
Hormones and the emotional well-being
The physiological explanation for the emotional rollercoaster blames hormones. Not only there is a sudden drop in progesterone and estrogen, which were high in pregnancy, but prolactin (to produce breastmilk) comes in the scene, which makes us more sensitive.
Apart from that, we must consider that we have just gone through one of the most important events of our lives, an unforgettable moment that will be with us forever. Whatever combination of hormones it is, it’s impossible not to be more sensitive, touched, with an open heart and soul. The mother’s satisfaction with her birth experience, whether normal or surgical, greatly interferes with the level of the emotional turmoil at postpartum. The ones who keep fond memories of their baby’s birth, even if it wasn’t exactly as they dreamed, will feel stronger and more empowered to cope with the life-changing challenges they’re going through. On the other hand, the feeling of frustration and the emotional pain that some mothers have when they remember childbirth can make them more fragile and even more sensitive.
The loss of identity
Another important thing at postpartum, which plays a key role in our emotions, is the loss of identity. We are no longer who we were, but we don’t know yet who we will be as a mother. Our references are all far from our reality – work, hanging out with friends, going to a café, family lunches, going to the beach/movies, etc., now seem like distant memories. And those things and pleasures would “tell us” who we were. Now, on the contrary, we’re dealing with new situations, and doing things for the first time can also make us nervous. To “aggravate”, this time it’s serious. I mean, it’s not just butterflies in the stomach when driving for the first time after getting your driver’s license, it’s not the nervousness we feel before going on a stage. It’s a vulnerable human being that depends on us. For everything! A little baby who doesn’t come with a manual and who can’t speak. It’s such a responsibility that we may feel the weight of it on our shoulders for some time.
The constant tiredness
Tiredness adds to this equation. Whether it’s because baby cries, or because we get up every hour to breastfeed, or because we care so much about the baby that we open our eyes from time to time during sleep to check if baby’s okay, for whatever reason – after all every baby is unique and each family has its own experience – the fact is that the loss of good nights’ sleep also has an impact. Any tired human being becomes more irritable, with mood swings, more sensitive. Let alone a new mum. I remember those nights when I saw the sun rising without having slept one hour in a row… they gave rise to the days when I cried the most, when I wondered: what have I done with my life?
Of course, each woman is unique and therefore each postpartum journey will have their own challenges. There are women who face postpartum feeling lonely, disconnected from their partner, with no family or friends around, and without the possibility to delegate the practical tasks of the house to others. There are women who, on the contrary, are never able to be alone because the visits keep coming, and they come with opinions, sometimes even judgments. In those situations, postpartum takes on proportions that I can’t even measure.
So, for new mums to be able to deal with the emotional rollercoaster, which is something we can’t predict or precisely prepare for, there are things that can be done, especially while still pregnant, that will allow them the space, mind and energy to deal with the unpredictable and unpreparable part of postpartum.
I’ll be talking about them in the workshop “Preparing for Postpartum: The 4th trimester”, on the 2nd of November, from 1pm to 3pm, at Newlands Community Centre, in Wellington/NZ. Lots of useful information and practical tips that will give you the confidence you need that you’re paving a good road for a smooth and positive postpartum experience. Worth every cent and every minute of your time!
Click here for more info!
I look forward to sharing thoughts and tips with you!