Ah, those postpartum days. With both of my children, I felt like I was living in a bleary new universe studded with bright, unforgettable moments. At the beginning, what I remember most is gazing at this precious little creature and thinking:
- I know I am supposed to love you, but I just don’t know you. I should know you, I suppose, because you’ve been inside me for 9 months and I have felt every move you’ve made, but… well, this relationship is going to take a little time to blossom into know and love. In the meantime, I praise God that you’re here and that you’re whole and healthy. We have prayed for you since before you existed! Welcome to the rest of our lives.
- You are a miracle. There is just no way you came from inside me. You may be tiny compared to the rest of the world, but compared to me… you are huge. Also you are so detailed! How did my body know how to help you make your tiny wisps of hair, the intricacies of your blue eyes, and the perfect little nails on your fingers and toes?
And so began my life as a mother of one, and then mother of two. With consternation, wonder, and tentative love.
Those first few weeks of motherhood are different for every mother. The personality of each baby and each mother also ensures that each postpartum period is totally different, or at least that’s how it was for me with Lena and then Gil.
With Lena, I floated on an emotional high that lasted for weeks. I remember those days as a golden season in our lives. Elliott was in the middle of a yearlong assignment with the Army in the desert of Egypt, so he was only home for a few weeks. Lena was born in the middle of his time at home, and I know it was his exclusive devotion and our mutual ecstatic joy – we had such a beautiful baby girl and we were all together!!! – that helped me bounce back so quickly after childbirth and embrace my new role. Breastfeeding clicked, as did our new sleep schedule with our baby. At the hospital, a lactation consultant walked into our room and saw us snuggled in bed together as I laid beside Lena and nursed her. The consultant said, “Well, I can see you don’t need my help!” Encouragement like that gave me wings.
After Elliott left, though, life took on a new edge. I was alone with a 3-week-old baby, living in a tiny studio apartment in D.C., and I knew I needed help. After dropping Elliott off at the airport, I drove (and sobbed) my way to my parents’ house to stay for a few days. A few days turned into a few weeks, and in the end I spent most of the three months until Elliott’s return living at their house in the suburbs. One night when Lena was screaming inconsolably and I was alone in my D.C. studio, I felt the cold fingers of postpartum depression wrapping themselves around my mind and heart, and they terrified me. I fled to places where I would be surrounded by help, activity, and love. With the help of so much family, those early months with my first baby slipped by peacefully and joyously.
Needless to say, my postpartum period with Gil was completely different. We lived in Sicily with no family nearby. We also had Lena, and so now Elliott had an almost full-time job keeping Lena occupied for the entirety of his paternity leave (almost two weeks, with weekends). It was January and our house was cold, so Gil spent most of his time in our bedroom with the heater running, and thus our world became incredibly small and incredibly focused on that one bedroom. I felt confident as his mother, but also pulled in so many more directions than I had been with just one baby. I took longer to heal, longer to bounce back.
And then one-week-old Gil descended into the dark, black hole of “colic.” By “colic” I mean he cried a lot, inconsolably, and was impossibly hard to soothe… maybe not enough to medically qualify him as a colicky baby, but enough that the term describes the misery that we dealt with for months. Every evening from 5pm-11pm was a nightmare. Elliott and I descended into depression. Family came, helped, and left. Friends brought meals, hugs, and left. Elliott often slept in the guest room while I walked and walked and walked around the warm bedroom with our screaming son, gritting my teeth and praying and then swearing and then crying and then eventually falling to sleep beside Gil before the whole process began again an hour or two later.
The sun began to break through the clouds when Gil was about 2.5 months old. He began to sleep in his own room (the weather was warmer) and began to fall asleep with minimal soothing. Slowly, he began to smile, which was later than most babies. By about 5 months he turned onto his stomach on his own, and that was life changing. He now napped on his stomach for more than 30 minutes at a time. By 6 months, Gil was napping twice a day for two hours each, going to bed at 6pm, nursing a few times throughout the night, and waking up full of smiles about 13 hours later. We were finally—finally—in a peaceful new normal. That was the end of what I hope was longest and darkest postpartum period of my life.
Anyway, this was not how I intended this blog post to turn out, but some of it had to be said if I wanted to honestly give postpartum advice. Every baby combined with every stage of life makes every postpartum period entirely unique and entirely different. Postpartum depression is real, but many women (like me with Lena) don’t experience it, and many others (like our whole family with Gil) suffer for months on a roller coaster of emotions, stress, and misery.
Looking back on both of my postpartum periods, here are a few things that made life more manageable:
1) Nutella! OK, high-energy snacks is what I really mean. When your body is learning to make breast milk and trying to recover from childbirth, you need delicious, quick sources of nutrition. While I would recommend granola bars, fruit, and nuts (at the bedside!) first, I have to say… sometimes a spoonful of Nutella right out of the jar just helps the world go ‘round.
2) Burp cloths. New babies spit up a lot, and Gil continued to spit up after every feeding until he was 6 months old. (It was awful.) Forget about using those cute fabric burp cloths; get something really absorbent. For me, nothing worked better than these loosely woven prefolds. So cheap on Amazon. Worth their weight in gold.
3) Something to read. I love nursing while lying down, and that always meant I could put my baby in between a book and me and just… relax. Nursing works so much better when you’re relaxed! I read this bookduring my first week home with Gil and, while it wasn’t good literature, it was an engrossing and easy read.
4) Nursing tank tops from Target. I think I have six of these now (thanks, Mom!) and love them all. They’re so well made, make breastfeeding easy, and cost half as much as any other brand I’ve found. Layer them under sweaters or v-neck dresses, or wear them on their own. Live in them (and yoga pants) for the first few months.
5) Mattress pad. I heard someone say that the post-partum period is a very “wet” time and laughed out loud. So true! Both your baby and yourself are figuring out how to make your bodies work; there are a lot of spills in the process. Put a waterproof mattress padon your bed and be prepared to change the sheets a lot. It’s all good.
6) Water cup. I am perpetually dehydrated (this is how I know) and never remember to carry a cup or water bottle around the house. Right after Gil was born, I bought this 24 oz plastic cupon Amazon for $8. It even has a lid so the kids can’t spill it and the cat can’t drink out of it! Also, I always fill it up before I get in the car so I have something to sip on while driving.
7) Nursing pads. These are my favoritesbecause they are individually wrapped (throw a few in your diaper bag!) and have adhesive strips so they don’t slip around inside your clothes (see #4). I’ve tried reusable organic cotton pads — which are too small to keep track of and too lumpy under my shirt — and several other brands, and I recommend Lansinoh over any others.
Finally, for a collection of great postpartum survival advice, check out this Pinterest board. So many good resources in one place!
Now I want to hear your stories! What would you tell a new mama about postpartum survival?