A couple in my childbirth class came to me after class last night, all rattled. They’d had a long conversation with a friend who was giving them advice for the future: She acted out gruesome contractions, joked about how the mother-to-be’s butt would “never be the same,” and talked about the “day dad goes back,” meaning returns to work, and mom is left at home to slowly unravel in all kinds of brutal postpartum isolation.
The couple felt suddenly unsure of things. “What were we thinking?” they asked. “Can we do this? Will the baby ruin everything?”
It is my firm belief that expectant couples benefit from a candid, realistic account of the challenges ahead. Why promise a perfect, care-free postpartum life, when there are often tough realities to face? Why set up unrealistic expectations? The subtitle of the book I co-authored includes the words “totally honest and “uncensored.” I write for babble, a website founded by a couple of parents who believe parents should be told all about the difficulties new mothers may confront.
But maybe when it comes to the hard stuff, there is still such a thing as TMI.
It’s one thing for a room full of new mothers to circle-share about the sudden shift in their lives, the loneliness, the anxiety, the boredom; commiserating over the daily hurdles is what new parent friendships are built on.
But do the pregnant women and their partners need to be privy to this conversation? It’s like when you’re a freshman and you somehow gain access to the senior lounge; it’s exciting, but maybe a little terrifying. You are overwhelmed in an afternoon by information that is meant to be gradually learned.
You guys know what I’m talking about: I write about the various aspects of birth all the time, which I hope helps all of you rounding into the third trimester, but do you really need to hear it at week seven? It’s probably too much, too soon. Woman at this phase are still absorbing the enormity of their situation. They don’t need to discuss the particular agonies of back labor, or weight loss, or the post-partum isolation many suffer. They are still building a sweet vision of the future with their baby, and they should be, it’s part of the process. Needless to say, additional stress doesn’t help a fetus develop.
The truth is, like in life, sometimes it’s best to take it one stage at a time. Those of us who’ve crossed over can be clear and realistic with our freshman friends, but also balanced, allowing them to work through the issues of the present while preparing them for what’s ahead not with tale of terror but good practical foresight. We can pair the “aw, that is such a cute bassinet” with “have you thought about ways you can get some support postpartum?” Because that’s the truth. For almost all of us, there are extraordinary contradictions to this phase of life. Women often say after birth, “I thought I was going to die; It was the most amazing experience of my life.” And they are neither adrenaline junkies or temporarily insane. Similarly, postpartum is often described as a time of high anxiety and intense love; connection and disconnection.
After all, having a baby is at once the most extraordinary thing in the world, and the most normal, basic thing humans do.
But what about the couple staring at me, feeling utterly doomed. I told them yes, isolation does happen to new mothers in our culture. We don’t always bond with our babies instantaneously. There’s a ton to learn; new parents struggle as they work their way through it. You’ll rise to the occasion. You’ll need and should seek out support. You’ll have a question, you’ll call a friend or your mother or someone else’s mother.
There will also be some of the most incredible moments life can offer, the kinds that are pretty hard to put into words, even for the most sentimental, cute bassinet-loving among us. Although, Rufus Griscom, babble’s co-founder gets pretty close with this:
“In the trials of parenthood, we are resubmitted to the work-a-day, stomach-clenching highs and lows of childhood, to the shriek-worthy revelation that is a paper airplane’s first launch or the betrayal of a parent’s departure. We are damned lucky to have all this, even if, in moments, it almost kills us.”