When my first baby was born, my sweet, amazing midwife gave me some fantastic advice: “Try to do as little as possible for the first two weeks or so after birth. Your body needs time to heal, and you and your baby need time to get to know each other and figure out nursing. Resting as much as possible then, will make the whole newborn period easier.”
It was great advice … but I didn’t take it.
I was under the illusion that I could do it all: take care of this new baby, take care of myself, and also keep my house and life in order. I now see how bananas that was, but new motherhood presented a kind of identity crisis for me. I was afraid of losing too much of my driven, fast-paced pre-baby life — of losing too much of myself. So I tried to get back in the game as quickly as possible.
And I suffered. Intensely. I developed undiagnosed postpartum anxiety. My heart would start beating quickly all of the sudden for no apparent reason. I could barely sleep even when my baby slept. I’d obsessively place my hands on his chest in the middle of the night to be sure he was still breathing.
Breastfeeding was a disaster. My baby wouldn’t latch. Each time I tried to latch him, he turned away from me, which broke my heart and lowered my confidence about a million notches. I was literally dizzy with exhaustion. And while my postpartum bleeding wasn’t excessive, it lasted almost six weeks — well beyond the norm.
Eventually, things smoothed out and I started to feel well enough again, although my postpartum anxiety stuck around for some time until I finally addressed it with a psychotherapist. I was deeply exhausted for that whole first year, and not just from lack of sleep. I was emotionally and physically depleted.
As the months and years ticked on and I began to reflect on my botched postpartum experience, I learned about the traditions some cultures have surrounding the postpartum period. I discovered how whole communities rally around a new mother — cleaning her house, caring for her older children, and bringing her meals. The idea is that she has no responsibilities beyond resting, recovering from birth, learning how to breastfeed her baby, and getting some unrestricted time to fall in love with her newborn.
I loved this idea and the thought of making self-care a priority. I vowed that when I had another child, I was going to do just that.
Whenever someone talks about taking a postpartum break, there are always people who chime in to say how unrealistic that is. Who has the time or resources to do nothing but lie in bed with your baby for two weeks? Many of us have other kids to tend to. Our spouses can’t always take leave. We don’t necessarily have extended family nearby to help. And most of us can’t afford things like postpartum doulas or baby nurses.
I get that completely. When I was expecting my second child, my idea of taking uninterrupted time sounded like an unrealistic pipe dream as well. My husband had lost his job while I was pregnant. He was job searching, collecting unemployment, and substitute teaching to make ends meet. We were on public assistance to fill in the gaps in our income. My husband had no “paternity leave,” meaning that if he took off of work, he simply would not get paid.
But I was adamant that I take those two weeks in bed. And as anxious my husband was about money and taking time off from work, he went along with the plan. After all, 9-month pregnant ladies are not to be messed with!
I spent the last few weeks or my pregnancy making and freezing meals. In lieu of maternity gifts, I asked family to help pay for a housekeeper, provide us with food, and help with childcare. My husband notified his employer that he would be taking an unpaid paternity leave of two weeks, and we withdrew money from our ever-depleting savings account to keep us afloat.
Our second baby was born on a gorgeous morning in September, and let me tell you, the first two weeks of his life were like a dream — a sweet, lovely, beautiful dream. I am not saying there weren’t stresses in those two weeks; adjusting to be a family of four is no joke. But I will tell you that those two weeks were among the most restful, fulfilling, and easy weeks I have every experienced as a mom.
It was a mom-cation, and I deserved it.
I was lucky that my baby took easily to nursing and had a pretty chill temperament. But it wasn’t just luck. I wasn’t nearly as stressed as I’d been the first time around. I was sleeping. I was eating. Each time he nursed, I would feel my uterus contract, and I knew that my body needed this time to get back to its pre-pregnancy shape. My bleeding was minimal this time, and I felt strong, nourished, and well-rested.
I didn’t think it was possible to feel this good postpartum. But even beyond the physical, there was something empowering about taking the reins of my postpartum experience — of saying, I’m going to make my care a priority hear, no matter what. It was a mantra I was able to carry throughout those early months of caring for my second son and the years of motherhood that followed.
My midwife was absolutely right. I didn’t just feel better those first few weeks, but throughout the first year of my son’s life! I didn’t suffer from any postpartum mood disorders. I was able to finally “sleep when the baby slept.” I felt confident in my role as a mom of two. I felt able-bodied and badass.
My whole family benefited from this choice. I have so many memories of my older son cuddling in bed with me and the baby — of our whole family cuddling in bed. We were relaxed and could give our older son extra love and attention as he transitioned into the role of big brother. We all nested together, falling in love with each other at once.
My husband remarked that while we may have lost money, we were investing in the health and well-being of our whole family. And while I know that not everyone can make it work in the way that we did, I urge all new moms to consider how important those postpartum weeks are for you and for your family and create a postpartum care plan that works for you.
Most of all, remember that you deserve it.