You probably pictured the scene a thousand times: no matter the season, the sun is shining, and you gingerly step over the threshold with your sleeping newborn nestled in your arms. The house is immaculate, and the rooms are filled with fresh flowers, balloons, cards and packages. In the fantasy, you’re looking as fresh and relaxed as your child is cherubic and peaceful.
In reality, your partner probably will be carrying the baby because you need to hold on to something as you walk through the front door, as it’s just not comfortable for your legs to be together. The house is not likely to be clean, because labor may have come on more quickly or more intensely than you imagined. And as for the party atmosphere, well, with “drive through” deliveries, you probably haven’t yet had a chance to alert the world about your new arrival.
The hardest thing, though, is that you may be more anxious and tearful than calm and radiant. And that is one thing you really didn’t expect. Pregnancy and childbirth aren’t easy. A lot has happened to your body, and a lot of other changes are still to come as your body returns itself to the nonpregnant state. As you probably realize after experiencing pregnancy, some of these changes can also wreak havoc with your emotional life. Knowing what to really expect, and when and how to get help if you need it, should make the transition into parenthood a little easier.
You’ve had your baby. Things are not the same anymore. Period. Your life is suddenly completely rearranged by a person who probably weighs a little more than a bag of flour. Not only are you responsible for this tiny being, you’re probably feeling pretty unusual: simultaneously exhausted, excited, emotionally overwrought and in a hormonal frenzy. Your body is also weary – labor and delivery are considered by some to be as draining as a marathon – and you probably have an assortment of aches and pains.
For many women, the first few days present the biggest challenge. The first week after my daughter’s birth, there was little difference between day and night, I didn’t get dressed, never left the house, and I didn’t have any interest in watching TV or reading the paper. I was consumed by taking care of my own needs and those of my daughter. My husband and mother were there to help, but also gave me space to be “mom” for the first time.
If you’re used to being organized, in control or accomplishing a lot in a day, it may take extra time to adapt. Gretchen in Indianapolis, Ind., is a classic example. “Being a Type A personality and somewhat anal retentive, parenthood was a hard adjustment,” she says. “I was used to being in a routine, and now here was this wonderful little being who had no idea of what a routine was.”
Andrea in Walnut Creek, Calif., learned the same lesson when she tried to incorporate her newborn into her “old” day-to-day lifestyle. “I didn’t know why it turned out to be so hard to get out of the house with the baby, but it was,” she says. “In general, I had to learn to lower my expectations for what I could accomplish in a day, and I think that’s a big adjustment. One of the moms I know put it well: ‘I’m happy if I can just get up, get the bed made, brush my teeth and read the newspaper during the course of the day.'”
After a healthy baby and a healthy you, the best thing you can ask for is support. Don’t try to be supermom from day one. Perhaps you only want help from your partner, or you might be up to assistance from your parents and in-laws or your siblings. Letting others help you will give you and your baby time to get to know each other, for you to get a break from motherhood and for you both to recover from the birth.
But know your limits, warns Jennifer in Boston, Mass. “Listen to yourself,” she says. “Your gut will tell you if you really do or do not want people to help out or visit. Our first week home was just me, my husband and the new little guy. Those days were magical and I wouldn’t change them. Help the second week was great, though.”
The Baby Blues
The baby blues are very common and are seen, to some degree, in more than half of all postpartum women. The blues are not considered true depression and usually only occur during the first two weeks after delivery and last just a few days. Emotional ups and downs are as typical after childbirth as they are during pregnancy – you may cry easily, have no energy, feel overwhelmed, irritable, worried and anxious.
The cause is usually a combination of hormonal fluctuations and exhaustion, although a difficult delivery, problems with breastfeeding or having to cope with too many visitors may exacerbate the condition. To help yourself, rest as much as possible and allow yourself to keep things simple. Don’t spend your time cleaning the house, writing thank you letters or entertaining guests. When you need some time alone, enlist someone to watch the baby while you take a well-deserved break.
Some women – up to an estimated 30 percent – get more than just the blues. They feel very depressed and are unable to bring themselves out of it. This is known as postpartum depression, and it can develop immediately after birth or up to four weeks afterward. It lasts anywhere from a couple weeks up to a year – the duration depends on the factors involved in the depression (such as hormonal changes, physical discomfort, problems with breastfeeding, an ill child and lack of support) and the depth of the despair.
Like the baby blues, it can affect all mothers – not just first-timers. Typical symptoms of postpartum depression, or PPD, include headaches, chest pain, insomnia, anxiety, loss of appetite, feeling powerless or worthless and no feeling of bonding with the baby.
You may be asking yourself, “Doesn’t depression mean there’s something wrong with me or that something bad is happening in my life?” The answer is no. Fatigue and hormones are some of the biggest culprits for turning common postpartum worries and stress into an actual depression. Sleep deprivation has been used for millennia as a method of torture, and hormones regulate our growth, menstrual cycles, blood sugar levels and sex drive. It’s not a stretch to believe that these factors can have a real and profound effect on the way you feel.
Unlike other medical conditions, most women don’t immediately realize that what they’re feeling is depression. For Tracey in Charlotte, N.C., it started with the feeling she just wasn’t a parent. “I expected to suddenly feel that he was mine and I was his and that I was instantly a mother,” she says. “Instead, I had a baby that I couldn’t believe came from me. After weeks and months of hearing about other mothers’ amazing feelings of unending once-in-a-lifetime love for their miraculous babies, I began to feel that I was horribly lacking in something. Soon, I resented the baby’s presence and wished myself gone from motherhood.”
Professional help is most often advised for women battling PPD. Without intervention, the depression can deepen and may jeopardize a woman’s relationships with those closest to her. Treatment usually consists of counseling and may also require a course of antidepressant medication.
Identifying the problem, admitting that it is real and seeking help are three very difficult steps on the road to recovery. Says Robin in Atlanta, Ga., “The hardest part for me was realizing that I wasn’t going to ‘snap out of it.’ Once I got over that hurdle and was able to get the help I needed, we were all so much happier.”
Tracey and her husband decided to chart their own course to recovery. “My husband was wonderful and dealt with the dips in my self-esteem and self-confidence as well as he could,” she says. “We talked a lot and realized that aside from relief from the hormone swings, I needed adult companionship other than him. The biggest help was being able to talk to another adult about nearly anything.”
PPD is nothing new and has probably been around for as long as there have been babies. Admitting that it exists in your life – especially at a time when everyone thinks you should be so happy – is probably the most difficult adjustment there is.
Postpartum psychosis is the most severe, and most rare, form of PPD. Occurring in fewer than one out of every thousand mothers, it usually requires hospitalization and medication to treat. Most common in women with a family history of abuse, psychiatric illness or emotional troubles, symptoms include delusional behavior and impulses to harm the baby or yourself. If you find that your despair is growing deeper or that your thoughts are scaring you, call your health care professional, emergency room or crisis hotline immediately.
In the same way that pregnancy, labor and babies themselves are individual, so is the postpartum period. Prepare yourself for all the possibilities, and if the road is bumpier than you expected, don’t feel like a pariah. Find someone to talk to: your partner, a friend or a relative. You can also find support and information from your doctor, in books, via the Internet, from other moms or at local new mothers’ support group.
Remember, even little things can make a big difference. “What helped immensely was that my husband took the baby first thing when he got home,” Gretchen says. “That way, he got his time with his son, and I got a chance to do things I couldn’t do otherwise during the day. After about six weeks, I began adjusting to motherhood and the demands it placed on me.”
A year after the birth of her son, Tracey can finally look back on the past months with understanding. “Loving Andrew was not an ‘at-first-sight’ occurrence for me, but I know now that he is the most wonderful, perfect little boy we could have gotten,” she says. “And I look forward to our love growing more each day.”