Beautiful Strange New Room: Life in the Postpartum Period
For me, I put my personal history in two buckets: before baby and after baby. So much about my emotional life has changed, both good and bad. I’ve found patience, a respect for my physical and mental limitations, and a renewed feeling of intimacy with my partner. But I have also encountered the darkness of postpartum depression, the urge to withdraw from other relationships, and defensiveness around being a working mother. Tala is here today to talk about navigating the postpartum period. It’s a great read for those of you who are a friend, partner, or parent to a new mother. – Kate
Every so often, we encounter a new thing in ourselves: a reaction, feeling, or skill that we didn’t know we possessed. Motherhood has brought an overwhelming number of these new things to my attention. For instance, I have now experienced that “mama bear” ferocity that people talk about. It may have been brought on by a sick baby+empty lobby+extended wait, or perhaps a new town+no friends+summoning courage/energy to attend a function+awkward conversations/pauses+fear of never finding a community. Or it was someone budging in the grocery line. Whatever it was, I remember the wash of indignation coupled with the urgent spark of motivation that I felt. I had previously thought myself an easy breezy, go-with-the-flow type, so this surge of protective ambition was new, but actually not very surprising. I had a job to do, and good reasons to get it done. It felt instinctual, adaptive, even necessary at some level.
A quotation from artist Sarah Walker in this piece describes the same maternal phenomenon: “Becoming a mother is like discovering the existence of a strange new room in the house where you already live.”
Even when this discovery is natural, it ain’t easy. There’s often a bootcamp-vibe to the early weeks and months after a baby is born, where adults live in big changes on little sleep. You’ve chosen to be here, but you can’t control the conditions. It’s a time of high demand but low energy, guts and occasional glory, fueled by caffeine and an innate drive to protect and provide.
The term can be confusing, so here’s some clarification: A mother is clinically considered to be “postpartum” for roughly six months following delivery. In the first 6–12 hours after delivery, new mamas are monitored closely for potential medical crises. The next 2-6 weeks make up the second stage of the postpartum period, an (exciting?) time for (more) emotional, physical metabolic, cardiovascular, and hormonal changes. The last phase ends six months post-delivery: changes gradually slow, and mother’s body typically returns to pre-pregnant functioning.
The things that help new mothers are things that help us all: empathy and emotional awareness, self-care, mindful movement, intentional nutrition, concern for the preservation of the family. Delicate times and vulnerable people often carry the banner and remind us to slow our pace, strip away the excess, and focus on the essentials.
So what can we do to hang on to sanity and self-worth in the midst of this dizzying miracle? Here is a list of ideas to consider besides joining the rush back to pre-baby jobs, jean sizes, or schedules. It’s not comprehensive, it may not be new or universal, but it is intended to begin (or continue) a conversation beyond clinical pamphlets:
• Be aware of the impact of other people’s recommendations. (Ha.) When faced with another well-meaning (or just self-important) advice giver, picture yourself receiving their words and holding them in your hand. Examine the messages before rushing to implement or reject them. Think about what you’re doing and why so you’re not stuck with too many tips and residual feelings of ick. (I liked this article for that reminder.)
• Write things down. How does a sleep-deprived new mother with depleted iron levels, wildly fluctuating hormones, and divided attentions remember anything? She texts herself, uses an app, sets an alarm, or writes on a notepad. Your brain will recover to normal size after the grey matter decrease that comes with pregnancy. In the meantime, do what helps. Make a note.
• Simplify other parts of life so you actually have less to remember. Prioritize the basics: nourishment and hydration, fresh air, movement, rest.
• Set boundaries. We give ourselves to people and relationships, careers, household upkeep, social media, visitors, travel. We take in food, spend money, let tears out and advice in. Boundaries offer freedom to receive what is helpful and reject what is not. Incidentally, reading about the effects of pregnancy and parenting on the brain leads me to believe that “mom brain” may be your system setting natural boundaries. A narrowed focus on healing and providing comes at a cost (for instance, since having a baby, I have the hardest time remembering birthdays and the word “billboard”) but the reward is heightened attentiveness to what is most important.
• Identify toxic relationships. Break up with them. Distance yourself from the toxins. Life is already too short. Time and energy are being shared with a new little life, who can be both directly and indirectly affected by toxic people.
• Lower your tolerance for BS (the edited and clinical term for thoughts, expectations, feelings, and actions that are unhelpful, untrue, unkind, or unnecessary). In some situations (i.e. “Minnesota Nice”), we tend to justify, excuse, or ignore. It is acceptable and wise to shift our priority from making others comfortable in their ridiculousness to protecting and attending to our families.
• Schedule, stick to, and enjoy time to yourself. Use that time to cry, or laugh, or be at peace. Because you can’t give what you don’t have.
• Enjoy small indulgences. Tight budgets and busy days still allow for little bits of beauty to remind us that there is much to be savored, and this bizarre phase, like all feelings, will not last forever. Even routines (like regular showers) may feel like extravagance at times. Indulge.
• Date your partner: This is the team that started it all, will hold it all together, or will pick up the pieces when it all falls apart. Maybe it’s a babysitter and a dinner reservation, maybe it’s a picnic on the living room floor between baby wakings, but be intentional about taking time to remember your other half and his needs, to enjoy each other, and to “meet each other again” in this whole new world.
• Ask for help. Utilize the gifts of those in your tribe. Honor people by asking them to use their skills, and then be grateful.
• Say it. When something is good or beautiful, say it. When something’s not right, say it. Advocate for yourself as well as your newborn. Postpartum scales to measure depression and anxiety are often insufficient, and no one knows your body like you do. Tell your partner, your M.D., a counselor, your mother, etc. what you are feeling and what you need.
• Share! Tell me what beautiful (and strange) things you have done, seen or hope for in the postpartum period.
Tala Ciatti, M.Ed, LPC, NCC is a clinical mental health counselor with a natural fascination in people and professional experience in the treatment of children and families, maternal wellness, mindfulness, trauma, human development, grief and loss, and cognitive behavioral therapies. Tala has a special interest in raising awareness of the importance of emotional, behavioral, and mental health for every person. She currently lives in the Minneapolis metro area with her husband and infant son, who patiently serve as her primary audience for musings on mental health in the modern world.
Image by Chelsey Werth