My lactation consultant at the hospital was a pleasant woman--a plump Native American with a soft voice, wise eyes and over twenty years of experience in her field. Before leaving the hospital, I remember wanting to lie my head on her ample chest and fall asleep. I didn’t realize that I’d return several times for her advice as my breasts continued their rapid engorgement, as my son struggled to find a latch on my swollen chest and as, eventually, I fell prey to mastitis. These are just a few pieces of postpartum life that I skimmed over in my pre-baby reading; just a few things no women spoke of when bombarding me with horrific birth stories and sweet baby advice.
As I approach the birth of my second child this month, I am more afraid of the postpartum recovery than I am of the labor and delivery. Maybe this is odd, considering that I’m planning to give birth drug-free. The thing is, I know labor will hurt, and I know there’s an end. This baby will be born and I will feel euphoric. It’s the part afterward that makes my vagina hurt just thinking about it.
Reading books and taking classes at the hospital can offer knowledge about how to set up the nursery, when to make the nervous drive to the hospital, how to communicate with the hospital staff and what drugs a woman can use or refuse. Few of these resources mention how sore this new mom will be “down there,” and indeed her labia could resemble two bananas when they swell. I remember reading something about “sit on an ice pack,” but didn’t realize this really is crucial, and also kind of disgusting.
See, there’s sitting on an ice pack. Then there’s sitting on an ice pack while still bleeding profusely and wearing the ugliest pair of webbed boy-shorts you can imagine. The good news is that by this point, every person in the hospital, plus your partner, has seen you in every manner of glory you can muster. So at this point, asking your partner to help you place an ice pack isn’t the end of the world. He or she will be so impressed with your birth performance that they’ll do anything you need.
A week after giving birth, I was still experiencing a lot of pain in my nether-regions. A friend who had a C-section at the same time as my birth was up and at ‘em, and I was barely able to climb the stairs. A return to my OB-GYN confirmed that I’d popped a stitch from my episiotomy. Here’s some good advice: Don’t try to walk too soon after your epidural, or you’ll fall. Remember to lower your hospital bed before attempting to slide out of it. And when bending, do so gently onto your knees, and not squatting with your legs open. I didn’t do any of these things, and believe one or all of them contributed to my popped stitch.
Just in case you’re wondering how to fix a stitch of this sort, there are two options: Either have a needle stuck into you so you can be numbed and re-stitched, or be burned by a magnesium stick to encourage healing. I chose the latter option, and later wished I’d chosen the former. The magnesium didn’t work the first time, and I ended up being burned three times. I cried the first time and was just angry by the third.
The worst part of this stitch healing was how long it took. When my six weeks of celibacy were finished, I figured my doctor would recommend another six weeks of abstaining--but no. He (he!) said that sex would help the healing process. My husband and I were unsure of this, but gave it a go. Despite the most gentle actions possible, I still hurt worse than the “first time.” After several more months of very painful sex, I was beginning to experience mental anxiety about sex. It’s my own fault for not returning to the doctor sooner, but I was shy about this discussion with a male doctor. When I finally went to him, he said I had hormonal dryness due to breast-feeding and prescribed a topical hormone medicine. It worked! And nearly six months postpartum, I began to enjoy sex again. My husband was not the only grateful person in our bed.
Speaking of male doctors, mine was completely wonderful during labor, but had difficulty understanding my postpartum problems. While nursing, I didn’t have a period, which is pretty common. After nursing, I still hadn’t had a period, but experienced immense pain in my lower-right abdomen. It was a stabbing pain, and so terrible that I often couldn’t hold my son. One night when my husband was away on business, he called and found me curled up on the floor, crying. I went back to the doctor and mentioned that the pain was similar to the ovarian pain I used to experience during ovulation, only much worse and more constant. He didn’t know what I was talking about, but ordered a CAT scan. The scan was clear, and the only alternative left was exploratory surgery. No, thanks!
Shortly after this, I visited a reflexologist. While working on my feet, she mentioned that I was having some “woman problems” and that I’d resume my periods soon. A week later, I started my period for the first time in eighteen months, and the abdominal pain disappeared.
Obviously, not every woman shares these experiences, and I don’t wish such prolonged healing on anyone. My friend, Heather, had an easy birth, bled for a few days, and seemed completely recovered within a week. Still, here are a few bits of advice I feel must be mentioned.
* Drink lots of water. Get a big plastic cup with a handle and a bendy straw, and keep it with you all day and all night--especially if you choose to nurse. Be sure to fill it before going to bed each night, and keep it beside you each time you nurse. Staying hydrated is key to maintaining your milk and to avoiding infection (mastitis).
* Eat, and include lots of protein. Food preparation won’t be high on your mind when you’re dealing with a new baby and feeling exhausted, but you must eat healthy, sustaining meals. Try not to wait too long to eat, or you’ll grab cookies and empty junk. Turkey sandwiches with cheese and good wheat bread; apples and peanut butter; GORP--these are good things to keep on hand.
* Have a heating pad & two bags of peas handy. If you become engorged when your milk comes in, it’s helpful to have moist heat and also ice packs available for before and after nursing. If you’re engorged, don’t stop nursing or pumping! Get that milk out.
* If you’re having trouble nursing, take your baby and go back to the hospital for a visit with the lactation consultant. It’s free, and she’ll be able to impart advice and support. Although your mom or aunt may have raised her own kids, it’s good to have this “3rd party” viewpoint.
* If you feel like your body isn’t healing properly, listen to your instinct and call your doctor.
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* Use all the help around you. If your mom wants to do laundry or cook dinner, let her. If your partner offers to change a diaper, let him. If he’s not offering, ask him to do it.
* Ask your partner to participate with the baby. Show him or her what to do once, and then back off. Let him figure out his own method of caring for and bonding with his son or daughter.
* Sleep. If someone can watch the baby for a few hours, go back to bed. If the baby falls asleep on your chest, make sure she’s not in a precarious position and then you can fall asleep, too. Rest is essential to maintaining your mental and emotional composure. Also, these days of sleeping together are special and pass too quickly.
* If your baby is crying and you’re at a breaking point (as in, you’re starting to understand why people shake their babies), put the baby in her crib and step out your front door for 5 minutes. A few minutes of crying will not hurt your baby; a few minutes of fresh air and deep breathing will save your sanity. Take deep breaths into your nose and out of your mouth, stretch a little, and re-enter your house with a little calmness.
* If this doesn’t work, call someone to come over and help. There were times that I called my husband and asked him to come home from work at 3:00 in the afternoon. Post a message on Facebook saying that you’re losing it, and surely your friends will volunteer to stop by.
* Get out of the house. There is no cold, heat or flu season that could keep me in the house for more than two days at a time. I have to be out every day, even if it’s just a trip to the post office or a drive in the country. Eventually, I found that my son needed these breaks in his environment, too. A change of scenery is good for everyone.
* Exercise. Early on, try some postpartum yoga, or just a few simple stretches. By 3-12 months postpartum (or when your doctor clears you), you can begin to build up an exercise regime. Although I’d been a runner my whole life, I wasn’t very interested in cardio work after my son was born. I joined a free weight class at a local gym, and found that strength training was what my body craved.
* Do something just for you. Face it--most of your time is spent caring for the baby, possibly other kids and your husband; working; cooking; running errands, etc. Whether you return to work or stay at home, you need to find something to nourish yourself. I took a writing class at the local university. You could join a book club at the library, tutor at a local school or center, or simply organize friends for dinner or drinks once a month. Find something that is your choice to do on your time.
* Complain, and don’t complain. Find a friend or relative with whom you can be real. This is someone who asks, “How are you?” and you don’t have to respond, “Fine.” On the flip side, try to also find the good in your days and your life. It’s really easy for moms to sit around and complain about their lack of sleep, kids and/or husband. This can be cathartic, and it can also be depressing. Look for, and see, the positives.
* Go shopping. If you stopped nursing, stop wearing nursing bras and go shopping for some new, properly-fitted, even (dare you think it?!) sexy bras and underwear. Also buy some new clothes. Even if you’re not at your desired size yet, wearing fitted clothes at a bigger size looks and feels better than continuing to wear maternity clothes or, sadly, your husband’s clothes. Look good, feel good.
* Get a haircut. Don’t go crazy and get a mom-chop, but go to your stylist and say, “I need an energetic change. Do your thing.”
* Have a drink. It’s ok to have 1-2 drinks when you’re nursing. Talk to your doctor or read up about how to time this with milk expression.
* Have sex. Yes, you’re tired. But if you wait until you’re not tired, you may never have sex again. If it helps, set a goal. Mentally tell yourself, “I am going to have sex with my husband/partner tonight.” Do whatever you can to make your house and dinner calm--take all the baby stuff out of your bedroom, turn down the bed, order dinner so you don’t have to cook, etc. Shave your legs and at least put on lip gloss. Your husband won’t really care as long as he gets some, but it would be good for you to feel clean and pretty. Get the baby to bed, put on some music, light the candle, ask for a massage, and RELAX. Postpartum sex relies heavily on your relaxation. The baby is fine! Turn off the monitor and RELAX. You’re not just a mom; you’re a woman. Meet this need for yourself and your relationship.
* Talk smart. Occasionally, put away the baby stories and engage in a conversation about a movie or current events. Being a mom is life-changing and nearly all-consuming, but it’s good to pontificate about the world outside your door.
* Believe in yourself. You’re a great mama, and your baby loves you.
I remember someone asking me, shortly after my son was born, if I was starting to feel like myself again. I don’t know if a new mom can ever go back to her old self, but rather continues to evolve into a new version of herself. Maybe she’s more tired, but is likely more centered in herself and the world around her. As I prepare for the birth of my second child, I’m still nervous, but also more assured in myself. I don’t have my pleasant lactation nurse to reassure me this time around, but feel as if I’ve channeled her calm. I’m the mama and will nourish my baby, in all ways, perfectly well.