A few words regarding the recovery period from birth and those who want to visit the family and meet the new baby. This is what a mother and father may be feeling postpartum, so please, when a loved one has a baby - don't expect to visit them soon after birth, and if you do - always call first (at a reasonable hour).
When I was going through postpartum with my first baby, I was very lucky, in many ways, to be so far from friends and family that visits needed to be scheduled. No one knew when the baby would arrive, and they could only come and visit after we gave them a call and told them the baby had made an entrance into the world. And even then, we had a six hour time frame of arrival. We didn't have anyone with us during the birth, except our midwife and her assistant, and then we were on our own at home with poopy diapers, spit up, figuring out nursing positions - and crying about it, walking around in mesh panties with a chux pad following, and changing nursing pads.
I don't know how you feel when you're on your period - but it isn't always the most glorious feeling in the world. And, when you have approximately 6 weeks of bleeding after birth, plus figuring out how to be a mother and learning how to breastfeed - entertaining guests, or even simply having guests present who just want to see your baby, can be a little overwhelming. You're totally unsure of yourself, you wonder if you've got blood on your pants, you're not well rested, and cleaning the house is the last thing on your mind.
Whether you birthed out of the home or in your own bed, you typically have a few days of being in a sort of fog from birth. The midwives, doula, or nursing staff have helped cleaned up a bit and gotten you off to a good start with parenting, but, then a few days pass, and you're finally in that "this is real" stage of postpartum. It is kind of like the active to transition stage of labor - where it is totally doable, but probably no longer exciting (for a little while). You have work to do, and people visiting you can get a little aggravating. Family and friends are anxious to meet the new baby and hear all the details, and you're just becoming exhausted.
But that's not it - that doesn't quite explain the clear picture of a postpartum mom and dad after a normal birth (with no complications, might I add). Do some parents pick right up where they left off feeling as if there is no "recovery" needed? Absolutely. But postpartum recovery for most moms involves a recovery of emotions, of routine changes, and getting used to new responsibilities.
First and foremost, birth experience will have the biggest affect on postpartum. Mom may have had a wonderful empowering birth experience – but in all reality, unfortunately, that isn’t how most birth experiences go. The more educated parents are, the better choices they make for birth. And the better the choices are, the higher likelihood of a pleasant birth experience is for them. However, what if things don’t go as expected? Well, if mom experienced a medicated birth, an assisted birth (i.e. vacuum extraction…etc.), or a cesarean, she’ll be dealing with more emotions and more recovery than even the small yet significant changes that we’ll discuss here. So just remember that you don’t know what parents are thinking or feeling (or exactly what they experienced) – and that this postpartum period isn’t just another time to meet the baby. It is a time of a lot of physical and emotional changes that help make Mom, Dad, and baby who they will become over the next year. This is their time – their time for a babymoon. So, just as you would respect their honeymoon, this period involves a much more tremendous amount of respect.
Mom is having "afterpains." Her uterus is involuting (shrinking to its normal pre-pregnancy size). This is kind of like period cramps and often stronger in moms who've been pregnant before. When mom nurses, these afterpains are often stronger because the oxytocin release during a "let down" (when the milk flows faster and stronger) increases the strength of these mini-contractions. Not unbearable, but a little annoying to deal with when you've got guests. During all of this, she also has a discharge called lochia, which is like a really heavy period, and it lasts approximately 6 weeks, getting lighter as the weeks continue. Sometimes she passes small clots within the discharge. She has to wear large pads that fill up quickly, and you almost feel like you have a huge overnight diaper between your legs. In fact, many postpartum moms wear depends because they're more comfortable and easier to deal with. She's likely a little embarrassed by it, and probably wonders if you can see anything bulging. Not to mention being afraid of bleeding all over herself and her furniture while guests are playing with the baby. Some moms carry a chux pad (like a big waterproof gauze pad) around to sit on for just this reason– and this isn’t very pleasant to see. And, if there is only one bathroom in the house, she probably doesn’t want to worry about changing the trash bag just to accommodate guests. She’s probably gotten used to walking around half naked – maybe in a sports bra and mesh panties – during this time because she feels like she’ll bleed all over her clothes, or simply just doesn’t want to worry about a shirt while breastfeeding – so, now she’s a little uncomfortable that she has to make herself presentable – that’s the least of her focus right now.
Physically, she may feel very odd. If she's had any vaginal tears, which are none of your business, she probably feels like she needs to waddle through the house. Urinating and having a bowel movement may be uncomfortable - and she probably doesn't want to worry about putting up (or explaining) her peri bottle (which is used to help alleviate discomforts while using the bathroom). Using the bathroom, even just urinating, can take a bit of time. She may have trouble walking to the bathroom, and the discomfort during her bathroom break would be much more comfortable if there weren’t guests nearby. If there are no tears, she still may feel a little tender, and just a little odd walking around. Her organs have been pushed up rather close to her chest for the past few months, and are now finding their way back to their pre-pregnancy location. Her lung capacity is increased because of the additional room – making breathing feel very awkward – and she may very well feel like her organs are going to drop through her body because they've been supported by a uterus and baby for quite some time now. She may feel out of breath and as if she needs to hold up her stomach and walk hunched over for the next few weeks. She doesn't want to do this in front of many people - it is discouraging to think about what others are thinking – or very uncomfortable to make it appear as though she doesn’t need to do it. She probably feels awkward and self-conscious about her skin and stomach as it changes during postpartum - and may or may not ever look like pre-pregnancy again - especially if she received comments during pregnancy about her size and shape.
Emotionally, Mom and Dad can be a plethora of things. They may feel energetic the first few days after birth, and then totally exhausted the next. Mom may feel cheery, or she may just want to cry. They may have had a rough night and need the extra rest, and your plans for visiting may need to be postponed. Dad is still in that protective mode from birth, and his hormones are adjusting to parenthood in a very similar fashion to mom’s. Mom’s hormones are changing, and leveling off, and she is adjusting to a new type of lifestyle. They don’t want to hear all the things that you did that worked, or that were differently from them. Mom and dad need to figure this out together because this baby is different than your babies, their older babies, or any other babies - and that is perfectly fine. All the advice, books, and guidance in the world really can't make up for in-the-moment learning about parenting - and they don't want to feel judged in any sort of way. They are tired - but hopefully eating well. Nutrition is vital to emotional and physical health. If you are the in-laws, you may likely be increasing a little more stress in your son-in-law or daughter-in-law. We likely feel more judged by our in-laws than our own family, and we're even less likely to speak up about it - so please be courteous with your thoughts during this time. Positive conversations about what you remember going through will likely make a postpartum mom or dad feel better about their decisions - but they don't need advice - they just need time to figure it out without someone looking over their shoulder.
Mom's milk is probably maturing at this time. Her breasts are likely much larger than normal - in a veiny and bulging sort of way - not a plump and luscious manner, and she probably feels self conscious. None of her clothes fit quite right at this point. She may be engorged and trying to get the baby to latch on to her breast well. She doesn't want you watching, and she probably keeps wondering if she has milk pouring down her shirt. And, if she is formula feeding – she has these same feelings because her breasts go through the same changes. Nursing with visitors around has nothing to do with being comfortable "nursing in public" although this is also a factor for many moms. This is a learning period for her and the baby. Even if she has breastfed before – this is a new baby with a new personality and the same need to learn how to breastfeed as any other baby. She would likely rather take her shirt off, with baby skin to skin, let the milk drip from the other side, and just figure out how to comfortably latch her baby on without someone watching. Even worrying that she has guests in the living room waiting on her and the baby's return is exhausting. She just wants to take the time needed to get the hang of breastfeeding. She may need to remove the baby from the breast, latch on, and repeat this 10 times before the baby is latched comfortably enough so that she can enjoy breastfeeding and feed her baby. And, newborn baby's nurse about once an hour, for quite a while; this is normal. She doesn't want to hear that her milk is not satisfying her baby, that she would feel better if she just used a bottle, or that what she is doing is uncomfortable for you. Her baby's stomach is just very tiny (about the size of a marble to a ping pong ball) and breastmilk digests very easily. Imagine how often you would eat if your food was a laxative and your stomach was that small. If baby is fussy, she likely needs to nurse, so just take it as your cue to leave.
So, as a loving friend or family of someone with a new baby, what can you consider during postpartum visits?
- You’ll have plenty of time to meet the baby. This is mom and dad’s time (and the sibling’s time) to get to know their new family member. This is a time of adjustment and needs to be respected.
- If you are going to visit a postpartum family, be prepared with some kind of help - like a home cooked meal, healthy snacks, or some toilet paper, bread, or milk. If you want to help by cooking or cleaning while you're at the postpartum house, please arrange this prior to your visit. If you come and just start picking things up, doing dishes, or saying "can I clean your house for you?" - it may very well be seen as an insult. Cleaning is the last thing on their mind, but they definitely don't want to feel like their guests are concerned about a messy house. Although these things are much appreciated, if mom and dad aren't ready for the longer visit it would take to do these things, then they aren't always helpful. Know that their house will be messy. And certainly don't drop by without notice because it can elicit a lot of anxiety on someone if they are personally concerned about a messy house with guests in it. They're adjusting to a new baby in the house, they don't need the added stress.
- Don't wait for them to tell you they're ready for a nap or want to feed the baby alone - or it is time for you to go. Get real. When does anyone ever say "OK, time for you to go now, we want our privacy." Most humans just don't interact in that manner. They feel like they're being rude, even though it is their home. They appreciate your help and love that you want to be near them, but they really just want their privacy and time to get to know their baby. Plan to stay a very short time. This is your responsibility. Have the courtesy to excuse yourself. If they want you to stay longer, they'll let you know.
- Baby wants to be with mommy. Mommy may love a break and love for you to hold the new little one. However, personally, I am one of those people who don't like to pass my baby around. I will ask you if you want to hold the baby, when I'm ready. I would rather you not ask me, and certainly do not just go up and grab my baby. Know that babies can be over-stimulated very easily - so keep your cuddling sessions limited unless you're making my baby very happy by rocking it to sleep.
- If you're a friend or family member that doesn't have children - you have absolutely no idea what these new parents are experiencing. It doesn't matter if you grew up babysitting, if you had younger siblings in your family, or if you even lived with someone while they had a new baby. When you have your own baby and are the one making all the decisions - you will know how different every child is, and how much responsibility you now have, and how emotional this time can be for each individual. Don't make judgments based on something you've not been through.
- When you want to assume that the parents are doing something wrong because the child is not reacting in some sort of way that you approve of - it is probably time for you to leave. Let these parents figure it out. It is better to instinctively parent from the heart - and respecting that each parent will make different choices is very important. It is OK if it is not what you would choose for your own child. And it is OK for this generation - or any - to read parenting books. We live in a very different culture now, and it is always a great thing to continue learning.
- Donate some money to hire a postpartum doula. Don't be offended when they want their postpartum doula there longer than you. A postpartum doula already understands all of these needs of a postpartum family, and has a very objective approach. Mom probably feels very comfortable that she is receiving breastfeeding help from the postpartum doula, that the doula is helping older siblings to be integrated within the family, and that she doesn't have to worry one bit about her doula judging the way her house looks. The doula is used to seeing moms with pads and chux pads, holding up their stomachs, and milk soaked shirts. This is second nature to the doula, and this kind of care makes mom and dad feel much more comfortable. It does not mean they don’t appreciate your love and care.
And new moms, don’t let this discourage you by any means. Some moms love the visitors and love the help - and it all depends on your personal birth experience, your personality, and the type of help you're recieving. Postpartum is a wonderful time for most parents, when properly supported. It is a time that is best spent babymooning, not entertaining. Even if you love the visitors - you do need to rest and take this time to spend bonding with your baby. It is often the first-time moms that don’t grasp how important it is to tell their friends and family to limit their visits (if at all). Your friends and family do not need to be a big part of your birth experience or your postpartum. This is YOUR time. This is YOUR family. Speak up and avoid unnecessary stress. It is such a short time and you’ll appreciate the privacy. Check out this post for an example Do Not Disturb door sign and a letter to family and friends if you don’t know where to start with communicating your postpartum wishes.
What did you experience with your postpartum visits that you wish your friends and family would have better understood? Send me a note and I’ll update the list!