post-part-um: adj. Describes the period of time, or the person who has become a new parent, after a child is born
One of the most difficult aspects of teaching childbirth class is knowing how to prepare an expectant couple for parenthood. The birth? A cinch compared to the first year (or two or three) of your child’s life! Becoming a parent for the first time can be the most amazing, rewarding, joyous experience, while at the same time, completely exhausting and overwhelming.
Which brings me to my first point. Society, particularly here in the U.S., defines the postpartum healing process as six weeks long. Six weeks! This is unreasonable on so many levels. While some moms bounce right back within that time frame, what of those of us who do not? It leaves the average person with a false sense of abnormality. It causes employers, and mothers themselves, to place unrealistic demands on one of the most demanding roles that anyone can find themselves in. We’re expected to feel instantly fulfilled, in love with our new baby, and equipped for the job. The reality is, even in the absence of postpartum depression, adjusting to this new role often takes much longer than expected.
The standard time away allowed by the Family Medical Leave Act is 12 weeks, however companies are not required to pay new parents for any of that time. FMLA ensures an employee will not be demoted or fired in his or her absence. That’s it. (And fathers receive an even more limited or nonexistent time away from work, depending on the employer.)
Some new moms don’t start to feel “normal” again until sometime after the first birthday; some experience a hormonal low whenever the baby weans, depending on whether the weaning was baby-led, mother-encouraged, or a combination. With this low, women are at greater risk of depression. It may be commonly thought that weaning would improve a new mother’s mood because of increased independence and more nighttime sleep. Not always the case.
And furthermore, there’s an incredible amount of change that happens during this time period, including but not limited to hormonal shifts, the brand-new relationship between parent and child that has to be built and nurtured just like any other relationship, decisions related to returning to work, a range of emotions associated with either the choice to return, or the choice to stay home, adjusting to new sleep rhythms and acceptance or rejection of these patterns, anxiety related to parenthood itself, a loss of alone time with your spouse, a loss of time to spend with friends or doing other activities you love that can lead to feelings of isolation, and the list goes on.
To expect parents to have all of this wrapped up with a neat little bow in six or 12 weeks’ time is entirely unrealistic. Not to mention insensitive, particularly if all of the above crosses into the realm of postpartum depression.
Is there any good news?
As with anything that is uncomfortable to entertain the thought of, please think of my depiction as having the potential to empower you! This is why I write it. Although the mundane nature of many tasks required when caring for a newborn and “working at home” can lead mothers (and fathers) feeling anything but empowered, it’s all in how you approach it and above all, how you care for yourself. You must put your needs on the “to-do list” if you’re to become “successful” at this parenting gig. I also want you to know the incredible joy that’s a part of the birth of a child is unmatched by any other life experience! Although I write about mostly the “doom and gloom” side here, I need you to know that there is enough joy to balance it.
But that doesn’t negate the fact that 25 to 50 percent of women experience baby blues. If feeling weepy, experiencing irritability or mood swings or other similar feelings persist beyond a period of two weeks, it may be a sign of a bigger challenge that shouldn’t be ignored. Ten to 15 percent of women experience postpartum depression and a very small percentage of women (less than .5 percent) experience postpartum psychosis.
The main issue with all of this is a lack of acceptance in society. It is a far more common experience than most of us realize, making it much less of a “condition” and much more a normal part of life for many parents. This lack of awareness means women and their families are often unaware of the signs and therefore less likely or unable to seek professional expertise or attention.
I’m here to tell you you’re not crazy if you experience these signs or symptoms. There is nothing wrong with you. This is common. This is treatable. But please don’t let it persist beyond two weeks without talking about it. Here’s a Georgia Project Healthy Moms resource list. (Disclaimer: I haven’t had time to sort through these yet in order to make personal connections with these professionals, but it looks like a wonderful, comprehensive list.)
I’ll end here for now, but I will be addressing some of the more practical aspects of becoming a new parent in future posts.