Whether it is your first baby or your third baby, or your first week or fourth month postpartum, the time following birth offers an unparalleled opportunity to start fresh in caring for and appreciating the incredible abilities of the maternal body. Too often in our culture we find ourselves attempting to meet outrageous standards of efficiency, weight loss, social engagement, house cleaning, kids activities, the list goes on and on. Rather than spending our precious baby moon stretching ourselves to our limits of sleeplessness and exhaustion and guilting ourselves into making each moment "productive," we can use this time to care for ourselves physically and emotionally, relish in the new bonds and dynamics forming in our families, and reorganizing our priorities to feel in line with the life that we truly want to lead.
Here are some things to keep in mind when transitioning in this new parenting space.
We've all heard it, we've all said it, yet we probably haven't all done it (at least not enough). The hormonal shifts and physical demands placed on our bodies in birth and the postpartum require rest in order to stay as balanced as possible. Sleep when your baby sleeps may not be good enough as we all know babies sleep differently than adults (and often in much smaller chunks). If nothing else, closing your eyes for twenty minutes can rejuvenate you enough until nightfall. And it never hurts to ask a family member or friend to come hang out with your little one when you know you need a true rest. Maybe if we just keep hearing how important napping is, we will finally allow ourselves to do a bit more of it.
Hire a Postpartum Doula
Whether an expense that is saved for or gifted from family or friends, the services of a postpartum doula do wonders to boost the confidence of new parents while helping with things around the house, basic infant care and feeding, and providing a listening ear. Postpartum doulas provide that reassurance and support to parents that used to be a traditional part of easing the new family into their new life. They can be hired for just a few hours per week or a few hours each day and typically cost $20 to $30 per hour. Check out www.dona.org, www.bai.com, www.birthworks.org, or ask friends, childbirth educators, and birth doulas whom they would recommend.
Make Plans to Get Out with Your Baby at Least Three Days per Week
It's no joke that taking a short walk outside can be prefaced with an hour or more of preparation. By the time you have everyone ready to go, the baby inevitably needs to eat or has pooped and the whole process starts again. That alone can be enough to make anyone decide to just stay in. However, the benefits of sunlight, fresh air, and adult conversation are priceless for the new parent. By having a specific destination and time you must be there, it is far less likely that you will give up and stay in. Check out infant massage classes, mommy or daddy and me yoga, new parent support groups, breastfeeding groups at places such as Mama's Wellness Joint, Cloth, The Nesting House, Wake Up Yoga, City Sprouts, and more.
Engage Your Abdominal Muscles
Strengthening your core muscles will work wonders in helping to prevent the common backache that occurs from breastfeeding, carrying your baby on your hip, pushing a stroller, and doing all things one-handed. Pay special attention to holding your body in a way that aligns your hips and your feet to evenly distribute your weight without tucking in the pelvis. If your abdominal muscles have separated in pregnancy, focus on upright abdominal work, belly binding while doing abdominal exercises, and avoid abdominal work where your feet and head are far from the center of your body. For excellent information and classes on pelvic floor and lower abdominal health both before, during, and after pregnancy, check out Jennifer Gleeson Blue's classes and workshops.
Eat Good Food
Care for your body by providing it with quality, local, fresh, and organic food when possible. The weight that accumulated through pregnancy will come off in the coming months, particularly when there's a focus on eating real food and moving your body. There's no need to diet, count calories, or decrease your nutrient content. Pair a protein with a fat and carb, eat when hungry, and move with your baby. Remember that nursing moms require an extra 500 calories per day or so and your body works best - most productively and most healthfully for you and your baby - when you take in what you need to function. Grass-fed meats, high-fat cold water fish, fresh fruits and vegetables, dark leafy greens, whole grains, pastured eggs and dairy, nuts and seeds, avocados, and coconut oil are all great foods to build meals.
Have a Drink
A glass of wine or a beer can be a relaxing way to cap off a long day but can also help you feel a bit less concerned about your lack of sleep, the spit-up down your back, and the fact that you may have missed a shower that day (and maybe the day before). Check out a great article here that links to the research and even dispels information that is frequently given in baby books and websites. If alcohol isn't your style, allow yourself a special drink throughout the week - something to look forward to and something to help you feel more relaxed and at ease - kombucha, a special tea, or a mug of hot cocoa can do the trick.
Spend Time With Your Partner
Amidst the chaos, hormonal shifts, and general sleeplessness of new parenthood, nourishing your relationship with your spouse can often fall to the wayside. Take a few moments every day to reconnect - an unexpected hug, a simple "how can I help?," a quick kiss - and try at least once per week to have a date. With the financial, time, and resource restraints of raising a family, heading out together may not be realistic. But a date on the couch with a movie, a shared meal, or a few quiet minutes spent talking about your day can go a long way in reminding you why you decided to share this crazy life in the first place.
Learn How To Wear Your Baby
Almost nothing helps a parent and baby connect and move together as much as wearing your little one. Getting out of the house will seem more achievable as well as tasks such as vacuuming and washing dishes (but get that postpartum doula!). In addition, research shows that wearing babies helps decrease crying, aid in respiration and temperature regulation, build confidence in parents, and more. Cloth offers free baby wearing instruction every Sunday or you can take a class, in a group setting or privately, with Tovah Kurlansik of Worn This Way.
Remember What You Love (and Make Time to Do It!)
Becoming a parent is a huge identity shift that often leaves us wondering who we are now, as our life has become completely entwined with that of a little person whom requires constant attention. It's easy to lose sense of our self amidst the diapers, the laundry, and the sleepless nights (are you noticing the recurrent theme of exhaustion running through this post...?) but forcing yourself to have a bit of time, even ten or twenty minutes every few days, spent doing something you love - reading, writing, drawing, going out for a cup of coffee - can help you feel like you're not as lost in this intimate new space of being a parent.
Cherish Every Moment
It's cliche but oh so true that these moments fly by and before we know it, we will be looking back at these days, knowing they were some of the best of our lives. When stress or frustration gets the best of you, slow down, take a breath, and remember that this too - this moment of annoyance, this time of messiness, and this extreme of neediness - will pass. But what won't pass is this beautiful intensity of unconditional love and that is worth remembering along every step of the way.
I am so excited to have Ally write this beautiful and poignant piece. Ally is a dear friend of mine, my former back-up doula, and a truly amazing woman, mother, and birth activist, advocate, and worker. Her energy is endless and her inspiration knows no bounds. - Britt
I don't know how to make a family tree.
I want to make one for our family. I envision a bunch of names and dates and relationships blending into a gorgeous picture. I want to design a Tree of Life that branches all about with births and marriages and even deaths, and I want to bask in its history and meaning.
I can't figure out how to do it, because this 'tree' stuff is far more complicated than I realized.
This month, my husband left to attend the funeral of his father in the U.K. Sadly, his father and grandfather died within 17 days of each other: my mother-in-law lost both her husband and father, and the family was gathering to grieve, and to remember.
While he prepared to to depart, we were preparing also to celebrate the 7th birthday of our youngest daughter. The family things going on, all of the communications and details and whatnot, led to quite a few discussions with our daughters about their relatives...and emphasized how prevalent the roots of birth are in our lives.
Birth is about women. Their bodies. Their pregnancies. Their children.
It is the complete adoration I have for my three daughters, and for the baby I never met. It is the ache I feel as I continue to recover, physically and emotionally, from a recent hysterectomy. It's feeling an emptiness from where my womb sheltered my babies, it's letting go of more munchkins under our roof, and it's feeling the weight of apron strings thinning and separating as my girls grow and blossom. Each week, friends announce the arrival of their babes, and they share their escapades with their toddlers. These friends are assorted ages, varied in personality and background, 'first-time' and 'repeat' moms. The little ones & their adventures are the wisps of my own children, who used to curl into my arms, crawl about my floors, and climb on my furniture and steps. Bed-bouncing monkey songs and sweet finger games are replaced in my mind's albums by the voices of my growing daughters belting out chart music and sophisticated dance moves. And as birthdays pass and calendars get tucked away, I accept that I am getting older too.
Birth is transitioning, as described by a friend who is fostering two young brothers. She and her partner are trying to find their footing and groove as sudden-mamas, and they have opened their arms, home, minds, routines, and hearts to these little guys, for as long as they are allowed to share their lives together. Birth is uncovering a capacity for parenting, beyond biology and circumstance.
Birth is watching from afar as my one sister and her wife try repeatedly to conceive. They try, despite the hurt, the expense, the red tape and the indignities. It is watching up-close as another sister survives four miscarriages, with no understanding of why they happened, nor any certainty about how to proceed if she wants her son (my nephew, whom she had as a teen) to have a sibling. In the meantime, birth is watching these couples hope, shower fondness upon their nieces, nephews, and classroom students.
Birth is carrying the genetics of my own biological mother, who was fourteen when she had me. I was adopted by her older married sister, my Mom, at my birth. My Mom and Dad had been waiting for several years to have a child, and were overcome with sorrow that they could not. My Mom was one of six children, who grew up up in a multi-generational household. My Dad was one of five children, who grew up in orphanages after being placed there for most of their lives. My parents desperately wanted children, and to have their own family. The sculpture of a stork in my bedroom as a child became a symbol of their yearnings and then of their happiness. Later, when I attended college for Social Work, and then attended trainings to be a doula, the stork represented my belief in the power and significance of birth and families. I couldn't imagine doing anything other than surrounding myself with women, children, and the zany paces and pieces of their lives.
Birth is graduating university and finding the love of my life while being a camp counselor...and finding out that this life partner of mine had an upbringing that included boarding schools and traveling to other countries - while mine took place in the same neighborhood where we live now. Birth is roaming through the world of birthwork, and transferring my skills from there to the world of the elderly, as I become the primary caregiver for my parents, who are struggling with illness and age. I see glimpses of their past selves and hear notes of our shared history as their moods and states ebb and flow. I drift between roles and responsibilities - of offspring and adult, of 'family member here' and of 'woman with her family there'. A friend described the dynamic with my parents as this: 'It's like mothering all over again, or mothering coming full circle'. Because birth is about parents. Parenthood. Parenting. Nouns and verbs, people and actions. Children and childhoods, stories with characters and themes, beginnings and endings, cliff-hangers and continuations. While listening to my husband mourn over the phone with his mother, I think about the layers that emerge when we contemplate the lives of those before us; the lives of those who gave us life; the lives of those who live with us now; and the lives of those who will live beyond us, too.
Perhaps the pieces of blank paper and scattered art supplies don't make sense because my image doesn't make sense. The individuals and the couples. The bodies, the blood, the pregnancies, the adoptions. The learning, the vocations, the decisions. The celebrations and ceremonies. The suicides, the losses, and the deaths. So many faces, so many voices, so many legacies, so many memories. A tree isn't the image I need. An orchard is. Where there is not one tree, but many, with seeds and nourishment from many sources. Where a tree has blossoms and fruits, and where the seasons emanate with the temperatures of emotions. Where a tree has a swing hung for fun, a trellis dug for support, and a bench built for peace. Where a tree has patches of bark peeled away and the markings of etched scars. Perhaps here I can dwell in the stillness of sunrays and shade, and honor the heart-breaks and heart-swells. Perhaps you will join me here, and perhaps we will burrow in the branches of your tree and see what story we discover together.
As the Philadelphia birth world blooms bigger and brighter, I think it's time I start putting some of the insightful questions I've received and information I've research into a public journal. I hope you'll find this inspiring, empowering, and totally enjoyable.