One afternoon a few weeks after I had Buster, my first baby, I called my mum and cried the second I heard her voice. I wailed ‘I’m just so tiiiiiiiiiiired’.
It had all come as a bit of a shock you see – the lack of sleep, the aching body, the leaking and the wild hormones that made me angry at Doug for breathing incorrectly.
When I told her that I’d had a bad night but had got out to the shops and for a long walk, she said ‘Steph, you don’t need to do anything. Pull up the drawbridge’. I’d had lots of advice and information on pregnancy and birth, but no-one had said anything like this before that point.
My mum (Midwife, mum of six and therefore pretty experienced) was giving me permission to succumb to the tiredness and stay home. I slowed down a bit, but I didn’t really know what was ‘too much’. I didn’t want to let anyone down by cancelling plans if we’d had a bad night. I certainly didn’t recognise that my body had undergone a pretty major thing and needed some time and care. Anyway, by the looks of it, everyone else had their baby and resumed normal life ASAP.
When I had Mabel twenty-one months later, I sprang back in to action pretty quickly – I was a pro, right? On my request, we went out for lunch the day after coming out of hospital. I remember sweating, willing people to order more quickly, fearing she’d wake for a feed when we didn’t really know what we were doing yet and feeling relief when we got home.
How often do you hear ‘You wouldn’t believe she’s just had a baby’, ‘She’s incredible, I don’t know how she does it’? The Wonder Women. We celebrate women ‘bouncing back’ and, in all likelihood, running themselves ragged. When did it happen that being up and about as soon as possible after birth was something to aim for?
I’ve recently had my third baby, took Mum’s advice and pulled up the drawbridge. I spent the first week in bed and the second week on the sofa, as recommended by another midwife, Clemmie. We fended off all visitors except immediate family, and even then their visits were short – my parents were here when we got home from hospital as they’d been looking after the big kids. Mum greeted me with a tearful hug, she’d filled the fridge with meals and they headed back down the motorway forty-five minutes later. She remembers.
A lot of people don’t. Maybe it’s because our parents’ generation spent ten days in hospital after giving birth so the mother could rest and recuperate. TEN DAYS. So when they were home they were probably ready for visitors. Now you can be in for 6 hours and while you waddle and bleed, try to work out how to feed a baby and weep a bit as the hormones kick in, there are people sitting around drinking tea because they want to meet the baby practically as it’s coming out of you. A few weeks in and we’re gagging for company; we’re less leaky, our brains having kicked in enough to string a sentence together and the baby is a bit more predictable, and there’s no-one to be seen.
There’s no way the NHS can return to those glory days, but we can do so much to better look after ourselves and each other.
This time has been very different to my previous experiences of the first weeks after giving birth. You know how people say ‘enjoy this phase’ and you look at them through bloodshot eyes thinking ‘YOU WHAT?!’? By not feeling the need to do anything, it has been enjoyable. I’ve been allowed to fall in love with my baby and get used to being a family of five. Mentally and physically, I feel like I’ve looked after myself better than in years. It’s not about isolating yourself – on the days when I’ve got the energy, I get out and it feels glorious. But by avoiding making too many plans (and being ok with cancelling) I’ve avoided the anxiety I found those plans brought in the early weeks when I had Buster and Mabel.
It is still a time of ups and downs; murderous thoughts about Doug in the night and sometimes I’ve woken up feeling overwhelmed before the day has even begun. Lack of sleep and wild hormones will do that to you. But I was more prepared for those inevitable moments because I wasn’t having to pretend to anyone it was ok. I wasn’t trying to manage an unpredictable colicky baby on someone else’s schedule of when they could visit. I’ve had time to nap and stare at my boy and focus on the adjustment for my whole little family. I wish it hadn’t taken three babies to get here.
When I posted on Instagram about the idea of pulling up the drawbridge, I was inundated with stories of regret from women that wished they’d taken it more slowly. Some were comical (lying on the kitchen table having stitches checked when male family members walked in), mother in laws turning up with a suitcase and no plans to leave. Women doing the school run the day after having a baby, a ‘big shop’ the day after coming out of hospital from a c-section (her husband found her crying in the frozen aisle). And actually, quite a few women who were readmitted to hospital bleeding or unwell. Not one looked back and wished she’d done more.
The thing is, we can do it – we can get straight back on the school run, we can be rustling up home-cooked treats, we can be ‘just putting that wash on’. Billions of women have done this before us, billions do it in much less favourable circumstances, our mothers did it without iPads. It’s no biggie. Becoming a mother doesn’t have to change anything, right?
Except so much has changed. Motherhood is MONUMENTAL. Slowly but surely it becomes a new normal and you get some of your old self back, but those first months are a foggy all-encompassing physical and mental takeover. Motherhood is the rest of your life, so allowing a few weeks to hole up and no expectations beyond recovery and adapting to your new set up is more than ok. The world can and will wait.
Recommended reading ‘The First Forty Days: The Essential Art of Nourishing the New Mother‘ by Heng Ou, based around the Chinese tradition of looking after mothers after birth.
Door image Howard-SH Flickr