The Fourth Trimester: Dealing with Postpartum Feelings
Some people—accurately—call the first several months of motherhood the “fourth trimester.” The reason that’s such an apt description of this tumultuous time is that you’re still stewing in a hormonal brew; you’re exhausted and possibly overwhelmed; and your body is still not even close to yours again. Here are common postpartum feelings, so you know you aren’t alone:
Exhaustion: Okay, being more tired than you ever thought possible before isn’t exactly an emotion, but the kind of bone-weariness common to new motherhood triggers other feelings. It’s hard to cope with the emotional and physical demands babycare when your mind and body are screaming for rest. In this fourth trimester, the most important thing you can do, not just for your own wellbeing but for your baby’s sake, is to prioritize sleep as best you can. If that means handing the baby off to your partner, mother, or friend, do it. Sleep whenever you can; all other pulls on your time and attention can wait.
Anxiety: Wait, what? You’re just sending us home with this baby by ourselves? If that’s what you thought when the hospital staff wheeled you and your newborn to the door and waved goodbye, you’re hardly alone. You have so many questions! Can I swaddle the way that awesome nurse did? What if the baby won’t latch on without that wonderful lactation consultant by my side? What if I don’t fall in love with my child? If you’re experiencing anxiety, it helps to know that no one is a baby expert right out of the gate, and that bonding is a process, not a lightning bolt. And even fragile looking newborns are far heartier than they look.
Confusion: You may feel an internal struggle between your emerging identity as “someone’s mother” and the person you were before. Even though intellectually you’re well aware that you’re not going out for cocktails with your girlfriends quite yet (instead, you’re a baby cocktail bar yourself!), don’t be dismayed if you stare at your baby in certain moments and wish she would just sort of disappear so you could sleep late, putter around your house, read a book, see a movie, or enjoy a leisurely dinner, a shower, a conversation… anything. Don’t hold these feelings in; talk to your partner or a sympathetic friend.
Joy: It’s true! You will feel pure bliss bubbling up in these early weeks, no matter how grueling the rest of the time might be. Sure, those happy interludes will probably take place when the little one is (finally) peacefully asleep, and you can stare at his sweetly composed face with understandable awe. But even more amazing will be the times – and we swear, they’re coming – that your baby looks into your eyes, smiles, coos, laughs, and the joyful moments will happen more often and stretch out for longer.
Doubt: Did I do the right thing by offering the baby I swore I’d exclusively breastfeed a few ounces of formula, so I could sleep while my husband fed her? Was the woman at the grocery store right and I should have put a hat on him (or, you know, not put a hat on him)? Should I have started saving for college when my baby was still an embryo? And heck, should we have done this whole procreating thing at all? Doubt and second-guessing are part of the landscape now, as you’re finding your parenting feet. To counter the worst of it, remind yourself that you, like every mother in the history of time, are doing the very best you can.
Sadness: This one is tricky, and can be serious. Sadness in the immediate postpartum period is very common, and part of its cause is hormonal. All those pregnancy hormones plummet after you give birth, throwing you into a muddle of chemical confusion for a few days or even weeks. Then there’s the sleep deprivation, which heightens and intensifies all emotions, particularly negative ones. This is what you’ve heard called the “baby blues,” and for most women this emotional jumble of zig-zagging between joy and tears gradually dissipates. But please take note: If your sadness overtakes you, if it lasts longer than six weeks or includes any of the following symptoms, please talk to your doctor right away:
- Severe mood swings and/or excessive crying
- Difficulty connecting with your baby, or feeling you can’t possibly be a good mother
- Withdrawing from loved ones
- Inability to sleep even when the baby doesn’t need you
- Loss of appetite
- Feelings of hopelessness, worthlessness, shame, and guilt
- Intense irritability or anger, or panic attacks
- Recurrent thoughts of harming yourself or your baby
Postpartum depression is not in your head, and it can be treated. For more information, Postpartum Support International.