What is the Postpartum?
Midwife Raven Lang once stated, "As long as the baby is still in diapers and you're up in the night, you're postpartum." Such a view reminds mothers that the demands of motherhood, which can include intense sleep deprivation and maximum amounts of energy being poured out 24 hours a day, 7 days a week to another person, no matter how loved and wanted that baby is, is demanding. Unfortunately, our cultural definition of postpartum does not include this more simple and holistic view.
Rather than limiting postpartum to an arbitrarily chosen six weeks allowed for recovery, many midwives, childbirth educators, and postpartum doulas are encouraging women to see the postpartum as a fourth trimester, allowing themselves at least a full three months for physical recovery, spiritual integration, and emotional assimilation. Even three months, agree many experts, may be too short a time, with many mothers saying that it was closer to eight months when they began to feel more settled in their role as mother, and able to also regain a sense of personal identity and clarity. Three months, however, may be considered the first milestone when women begin to feel like they are getting their feet on the ground. It also gives friends and family a clear framework for setting expectations for the mother, allowing her three full months to receive active help and support. Most of all, it allows you to be gentle with yourself on those days that are more challenging, and gives you an excuse to lie around snuggling with that beautiful baby, savoring every minute as he or she blossoms before your eyes.
After the three-month milestone, one can realistically expect to continue to experience emotional peaks and valleys for many more months as hormones fluctuate, eating habits vary, sleep deprivation continues, baby's breastfeed, and you strive to keep up with your baby's changing schedule and needs. As a midwife I continue to get calls from mothers well into the first year after they've given birth, with questions about sleeping habits, teething, breastfeeding, introducing solid foods, and so on. It is always an opportunity to really check in with the mom to see how she is doing, whether she is caring for herself as well as she is caring for her baby, and to praise her on a job well done. These phone conversations are often filled with sighs of relief from the moms, as they hear me remind them that feeling overwhelmed is part of the territory of motherhood in our fast-paced society, and reflects no short-comings of their own. Expanding the definition for postpartum to include the first year after birth may initially seem like a long time, which in itself may be intimidating, but in the long run it allows you flexible boundaries and should relieve you of a false deadline that says you have to "have it together" by a certain time.