There are so many things you can’t be adequately prepared for until you’re experiencing it when it comes to pregnancy, labor/delivery, postpartum, and caring for a newborn. For one thing, everyone’s experience is going to be completely different. And along those lines, you can read about different experiences, be warned about different things, and even watch friends and family members go through it…. but until you’re in it, there’s only so much you can understand.
I think we’re in a day in age where, thankfully, people are more comfortable opening up about certain things that just a few years ago would have been taboo, especially when it comes to the umbrella topic of motherhood. You can’t really open Instagram’s explore page without getting served at least one post that covers some kind of embarrassing, negative, difficult, or troubling thing about motherhood. You might have seen a nurse in an entertaining video answering the pressing question about pooping during delivery. Or a photo a husband snaps of his wife wearing a diaper in the hospital room. Or a staged photo of a mom slunk against the floor of the bathroom in tears with a lengthy caption about a tough moment with a toddler. Or a graphic in a pretty font with the differences between “baby blues” and postpartum depression. I also know I had way more open conversations with my friends who have children… one friend told me to buy a stool softener to take in the hospital, another recommended a line of products to help with recovery, and countless friends shared vulnerable moments they experienced.
I am so grateful these things are more openly talked about. I think it is a huge benefit for new moms and provides an outlet for moms to not feel quite so alone.
Despite knowing some of these challenges and as prepared as I felt, I was pretty knocked off my feet by the whole labor/delivery experience and even more so, the first two weeks postpartum. Everything was harder than I expected it to be. More challenging than I bargained for. And felt completely different than I imagined it would feel.
Overall, my labor and delivery was positive. I never assumed labor was going to be easy, but I don’t think I fully understood just how hard it was going to be physically and emotionally. Or what it would mean for recovery.
Okay, but before I go further, I have to say that I am writing this just over three weeks after I gave birth and I’m in a MUCH BETTER place than I was when I was in the thick of those ~first two weeks~. So if any of this freaks you out, the most important thing to remember (really about the whole process) is that it doesn’t last forever. I’m also writing this with my own experience, and know that yours might look completely different. And that I’m writing this as a Normal Person™aka I’m not an expert and I’m also a first time mom so I’m very, very new to this whole thing. I also have no idea how to accurately represent everything that happened… I feel like it’s a bit of a blur now that I’m looking back (which, frankly, is probably a good thing).
THE FIRST 24 HOURS
Looking back, the first 24 hours were some of the hardest. This totally makes sense, right? My body had just gone through serious physical trauma and in an instant I was responsible for another human.
I have a very, very hazy memory of the first hour after delivery when I was in the bed just holding this perfect infant. In my memory, Mike and I were in this little quiet bubble with our brand new son and I was blissfully unaware of everything going on around us. The room was dark, I was riding high on endorphins (and medicine), and I was definitely still in a bit of shock.
Standing up to get transferred out of the delivery room and into the mother/baby wing is when things started to hit me that I had gone through serious physical trauma. After laying down for about 32 hours and pushing with an epidural for the final two, I was off kilter. Everything hurt and I told the nurse I was going to either throw up, pass out, or both. I was begging her to let me lay down on the floor of the bathroom because I was so afraid of hitting my head, but she managed to get me into a wheelchair where I had to take another 40 or so minutes sipping juice and trying to get my breath back. I felt very dazed too, like I couldn’t quite wrap my ahead around what had just happened? That blissful bubble Mike and I were in just a few minutes before? It had popped. Reality was setting in and that’s when I started to feel a bit terrified for the physical recovery I knew I was going to have to endure.
The next 10 hours or so were spent in the hospital bed of the recovery room and I felt a bit swept off my feet. It was a revolving door of nurses, doctors, lactation consultants, and a handful of family visitors. I was overwhelmed, but I’m grateful we were surrounded by so many people because it helped keep the day moving. (That is, I had less time to panic or focus too much on how I felt physically.)
My legs and ankles got really swollen– way more swollen than they ever had been when I was pregnant– and I was very uncomfortable with the bleeding I was experiencing. Seeing the blood really freaked me out… it felt like way too much to be normal (though it was) and I was warned that I was extremely swollen down there (more than what was considered normal, so I was told). It was so disturbing to me that I didn’t want to move out of the bed at all. I couldn’t imagine how I was ever going to be expected to move normally again, honestly.
The lowest part of the first 24 hours happened right before we went to bed. I went to the bathroom and when I came out, I pretty much lost it. I was horrified by the blood, scared of the physical pain I felt, and (looking back) obviously riding a hormonal rollercoaster. I was also looking at this tiny baby I had only just officially met and thinking, “How am I going to be able to do any of this?!” I was really, really scared. It actually is making me tear up a little bit right now thinking about how overwhelmed and scared I felt because I want to be able to go back and tell myself that I AM going to start to feel better and that I AM fully capable of taking care of this beautiful baby. “You can do it!!! It’s going to be hard, but it’s also going to be the most incredible experience!” I want to say.
That night we slept with the lights on and I barely slept because I couldn’t take my eyes off Jack… I just wanted to be reassured that he was okay and I definitely kept checking to see if his chest was rising and falling still. As the sun started coming up again, I felt immense relief knowing we had “made it” through the first night and when the clock read the time when Jack was born, I sighed a huge sigh of relief. One day under our belts and I was a full day into recovery. Mentally, this was huge for me because I knew I was one day closer to feeling better. I still felt horrible, but I had at least 24 hours of “recovering” done.
HORMONES & EMOTIONS & ANXIETY
Pretty much from the moment Jack was born until day 10 postpartum, the hormones, and therefore my emotions, were out of control. This is very, very normal… but that doesn’t make living through it any easier. I felt completely out of control, which only added to my already heightened anxiety. As uncomfortable as I was physically, I also didn’t feel like myself emotionally. I could go from feeling completely fine to feeling completely underwater. In fact, I’d describe it as feeling like getting pulled out in a rip tide. The best thing to do is to not fight it and just know it was my hormones. Everything was intensified. I felt insanely happy, insanely sad, insanely overwhelmed. I also would find myself filled with rage, which really scared me because it usually takes a lot for me to get super angry. And I couldn’t even tell you what I was I was angry about!
As a highly anxious person, I was highly anxious about what my anxiety would be like after birth. I went into this with as many “tools” in my belt as possible, in case postpartum depression or anxiety was an issue. (Frankly though, these can happen to anyone so it’s worth being prepared just in case.) Most importantly, I had therapy already underway, which I had found immensely helpful during my pregnancy. During the day, I felt pretty good (you know, within the normal levels of “good” immediately postpartum), but my anxiety would come to a peak at night. It was easy during the day to stay busy and feel awake and well-rested (especially having family here and Mike working from home due to the pandemic). As dinner rolled around, I’d start to dread the sun setting and bedtime looming. And then when we eventually got ready for bed? I was a wreck all over again. For two weeks, I cried myself to sleep absolutely overcome with stress and anxiety about ~night~. Not that I’m an expert in this, but I think it had something to do with my hormone levels?
Thankfully, the heightened emotions and hormonal rollercoaster eventually started to taper off between day 10 and about day 14. Now (three-plus weeks in), I feel very much back to normal hormonally. My emotions are still a little heightened, though I would assume that would be the case with such a giant life change!
MY PHYSICAL RECOVERY
Despite reading so much about other people’s postpartum experiences, I was totally caught off guard by how challenging the physical recovery would be. Like labor, it was just way more challenging than I expected. My entire body hurt. I had broken a ton of capillaries in my face. Every muscle hurt like I had run a marathon without training. I somehow pulled a muscle in my right leg. Since Jack was wedged in my ribcage during labor, a nurse had to use a bit of force to press him out of the area and it was extremely sore as a result, making it difficult just to take a deep breath. My feet and legs swelled so much I couldn’t believe they still functioned. I needed stitches after the birth and everything was very, very swollen and tender down there.
It felt like I had been hit by a car. Almost all of my pregnancy ailments disappeared the minute he was born, which was a relief, but they were replaced by all these other physical issues. In any other case, if I had been in this much pain, I would have been nursing myself back to health on the couch. But instead, my own needs were coming second to this itty bitty infant. It was just a lot, though every day I felt a little better than the one before.
While I had stocked up on a ton of products recommended for vaginal birth, I ended up hating everything. Maybe I’m in the minority, but I actually found the mesh underwear and ice packs and witch hazel pads to be incredibly uncomfortable. At first I felt like I “had” to use all these products, but I realized it was only adding to my physical discomfort. I ended up buying my own pads (the hospital ones were awful) and just sticking them in a pair of maternity underwear. If nothing else, I felt like I could move a little bit more normally. Because I could move normally and didn’t feel like I was wearing a diaper or whatever, I swear it helped me take my mind off of what was going on down there.
Don’t get me wrong though, I still found the physical recovery to be pretty traumatizing. It was recommended that I not look at the stitches, but I was curious and used a mirror the day we got home from the hospital to take a peek. It was….. horrible and I cried for three hours. (I’m still not fully convinced I’ll ever be the same.)
I fully believe “fed is best” and I went into breastfeeding with an open mind. I wanted to try it, but if it didn’t work out, I wouldn’t get hung up about it. I would do what worked best for us, whether it was breastfeeding, formula, pumping, or some kind of combination.
I got really lucky with Jack– I didn’t really have to do anything, he had a great natural latch from the beginning. And we picked up some great tips from the lactation consultants at the hospital. It was a fairly smooth process– much smoother than I was expecting. But there were two things I wasn’t quite prepared for.
The first was that I was not prepared for the physical pain of my milk coming in. All very normal and I’ll know for next time… but the engorgement that happened for the first week after my milk came in was insane. The pain!!! Next to the stitches I got, this was the next most painful part. Ice packs and hand expressing helped a little bit. It was more just a matter of having to wait it out and try to nurse as frequently as possible to relieve some of the pressure. Again, all normal, I just didn’t know what to expect as a first time mom!
The next was something I only discovered after desperately googling. During the first week after giving birth, I kept getting these waves of anxiety. It happened pretty frequently throughout the day, though I couldn’t pinpoint what I was anxious about. I would get a “pit in my stomach” feeling with a side of “impending sense of doom.” It was a little alarming honestly. As quickly as that feeling would arrive, it would disappear. It really did feel like a wave rushing over me and then receding pretty much immediately. One night, I made the connection that I was getting the pit in my stomach while breastfeeding and I googled “breastfeeding + pit in stomach.” A not-well-researched “condition” called Dysphoric milk ejection reflex (aka D-MER) popped up and the description fit what I was feeling to a T! Basically, researches think it’s a physiological glitch of sorts that causes a drop in dopamine when the milk let-down occurs.
There’s really not a lot you can do about it, but just knowing it wasn’t in my head made me feel better and I find it pretty manageable since the feeling passes so quickly. (And, again, I know what it is so I’m no longer alarmed by it.)
I hope this didn’t come across as too negative. I don’t think giving birth is easy no matter how it happens and some parts are harder than others. On top of that, everyone is going to have a different experience. Despite all of the pain and unexpected challenges I experienced, I absolutely love motherhood already. It’s even more than I could have wanted and I’m overall really, really happy. Like, my cup feels like it’s overflowing in such an abundant way. I feel grateful beyond belief to get to experience this.
I’m sure my challenges with motherhood are far from over– in fact, I expect them. It’s just been so gratifying so far though. And my love for Jack can’t even be measured. It doesn’t feel possible that I only just met him. It’s unlike anything I could have imagined and I can’t wait for the rest of the journey!