My mother and sister-in-law gifted me a couple books to help me prepare for my postpartum weeks. These two books encourage new mothers to do a lot of resting after they have a baby, to allow others to cook for them and keep the house. They reference cultures around the world that for time out of mind have observed a resting period for mothers after birth, where a community expects and sometimes enforces weeks of seclusion for a woman to be treated gently, nurtured, and kept warm and fed until she heals.
My first thought: sounds extreme.
Second thought: no one will do that for me.
Third thought: even if they would, I can't let them...I can't be that weak.
Now as a skeptic, I'm not reading these books as law, and forcing myself to abide by any of their teachings. I am simply trying to engage with the concepts, see if I want to adopt any of them, and understand why.
As I've been processing my postpartum with Phoenix, I remember I was very eager to be back to "normal" as quickly as possible. The main reason I've identified is I had a lot to prove. I wanted to prove:
- Natural births heal faster. I needed my healing to be swift, my energy high, and my mood stable because I'd had an unmedicated vaginal birth. Natural birth is supposed to be easier on the body, with less emotional and physical trauma. I felt I had to prove that, if only to myself. My birth didn't go how I planned, so I at least wanted my postpartum to go how I'd planned.
- Nothing had changed. I was (and still am) afraid of the reputation mamas get—child-centric, self-absorbed, lazy, boring and pathetic. I was eager to prove motherhood wouldn't consume me. I didn't want to be caught in a competition with my non-mama girlfriends, feeling better or worse than each other. If I could prove that nothing had changed, we could stay equal. We could stay close and connected.
- I was right to want to become a mother. I needed to love it as much as I thought I would, no complaining or feeling bad physically or emotionally. It had to be as beautiful and epic as I'd imagined it would be to prove I was right to want this.
- I was a natural and super capable. If it was too hard, or I was rendered helpless for any reason, I was afraid it would look like I'd made a mistake, bit off more than I could chew, like I wasn't cut out for this. I needed to be a badass, especially if it was hard.
- I wasn't weak. This is the biggest one. I'm afraid of needing help. I don't want to be pathetic, don't want people to feel sorry for me and better than me. What if they don't help, or do but don't want to? What if they resent being put out due to my lack of preparation or capability? What if I take advantage of the people I love most or show myself in my least attractive light? Isn't relationship about give and take? What if becoming a mother means I have nothing to give anyone but my children? Will I lose everyone but them? I don't want to be a taker with nothing left to give. I don't want to lose the people I love. I realize I have some deep shame around not being able to take care of myself by myself. I judge others very harshly for not being able to handle their own shit, and have been bitter when they ask me to pick up the slack for them. So I hold myself to the same standard, terrified of being judged as I have judged them.
Phoenix is 20 months old, and it has taken until now for me to let go of some of this. I think that shows how long and tightly I held onto the story of a strong, easy, and fast recovery. I've continued to try to prove these things. Now, as I begin to release them, I can see some of the reality:
- I'm still healing from a vaginal delivery. Parts of my body will never be the same. There are scars, altered tissue, and some mild residual pain.
- My relationships have changed. I have less time and freedom for my relationships, and one of the primary things on my mind is my son, this new pregnancy, and being their mom. I do feel different. Sometimes I feel like my life is richer than a woman without children, and sometimes I feel like hers is richer. Sometimes I feel more enlightened, developed, and stretched than ever before, and sometimes I feel like I'm endlessly distracted from the deeper things as I spread peanut butter on yet another slice of bread, change another diaper, and read Dr. Seuss for the tenth time. We can be different without competing with each other or comparing.
- I wanted to become a mother, right or wrong. Whether I love it every day, or find it harder than I could have ever imagined, I chose this. Some days it's not epic or beautiful, and I want a break. Other days it blows my mind.
- I'm not an expert, and it's ok. Some things have been really natural, like nursing, cuddling, and loving him. Others have been filled with doubt and fear and trial and error.
- I was incredibly weak after giving birth. Standing for long periods of time made me light-headed, so standing in the kitchen to cook felt impossible. I could have fallen into a deep sleep at any moment. Using my leg muscles to sit on the toilet was exhausting, and I often had to support myself using my arms. I had hemorrhoids and a minor unstitched tear that had to be treated and were painful for weeks. I couldn't climb stairs without gushing blood vaginally, so doing laundry in the basement was a no-go. I sweated through sheets every night and had no energy to change them the next day. The basic things that make me feel human—being clean, wearing clean clothes, eating, using the bathroom, and sleeping—were no longer things I could provide for myself easily if at all. It was humbling.
Ultimately, I needed help from the people who loved me, men and women, parents or not. Regardless of how I'd birthed, whether I was going to be the same, had made the right choice, was going to be a good mother, or was pathetic because I needed help, the bottom line is I needed it. I didn't deserve help because of some arbitrary value placed on natural birth, I needed help because birthing took a toll.
As I approach this next birth, I'm practicing letting go of all my expectations. When I feel like I still need to prove some of these things, I'm practicing a slow release. I'm letting go of:
- What my birth experience will be
- My postpartum recovery time
- The temporary or permanent alterations to my body
- The amount of physical or emotional trauma that may need healed
- The soul and temperament of my child
I haven't decided whether or how I'll ask for meals or childcare or company; a cleaning lady, a postpartum massage, or a personal laundress. First, I think I have to release the need to earn approval for how I carry, birth, and heal from delivering this child. I want to love the mother and child that emerge from this experience without condition or exception, allowing them to be weak and dependent if they are. Allowing them to need what they need. Allowing them to ask. Letting others be stronger than them.
I realize that's my main hangup. I don't want anyone to be better than me. It makes me feel insecure. But that's just a feeling, not a truth. It seems infants have no real issue with others being stronger than them. They don't feel insecure. They actually feel safe being cared for. I want to be that way. Without taking advantage, I want to learn how to let others be stronger, better, wiser, and braver than me. Thank God there are those who are better along my journey. Those with something to offer or teach me. I didn't come fully equipped, developed, and mature. And even if I could make it on my own, I don't want to. Beautifully, there will be those I will be privileged to help too, and that doesn't make them pathetic.
As you can see I've still got lots to plan, and haven't made any firm decisions. I had some work to do first. I find it really beautiful that this second baby is helping me process and heal from my first experience. Interesting that so much pressure is self-inflicted. It's surprising to me to discover how much I still feel I need to prove. It's comforting to find that again and again the Love in this world will bring me back to the truth: that I have nothing to lose, nothing to prove, and nothing to hide. That I'm worthy. That I am loved with an everlasting love.
If you're interested, these are the two books that spurred all this processing: