The Most Essential Thing New Mothers Need

Linc newborn
Me with Lincoln in 2012

Well, Christmas break is nearly over – thank. the. Lord.

It’s not that I don’t love spending time with my kids – I really, really do. (I might love the luxury of not setting an alarm even more.)  Nevertheless, I’m ready for them to return to school and for life to return to its rhythm, so I can get back to writing and start preparing for the arrival of wee Stormageddon.

Yep, I have done almost nothing to get ready for the the baby. One day last week I had a bunch of Braxton-Hicks and was convinced he was going to come early, so I cleaned out a few drawers for the as-yet-unwashed-and-unsorted baby clothes. But that’s it. The clothes are still unwashed and unsorted — I don’t even know what I have or what I need — and we have no diapers or burp cloths or anything. Actually, it’s been so long between Lincoln and this baby that I’ve kind of forgotten what we need, anyway. Poor fifth baby — he’ll be lucky if I remember to bring clothes for him to the birth center.

It’s kind of weird to be pregnant at this time of year again. Sienna, our first-born, was due on New Years’ Day but born 5 days before Christmas. I can still remember the meticulous planning of the hospital bag, the agonizing over which adorable, impractical outfit to bring to the hospital, and the timing of every gas pain (which I mistakenly thought were contractions). Our little apartment was overflowing with everything on those stupid checklists in baby magazines. We had the crib, the bassinet, the bouncer, the swing, the changing table, the wipe warmer, the baby bathtub, the breastpump, and one thousand wildly impractical outfits, with matching hats and no-scratch mittens.

This time around, we have none of that. Well, we have a crib, but it’s still in toddler bed form and won’t be converted until the Ogre gets around to it, probably a few months after the baby is born. But that’s literally it. If there’s anything I’ve learned over the past 10 years of baby-having, it’s that all the “essentials” end up being mostly unused clutter. I wish I could go back 10 years and tell myself what’s really essential. If I could, this is what I would say:

It’s essential to stay home and rest, with the baby, for at least 2 weeks.  I still wince when I remember the Ogre and I dragging ourselves and our 4-day-old daughter to my grandma’s house and Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve, and then to three different families’ houses on Christmas Day. I felt like I was going to pass out most of the time, and ended Christmas by bursting into uncontrollable tears in my in-laws’ living room, but I had no clue that I actually needed to rest. I mean, I felt exhausted, but no one gave me permission to rest. We were expected to be at family gatherings, and neither the Ogre nor I knew enough to say no. As a result, the first two weeks of Sienna’s life were the most exhausting weeks I can remember, both physically and emotionally, and I was quickly put on anti-depressants for crippling post-partum depression. Looking back, I know that I was definitely suffering from depression, but I wonder how much of it was brought on by sheer exhaustion.

There are other things I’ve learned since then, like how the only clothing you really need for a newborn is an endless supply of onesies, but that’s the most important one. Our culture doesn’t give new mothers permission to rest and recover, and even when our families do, often we don’t give ourselves that permission. I’ve spent years ranking my post-birth recoveries in order of success according to how quickly I was able to get back to basic household chores. I was so proud of myself after my homebirth with Liam, because I did a load of laundry the same day he was born, mere hours later. The Ogre scolded me and made me go back to bed, but it seemed like a badge of honor at the time — now, it seems crazy.

I mean, we spend 40 weeks building an entire person inside our own bodies, and then in one fell swoop we push him or her out, along with all the physical resources we’ve taken from our own bodies to maintain the baby’s very existence. We’re emptied out, depleted of energy, strength, blood, nutrients, and God knows what else, but now the baby is in our arms and we must begin the task of building this tiny human  on the outside, as well as replenishing ourselves.

Is it any wonder that in most cultures, mothers are expected to stay in bed for a full month after the baby is born? Everyone pitches in to help, but it would be unthinkable for the mother to return to the kitchen a week after the baby is born, let alone mere days.

We don’t have that luxury in America, but I’m coming to realize how essential it is that we allow ourselves whatever luxuries we can. We don’t have family around, but our mothers both fly in at some point in the weeks after each baby, and the Ogre stays home as much as possible and constantly urges me to rest, sit down, relax. Usually I don’t because I feel vaguely guilty, like I shouldn’t just be sitting around when there’s work to be done.

But recovering from childbirth is work. Allowing your body to recuperate while feeding a newborn every hour or so is essential work that needs to be done so you can get back on your feet — and it’s work that you’ll pay for neglecting. I know I have. Physically, it’s usually two months or more before I stop feeling beat up and sore. It easily takes six months before I begin to feel anything like a return to normal energy levels and emotional equilibrium.

That’s just not worth it to me. This time around, I’m not going to lose those precious early weeks with the new baby and run myself into the ground just to assuage my own misplaced guilt, or save face, or even just to try to keep up with my normal standards of cleanliness and order. It can all wait. A few weeks of external chaos is infinitely preferable to months and months of internal chaos.

And anyway, my planned self-imposed convalescence is giving me something to look forward to in these last few weeks, when things like turning over in bed or standing up require me to grit my teeth and summon all my willpower. Because growing a person is hard, y’all.

 

 

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