It's really important to acknowledge postpartum. When we conceive, we are obsessed with our due dates, with our fears or excitement for labour, baby names, what pram we're going to buy, the tiny little clothes that dry on the line.
Being pregnant is a bit like being a celebrity. People smile at you in the street in acknowledgement, they stand up for you to sit down, they want to touch your growing belly. As women our bodies are so much public property and pregnancy just enhances this. Everybody wants to confer their good wishes and their advice. I felt like the centre of attention wherever I went and part of me really enjoyed it.
Postpartum gets shoved to the side. I put no thought or consideration into how I would feel after my baby was born rather than begrudgingly buying a solitary pack of maternity pads (ha ha) that I was embarrassed to take to the till. I pictured myself, radiant with hair flowing, pushing my beautiful retro pram around with my gorgeous son sleeping soundly inside. Dressed head to toe in knitwear and with smiles and gurgles for whoever peered in to look at him. I saw my husband and I walking in the park with coffee cups, still enjoying those heartfelt conversations. I knew what it would be like. I knew nothing.
When I came back from the hospital, I slept on an old beach towel because I was still bleeding and I didn't want to ruin the mattress. I didn't realise it would be so much. It wasn't like a period, it was a full force tide. I slept wedged with a nappy-like pad and it felt strange to be able to sleep on my stomach again. My poor stomach. I had been very smug to have not had any stretch marks in pregnancy - what I didn't realise was that they were all underneath my bump. With my bump now deflated I could see them, purple and angry, evidence of who had lived there. It was a bit of a shock. Yet, I was exhilarated. I had gotten my natural birth! I had done it! Nobody had believed I could and yet I had. The excitement still felt fresh in my mind.
Judah slept really well the first night in his moses basket and it was like being in a dream. I congratulated myself on my easy baby, not realising he was jaundiced and therefore sleepy and this time I spent sleeping should really have been spent trying to rouse him to feed. We spent the next couple of days marvelling over his quiet beauty while he slowly lost weight. I would put him to the breast and he would fall asleep without even suckling. When the wonderfully kind and maternal midwife came to see us she was very concerned and I began to hand express colostrum for him to have a taste so he would be encouraged to feed. She told me that I had 'decent nipples' and would feed fine. This was a good introduction to the guilt of motherhood.
When I woke up on day 3, it was from a nightmare that I was being crushed by a demon. In actuality my milk had come in and was so heavy on my chest it had created this vision. Oh, but what a relief to move from the barely there calorific colostrum to actual flowing milk. I had so much for this hungry little boy and fed him at least every hour. The midwife looked at my notes and said 'You didn't lose much blood, did you?' which I took as a compliment. They wanted to check my stitches. I said no. Friends and relatives would shuffle one by one into our room (a combination of bed and living space) where we spent our day and shyly ask me questions about him as he fed voraciously. I felt compassion for them - their unease about this new version of me, the helpless being I was maintaining, my very visible breasts constantly feeding. It was uncomfortable for everybody but I took pride in being cool and calm and welcoming. I had birthed this baby, after that gigantic task social unease would soon cease to bother me ever again.
My husband fed me a diet of croissants and yoghurt in bed and spaghetti bolognese. Oh the luxury to not prepare food! I spent those early days bleeding and feeding and stuffing my face accordingly. I leafed through the Dr. Sears Baby Book, learned about attachment theory, happily breastfed my now rapidly gaining weight little baby. My nan would drop by every couple of days and bring a fresh supply of cakes. My mum would come by after work, texting: what do you need? Maternity pads, I'd reply, thinking of my single pack bought foolishly. My family were so kind and helpful. Their love and approval radiated on me for this act I had done, bringing my son into the world. The first baby for 17 years and named for my grandfather. I had finally done something right.
I was scared to do a poo, but I managed it. All the while using my labour breathing techniques and praying nothing would go wrong. I sat in tea tree baths and marvelled at the deflated bag that was my tummy, knowing that soon Judah would be crying for his milk again. I was a one-woman sustainability machine and resigned myself to this. Free time would be a distant memory and yet I didn't want any - just his sweet, wriggly body and milky breath. I would resent anybody cuddling him too long. He was my prize and my treasure.
Midwives kept visiting. They pricked his heel and made him cry. I felt strange and exposed in my pyjamas and hoped they weren't judging our living style. On the fifth day I put proper clothes on and sat at my dressing table to apply eyeliner for the first time. I got up and began to clean the kitchen that had been bugging me for days. That was the end of my postpartum rest. If I could go back, I'd say to myself (and I do to my mums in class) - linger in your pyjamas a bit longer. Let people bring you food and stay in bed. As soon as you return to that sense of normality you will be expected to 'get on with it'. These days are early yet.
I began to fret about the cleanliness of the flat when health visitors came. I hoped they didn't think I was dirty and untidy and not fit to be a mother. I would get up early, baby and husband still sleeping soundly, and clean the flat in preparation for a short 20 minute visit. Why didn't I rest? Soak up my beautiful baby and cuddle up under the covers together. Some days we did spend just napping and feeding and watching boxsets. As long as I had food and my phone to hand I would be fine there for hours. Why did I care so much what people thought? I don't know. I so wanted to be a good mother, and at the time I thought cleaning was a big part of that.
For my husband and I it was strange - the basis of our relationship had always been passion, and transitioning into these new roles of mum and dad who passed out in front of the television and were obsessed with our tiny baby was strange. I found myself reverting to my mother's behaviours for comfort and reassurance. It was innate in me to channel my memory of my mother. I found it hard to be second best to my baby when while pregnant I had been the most special in the room. It was a difficult shift. I replied to hundreds of texts about my birth and the baby. The story began to drift away from me the more I shared it. I didn't feel much like a birthing warrior now.
Judah did not last long in his moses basket. We ended up using it for muslin storage. Although my husband had said when I was pregnant we wouldn't share a bed with the baby, that soon went out of the window. Judah's jaundice was gone and he was hungry all the time! He fed all night as I slipped in and out of consciousness, loving the smell of my baby curled up next to me, sleeping marvellously deeply and yet alertly, in tune with his breathing and sleeping patterns. I kept the towel on the bed for the inevitable vomit but really it was quite lovely. We loved watching him wriggling and gurgling in the morning. As far as I was concerned I was the one up feeding him and this was the way that suited me best. Really we both loved having him in with us! The health visitor said 'We don't recommend bedsharing'. I kept my mouth shut.
Taking Judah out of the house after my husband went back to work was a full-scale expedition. About 20 nappies, two changes of clothes, muslins, wipes, all sorts. I would heave the pram out of my tiny flat and down the uneven streets, praying that he wouldn't get hungry, hoping he wouldn't wake up. I felt so alone. My breasts would leak and my pad chafed against me as I walked along the narrow streets. People stopped to marvel at him, looking right past me. He looked so small and fragile tucked up in the coach pram. Sometimes I would push it and carry him because he was crying. Sometimes I would frantically rock it to quieten him because that was what I had always seen. This wasn't working.
I was still wearing my oversized dresses I wore through pregnancy, my breasts were so huge I looked comical. I went for a podiatry appointment, saw myself in the mirror and cried. I looked awful. Ill-fitting dress, massive chest, lank hair and a pale face. I looked like a shadow of the beautiful pregnant doll I had been. It seemed like all that energy and beauty had been transferred to Judah upon his birth and it seemed so desperately unfair. This did not feel like a celebration of womanhood, it felt grotesque. I was a swollen, sagging mess. I tried to take him to town to get me some new clothes but I couldn't get through the shop with the pushchair. I cried again.
I took Judah to meet my sister in a coffee shop. He began screaming, crying for his milk. I looked at her and she looked at me. I wasn't ready to feed him in public, wasn't ready to fumble with my bra clips and my huge breasts while I was convinced everybody was watching. I made my excuses and walked him all the way home, screaming. I sat down to feed him. I cried. I vowed - never again. No more pram in the shops, no more pushing my son as he screamed for physical contact, no more being scared to feed him. More guilt, heapings of it. Welcome to motherhood.
Then began the true transition to motherhood - the beginning of my confidence as a mother. I learned to wrap him to my body and we traversed the city together. My breasts softened with use and I breastfed unashamedly, in castles, on beaches, in cafes. He shared our bed and grew strong from milk. I found clothes that fit and stopped crying. The glow began to return to my cheeks. Soon Judah began to feed some of my strength back to me and I became much more capable than I had ever imagined. The oxytocin constantly running through my body and my deft hands as they burped, wrapped, changed nappies. The feeding helped my body to go back down to a more recognisable size and family enjoyed watching me eat my fill to see it pack right onto him. My body looked strange but no longer unrecognisable - it looked more softened and womanly. I began to pierce and tattoo myself again. The curve of my waist changed and so did my face. I was a new woman. A more strong, less perfect one. I intuitively mothered Judah the only way that seemed natural to me - warmly and unconditionally. I reaped the benefits from my happy boy daily and felt truly at peace.
I was fortunate that did not experience postpartum depression with Judah. If you are feeling depressed after the birth of your baby please don't suffer alone. You can speak to me anytime or contact PANDAS on 08432898401