A very sweet and wonderful coworker of mine started her maternity leave this weekend and I’ve been promising to share some tips with her that I’ve thought of along my journey. This woman is one of the most positive, open and rational people I know, and I wouldn’t be surprised if her birth and new motherhood experience is like the stepmom with twins in the What to Expect When You’re Expecting movie! At the same time, new motherhood has a way of throwing you for a loop and in my darkest, loneliest and most confusing hours of new motherhood, the light that came my way was held by other new moms. What better place to write these down than here.

Disclaimer: Every mother has a very different experience; this is mine. Yours will be different, but there are certain things I wished I’d known that I can share with you! Some are even universal.

If you don’t want to read my life story as a mom, I have conveniently bolded and colored the important tips; the extra is my own process if reading that will help you. I meant for this to be a quick cheat sheet-type guide, but alas, I am wordy.

Birth Experience

Nothing could ever have prepared me for Gia’s birth. I spent months researching natural birth and really trusted, for once in my life, that I could and hopefully would have a natural birth. I’m physically strong, knew all the research and history and politics, and had the best birth team including a doula, a midwife, my mom who is a midwife, and a partner on board with all of this, and I still ended up having every intervention possible short of a C-section. Also, these tips are not for a scheduled C-section; obviously that would be a much different and probably more predictable experience, and one I actually wish I could go back and have.

Tips:

  • Be open to anything. Your body is going to get that baby out one way or another, but you have no idea how, and there will likely be many twists and turns. Have a very loose birth plan, so even when things aren’t going as you’d like, you can still have things that are important to you (ie, having skin-to-skin time even after having a medicated birth or C-section)
  • Use your hospital support staff – they are there for that purpose! Hopefully you have sweet nurses who are on board with your wishes, most L & D nurses are amazing and will be your best friend and constant nurturer while you’re there. Postpartum, let a nurse help you go to the bathroom or spray your bloody parts rather than your partner – better a trained stranger than your sexual partner I say, although of course this may be different for others.
  • Use hospital gear – forget your fancy nursing nightgown, don’t bother brining maxi pads to the hospital. Your room will be equipped with a plethora of stuff your vagina will need – pads, numbing spray, the mesh underwear you’ll never have an excuse to use ever again. And that hospital nursing gown is amazing and you don’t have to launder it yourself!

Relationship

Your relationship may be rocked to the core. That’s just the way it is. J and I had a few odds against us in this department – we’re a fairly new, unmarried couple, we haven’t bought a house together, navigated huge family decisions, etc, and we’re both women, creating more of a power struggle; two protective, hormonal mammas may be harder than one mamma and one new dad. I never would have expected the awkward moments, struggling conversations and confused feelings J and I went through the first two months. Thank goodness we have recovered and she is the most helpful and amazing mamma, doing many diaper changes and tons of playtime!

  • If your partner is open to it, talk about how you’re going to make decisions BEFORE the baby arrives – even little things like when you’re both comfortable taking the baby out of the house or whether you’re both comfortable with grandparents changing diapers. You’d be surprised how sensitive these topics can be!
  • Once the baby arrives, if you notice these issues are coming up, talk about them when you’re both as well-rested and comfortable as possible, not in passing as they’re happening!

Breast feeding

I went into breast feeding believing it would go smoothly, and it did, but I was bowled over by just how smoothly it went – Gia wanted to nurse ALL THE TIME and was never awake for more than 15 minutes at a time without nursing. I had to eat meals with the breast friend and her on my lap and I had to rush through a quick shower every evening while listening to her sob in someone else’s arms in the hallway. She cluster fed several times too, we’re talking ALL NIGHT or for UP TO SIX HOURS AT A TIME with only brief stops. As much as I believe in breast feeding, I have never felt so desperate and trapped in my entire life. Since nothing particularly bad was happening now that I look back on it, it’s amazing how upsetting this was. I mean tears, feeling totally lost and isolated, and several times leading to depression for a few days at a time. I can only offer preparedness and  practical tips, as there’s no way to change this if it happens to you. Also, I have no words of advice for the ACTUAL breast feeding problems that actually do happen to most people, but did not happen to me – waiting for milk to come in, low supply, clogged ducts, mastitis – there’s a lot of help out there for that though.

  • Just be aware that you will feel trapped and isolated. If I’d just known this it would have helped.
  • ACCEPT HELP – Have friends and family who can come over and bring meals or just sit on the couch with you – people who will just listen and feed you, NOT give unsolicited advice, etc. They have to be people who will only offer you what you’re asking for (ie, if you’re determined to breast feed and want to work through whatever is going on, but still need to cry about it, you don’t want someone there trying to convince you that it’s okay to give up).
  • Communicate with your partner how unexpected nursing sessions (ie, the baby just nursed for an hour and ten minutes later has settled in for another hour) will go – is he/she okay with waiting on you when you’re tethered to the baby and need water or your phone? Is he/she willing to literally drop what they’re doing to get you something if necessary?
  • Make a nursing/pumping station – I did not do this and wish I had. Instead I learned along the way and there was always something I’d forgotten! You will want all of this stuff within arms reach while you’re nursing: WATER (always drink while nursing), your phone and ipad/laptop (keep at least 7 inches from the baby’s head to reduce radiation), a snack, Kleenex, a burp cloth, a book, headphones, the tv remotes, a blanket for yourself, and whatever the baby needs when he/she falls asleep, ie, pacifier
  • Side-lying nursing – while you’re in recovery from a vaginal birth OR a c-section, sitting up and having pressure on your body will HURT. Getting you and the baby used to lying down while nursing is a nice way to take the pressure off, plus nurse and doze off at the same time.
  • Pumping on one side while nursing on the other – the best thing I ever learned, especially once I went back to work and needed to nurse the baby before running out the door in the morning, while needing to drain both breasts and store up a few extra ounces for her day!

Sleep

  • Bed-sharing – holy moly is this an important thing to learn to do! Even if you’re not going to be bed-sharing as a practice after the newborn stage, you WILL bed share sometimes whether you acknowledge it or not. It may just be while nursing in the afternoons or from 5-7am, but any length of time requires you do it safely. Do yourself a favor and read this:

http://kellymom.com/parenting/nighttime/cosleeping/

AND this:

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/arianna-huffington/james-mckenna-co-sleeping-expert_b_7119782.html

  • I cannot stress enough how big a deal bed sharing has been for us. I don’t mean we love it and plan to do it forever; I mean we weren’t prepared for how to deal with it, when to do it, how to do it, and how to now STOP doing it. At first, J didn’t want Gia in bed because I was on painkillers, and she was correct. At the same time, I literally ached with emotional pain when Gia was more than a foot away from me – this wasn’t as pathological as it sounds, I just wanted her close after holding her inside me for ten months. We ended up using an Arm’s Reach co-sleeper and then a crib in our bedroom, but we have continued to bed share on a regular basis under the following circumstances: traveling (Gia refuses Pack n Plays), sickness, cluster feeding/growth spurts, while J is away on business, cold nights, hotels (make sure mattress is firm enough).
  • Naps and getting to sleep: at the newborn stage, a foolproof way to get Gia to sleep was putting her in the wrap and bouncing on the exercise ball. This would calm her down no matter how fussy, especially during the late afternoon when I was starting to go crazy and J wasn’t home from work yet! Putting her in the Ergo on a Saturday afternoon is still sometimes the only way to get her to nap, and it’s still foolproof.
  • When transitioning to her crib, we used a Merlin Magic Sleep Suit. It was amazing and Gia loved it. The problem was that she quickly grew out of the biggest size, but you likely won’t have this issue (Gia is off the charts in height and weight).
  • Implement a nighttime routine and early bedtime around eight weeks old. This is based on research and information I learned at The Pump Station and in several books, and now my own experience. The first couple of months are like a staycation (um, one with a crying baby attached to you) in which we stayed up a little late, watched movies, had a beer, and slept in. Gia took no notice to the television and slept wherever we were – on the couch, in the Rock n Play. Once the baby becomes more aware of her surroundings though, start putting a routine in place – bath (only ever other night or less), massage, read a book, nurse, sound machine, etc. The Pump Station recommends putting the baby to bed between 6:30 and 8:30, but the closer to 7pm the better.

Logistics

Logistics were the hardest part of my mat leave – the first time I took Gia somewhere on my own (which was breast feeding support group when she was exactly nine days old) I had no idea how to get her out of the car and into the facility! There are still times when I wonder, do I bring her into the grocery store in the ergo or the stroller? Change her diaper first? What if she falls asleep/cries/needs to nurse?

  • Try not to be too anxious about these things; if you nestle her in a wrap and all of a sudden she cries to nurse, you can just get her out, sit down wherever you are and nurse, then put her back in.
  • Keep your diaper bag well-stocked so you always have what you need: at least four diapers, wipes, extra change of clothes, burp cloth, face cloth (we use reusable cloth wipes designated for face only), clean pacifier, grabby toy, water bottle and energy bar.
  • You don’t have to decide between carrying or stroller – you can use both. Ie, If she falls asleep in the stroller, take the wrap or ergo along with you in case you want it when she wakes up. That way you don’t get caught without one when you need it.
  • Learn how to use all of your carriers properly -the Solly or Moby is amazing and safe for newborns, the ergo is comfortable for when they get a little older, and the ring sling is great for quick trips into the store or around the house once the baby has head control and gets too heavy to just carry in your arms all the time.

Existential reality and sense of Self (who is that?!)

  • When Gia was about 10 days old, I woke up in the middle of the night stricken with terror – this helpless being in the co-sleeper next to me would need me, at some point in the next hour, jerking me out of sleep, at many hours for the next day, for nourishment and comfort, and pretty much consistently for the next FOURTY YEARS OR SO. I will admit that this feeling has continued occasionally the whole six months I’ve been a mother, and may not ever go away – having a child is a burden. A much wanted and even reveled in one, but a burden just the same. At times it will feel very heavy. IT’S OKAY TO BE OVERWHELMED. IT’S OKAY TO VENT OR NEED SUPPORT; IT DOESN’T MEAN YOU DON’T LOVE BEING A MOMMY TO THIS PRECIOUS LITTLE BEING.
  • Productivity – your house will never be the same again. If you’re a micromanaging control freak like me, who likes the dishes done right after dinner, the floors vacuumed twice a week and a refrigerator full of healthy meals, all prepped on Sunday afternoons – forget it. You will have a mess. You will eat frozen pizza and just be glad you didn’t starve.
  • Hobbies and adult time – Eventually, you will play the piano, go for a jog, take a long bath, go out to dinner with your spouse, watch a thriller in the living room, have sex in a room by yourselves… but it may not be anytime soon. I had 36 years of freedom before Gia came along, and I was used to a ton of freedom to do whatever I wanted, whenever I wanted. After a few months these things start slowly up again, but you may be doing them with your baby on your chest in her carrier, or having to switch off childcare duties with your spouse on a Saturday afternoon. And to some extent, you’ll just accept that going out to dinner usually means the family-friendly pizza place at 5pm or navigating the city streets with a stroller and diaper bag.
  • Working: If you’re used to going to work every day, and are a creature of habit or an extravert, get ready for a shock to your system. Just know it’s coming and that will help. You may lie on the couch every day for weeks, with only a few activities here and there to make you feel normal again. THIS IS NORMAL DURING MAT LEAVE – find a show you enjoy watching for hours and can start and stop, get your supplies ready all around you and hunker down.
  • Mat leave schedule – once I got this going, my life changed for the better. Get out of the house and meet other moms if you like having a schedule. On Mondays Gia and I went to the infant-friendly movie showing with other new moms (they put down a changing table and keep the sound down in the theater). Tuesdays was breast feeding support group. Wednesdays was postnatal yoga with my doula/yoga teacher. Thursdays was Mommy & Me. Fridays I usually had a list of things to do around the house or scheduled coffee with another new mom. Afternoon naps with Gia were usually a reward at that point, rather than lonely and too-quiet. Knowing I had a reason to get out of the house every day helped. Of course, if I lived near my mom or sisters I probably wouldn’t have needed this as much!

I hope expecting moms will find some of this helpful!

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