Do as I say not as I did: Postpartum lessons I learned the hard way

Mistakes were made
Sometimes I do dumb stuff.

My youngest daughter turned two this week, which got me thinking about her birth and more specifically, about how my postpartum period was so much easier the second time around. After she was born, I spent a month parked on my couch (or in bed), wearing pyjamas, napping, eating, feeding her, and marvelling at how cute she was. As it should be.

I wish I could say the same for my first postpartum experience. Sadly, I made a LOT of what turned out to be very poor decisions immediately after the birth of my first daughter, which zapped all of my energy and made things even harder than they needed to be. The good news is, you don’t have to go down the same road I did. So, in the interest of preserving your health (and your sanity) post-baby, I present to you the four most important lessons I learned from my postpartum mistakes:

Lesson 1: REST!!!

My biggest regret about my postpartum period after baby number one was not taking any time at all to rest post-birth. Those of us who are blessed with holiday babies know how difficult this is (and how our kids’ birthdays will always kind of seem “tacked on” to all the other celebrations going on, but that’s another story). I would love to go back in time and smack myself upside the head for going to all those Christmas and New Year’s parties just days after a human being exited my body.

We were discharged from the hospital on December 24 and drove directly to a family Christmas party. In a snowstorm. “Oh, we’ll just pop in for a minute,” we said. “Everyone will be so excited to see us. It won’t take long.” Yeah, right. About two hours in, I felt like my insides were falling out. In my delirium, I actually TURNED DOWN an offer of lasagna to take home. Obviously not the actions of someone who is thinking super clearly.

We got home around midnight. And then you know what my husband and I did? We turned around and went to ANOTHER party the next day. And another just two days later. And another. Like idiots.

It's Christmas Eve and we've just been discharged from the hospital (note the bracelets). Here I am looking pretty rough at the family party. I'm smiling, but my eyes look kinda dead, right?
It’s Christmas Eve and we’ve just been discharged from the hospital (note the bracelets). Here I am looking pretty rough at the family party. I’m smiling, but my eyes look kinda dead, right?

I want to stress here that our families and friends didn’t strong-arm or guilt us into these events. They actually seemed kind of shocked to see us. We went willingly, thinking that we’d get all the visiting done chop-chop and could then spend the next couple of weeks enjoying our babymoon and basking in the awesomeness of being new parents. Except, of course, by the time all the holiday craziness ended we were completely depleted. I have almost no memory of the weeks that followed except how tired and sad I felt. Merry Christmas, indeed.

Lesson 2: Ask for help and be specific about what you need

After I had my first baby, several people called or texted to congratulate me and asked me to let them know if I needed anything. “Thank you so much, that’s really sweet of you, but we’re fine” I said. And then I hung up. Even though I did need help, I was too shy to ask for it. So after a while, people stopped calling.

Finally, my mother-in-law just showed up at our doorstep with a couple of suitcases. She wouldn’t take no for an answer, God bless her. She looked me in the eye and just straight-up asked me, “What do you need me to do for you today?” With tears in my eyes I said I could use some cabbage leaves for my painfully engorged breasts. Kind of a weirdly specific request, right? “No problem,” she said. And she got the darn cabbage for me.

In the days that followed, at my request, my mother-in-law went grocery shopping, cooked meals, and mopped my floors. She was like an angel. An amazing, bossy angel. And I will always love her for that. The point is, lots of other people who were maybe less um, insistent, would have been happy to help. I just should have asked.

Lesson 3: Insist on a postpartum checkup

I don’t know how common this is, but it happened to me so chances are it’s happened to somebody else. During my pregnancy, my OBGYN was super friendly and super available. After the birth however, not so much.

As a doula, I’ve seen primary care providers who weren’t on call at the time of delivery stop by their patients’ hospital rooms the next day to see how everyone is doing. While not medically necessary, this is a lovely thing to do, and always appreciated by the new parents.

My own OB didn’t see me at the birth, or even after the birth. Or at all again, ever. When I called to arrange a six-week postpartum checkup, I was told that “he doesn’t do that.” So, I just didn’t get checked. Even though I still had pain. And some questions. And I was depressed. But I didn’t insist.

I now know that the postpartum checkup is a pretty important thing. Your care provider will perform a pelvic exam to ensure that your uterus is shrinking back down to close to its pre-pregnancy size, that your perineum or C-section incision is healing, and will answer any questions you have. They will ask you about contraception methods and may perform a pap test. Also, they will be screening for signs of postpartum depression or anxiety. It’s pretty critical stuff. I should have insisted on a checkup, even if it was with a different provider. Four months post-birth, I did contact a psychologist for help with my postpartum depression, which may have been caught earlier had I seen a doctor.

Lesson 4: Reach out to other parents

Join a new parents' group. Know that their members may look a little more tired than these two.
Join a new parents’ group. Know that the members may look a little more tired than these two.

This last one is crucial. As the first of my friends to have a baby, I didn’t have too many people to talk to about this huge change in my life. I was given the address of a local breastfeeding support group by a nurse at the hospital, though since I was fortunate enough not to have any major issues with nursing, I never attended.

At the time, I didn’t know that these groups are not just for parents experiencing difficulties with breastfeeding, they are also there to help connect new parents with other people in their neighbourhoods who are experiencing the exact same thing: new parenthood. Parents’ groups are there to help you establish a support base, or maybe even new friendships. So whether it’s La Leche League or Nourri-Source meetings, infant massage or baby yoga classes, or even a local Facebook parents’ group, sign up. Just having someone say, “Oh yeah, that’s happening to me, too” is a huge help.

My postpartum mistakes were what led me to become a doula. After months of feeling terrible, I picked myself up, dusted myself off and tried to find a way to turn these negative experiences into something positive. I now strive every day to be there for new parents in ways I wish I’d known I needed back then. Sure, maybe if I’d never made those mistakes and learned these lessons the hard way, I wouldn’t be where I am today, or have enjoyed the experience as much with the second kid. But I’d still take it all back.

Got any regrets? We’d love to know the most important lessons you learned during pregnancy or the postpartum period in the comments below.

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