The transition to parenthood is a transformative journey filled with love, joy, and newfound responsibilities. But it also comes with its share of challenges, chaos, and adjustments. While popular culture often paints an idealized picture of postpartum life, the reality is far more complex.
I remember after having my first baby in 2012 feeling supported by my husband and immediate family, yet somehow also feeling incredibly overwhelmed. Everyone I saw on social media seemed to be sailing through this period with confidence and ease. What was I doing wrong?
As it turns out, nothing at all. 11 years ago, a lot of us were still figuring out social media, to be honest. Now, of course, I understand that most of the time I was seeing highlights, not a complete picture of reality. But at the time, it just made me feel like I was failing. I felt pressure to “enjoy every moment,” but was that realistic?
My perspective changed after bumping into a neighbor, a seasoned mother of three, during a walk around the block with my son. She asked me how I was really doing, gave me words of encouragement, and reminded me that this season doesn’t last forever. She gave me permission to forgive myself (and not judge myself in the first place) when I wasn’t enjoying every moment because a lot of them are hard! And while I was grateful for every second as a new mom and for the time I was able to spend with my son, knowing I wasn’t alone made the journey so much easier.
I think it’s important for all of us to talk about the realities of being a new parent. Sugar-coating it doesn’t help anyone properly manage expectations, and the reality is, the vast majority of us have some struggles while we’re figuring it all out. (And – spoiler alert! – I’m still figuring it out with an 11- and 9-year-old.)
In this guide, I pull from in-depth conversations I had with three providers who specialize in postpartum wellbeing, including the impact on relationships and mental health – Julie Rosinski LCSW-R, PMH-C from WNY Postpartum Connection in Buffalo, NY, Emily Pardy, LMFT, PMH-C of Ready Nest Counseling in Nashville, TN and Emily Horowitz, MA, LPC, PMH-C from the Parent & Family Wellness Center in Boulder, CO. We explore the realities of postpartum life, the importance of routines, the significance of mental health and self-care, and more.
The Postpartum Reality
When we envision postpartum life, we often picture joyous moments with our new baby, smiling family photos, and a smoothly functioning household. However, the reality can be quite different, and it’s crucial to paint a realistic picture for new parents. Contrary to the glossy portrayals in movies and social media, this period often involves coming to terms with the gap between expectations and reality.
One common misconception is the expectation of establishing a strict routine immediately. Many parents anticipate that their baby will adhere to a schedule right away, with set times for sleeping, feeding, and play. However, the truth is that the early days, weeks, and even months of parenthood can be chaotic. Babies have their own timelines and needs, which may not align with parental expectations.
There are also substantial relationship adjustments and role transitions that take place during this time – not only with your partner / spouse, but also with your extended family and friends. New parents have to grapple with their emotions and physical changes in addition to the challenges of caring for a newborn.
Stress on Relationships
One of the common stressors during the postpartum period is the impact on relationships, particularly between partners. The adjustment to parenthood can strain even the most solid partnerships. Sleep deprivation, the distribution of responsibilities, and uncertainties about parenting roles can lead to conflicts.
To proactively address these issues, effective communication becomes paramount. Open dialogues about emotions, responsibilities, and reactions are essential. Seeking understanding and empathy from each other can help couples weather the storm together. Some degree of conflict and stress is common during this phase, but with proper communication and support, these challenges can be overcome.
Here are some ways in which the postpartum period can affect relationships and strategies to counteract the stress:
- Unspoken Expectations: Couples often fall into the trap of unspoken, implicit expectations. It’s important to communicate openly about roles, responsibilities, and feelings.
- Practical Planning: Discuss practical aspects of parenting, such as who handles what tasks and how you’ll share responsibilities. Clear communication can prevent misunderstandings.
- Emotional Openness: Encourage open and honest conversations about your feelings, fears, and anxieties. Sharing your emotional journey with your partner can strengthen your connection.
- Seek Support: Utilize resources like the “Postpartum Pact” by Karen Kleinman to guide your discussions with your partner. This tool helps outline expectations and promote understanding.
Dealing with Unrealistic Expectations
Societal pressures that have always existed are now compounded by social media, which has become a significant influence on how we perceive postpartum life. It often portrays an unrealistic, filtered view of parenting. When new parents compare themselves to others – especially idealized, unrealistic portrayals of what new parenthood is like – this can lead to feelings of inadequacy, self-doubt, and anxiety. Here are some tips for combatting these feelings:
- Limit Social Media: If social media platforms leave you feeling worse, take a break or delete the apps altogether to focus on real-life connections and support systems instead. If you return to social media, disconnect with accounts that aren’t in alignment with your desired feelings, and follow creators and brands that provide a more realistic perspective of parenting, with humor and honesty.
- Understand the Discrepancy: Remember that what people share on social media is often a curated “highlight reel.” It rarely reflects the challenges and vulnerabilities that lie beneath the surface.
- Embrace Vulnerability: Share your struggles and challenges with trusted friends and family. Being open about your experiences can lead to more genuine connections.
- Prioritize Self-Compassion: Be kind to yourself and acknowledge that the postpartum journey is challenging for everyone. Allow yourself the space to grow and adapt at your own pace.
Asking for Help and Setting Boundaries
Postpartum life can be overwhelming, and asking for help can be difficult, especially for those used to being the ones who provide assistance. However, reaching out for support is crucial. A supportive network of friends, family, or community can make a world of difference. Setting boundaries is also essential for postpartum wellbeing, helping you to maintain a sense of control and avoid feeling overwhelmed. Here are some tips:
- Accept and Delegate: Recognize that you can’t do everything on your own, and that’s perfectly fine. When someone offers help, accept it, and delegate tasks that others can easily take over.
- Develop a Wish List: This is helpful for when someone in your village asks if there’s anything they can do to help you. With the common experience of “mom brain,” it’s not often easy to rattle off a list of tasks that would make your life easier. Keep a note in your phone and you can access it anytime.
- Ask for Help: If someone’s not offering to help, don’t be afraid to ask! Your family and friends are likely eager to help, but don’t know exactly how. Put yourself in their shoes. If a friend said they were struggling and needed a hand with dinner, or to spend time with the baby while you took a nap and a shower, would you resent it? Or would you be eager to help? I’m guessing the latter. And the same is true with the people in your life!
- Set Boundaries: On the other hand, it’s important to establish limits and communicate them clearly. Try saying no by saying yes – for example, delaying a visit so you’re protecting your time and space, but maintaining a connection with your loved ones.
- Prioritize Your Needs: Often new parents put their own needs last. Remind yourself that taking care of your own health is not just OK, it’s necessary for taking care of your baby. This can mean insisting on time for self-care activities or just resting, even if it feels like there’s a lot to do.
Prioritizing your wellbeing isn’t just beneficial for you, it’s also vital for your child and relationships. Here are some strategies to help parents who are feeling overwhelmed by the seismic shifts occurring in their lives:
- Identify Priorities: Concentrate on what matters most to you and your family. It’s easy to get caught up in the whirlwind of “should” and societal expectations. Instead, align your daily actions with your core values and the vision of how you want to experience this life-changing period.
- Embrace Imperfection: Parenthood is often not like what’s portrayed in the media. It’s messier, louder, and more tiring. Understand that it’s OK to not have everything under control. Embracing imperfection allows you to experience the joys of parenthood without the burden of unrealistic standards. Accept that some days will be about survival rather than thriving, and that’s perfectly OK!
- Seek Help: It takes a village to raise a child, and there’s no shame in leaning on that village. Reach out for support from friends, family, or professionals. Whether it’s for emotional support, practical help, or professional advice, accepting assistance is a smart strategy to maintain your wellbeing and resilience.
- Create a Routine: Establishing a daily routine can provide structure and predictability in a time of great change. Routines can be soothing for both you and your baby and can help you manage your time more effectively. (More on this below!)
- Communicate Openly: Maintain open lines of communication with your partner, family, and friends. Expressing your thoughts and feelings can help you navigate the complexities of parenthood as a team and build stronger relationships.
Establishing routines during the postpartum period isn’t about strict schedules or adhering to rigid time slots. It’s about creating a flow to your day that accommodates the needs of both you and your baby. A good routine takes into account the unpredictability of a newborn’s needs, yet provides enough structure to give you a sense of control and stability. Here’s a deeper dive into why routines are beneficial during this period:
- Predictability: A predictable routine isn’t just comforting for your baby – it can also simplify your day. When you have a general idea of when your baby eats, sleeps, and is awake, you can more easily plan your own activities and be prepared to meet your baby’s needs without feeling caught off guard.
- Self-Care: With a routine, you can block out time for self-care. This might mean setting aside time for a shower, a cup of tea in peace, or a few moments of meditation or yoga. Consistently carving out this time can help you recharge and stay grounded.
- Bonding: A consistent routine helps your baby learn to trust that their needs will be met, which is the foundation of a secure attachment. Regular interactions, like reading a book before naptime or singing a particular lullaby, become rituals that both you and your baby look forward to.
- Quality Sleep: Sleep is a precious commodity for new parents and their babies. Routines, especially around bedtime, can signal to your baby that it’s time to wind down, promoting better sleep for the whole family.
- Efficiency: Routines can make you more efficient in your tasks. Knowing what comes next allows you to prepare in advance, reducing the time spent on daily necessities like meal prep, diaper changes, and laundry.
- Coping with Stress: A routine can be a lifesaver on days when everything feels overwhelming. It provides a framework you can fall back on, which can be especially comforting when you’re dealing with the stress and hormones that come with the postpartum period.
Don’t forget to be flexible – the goal is to create a framework for your day, not a strict schedule that adds more pressure. Each day can bring new challenges, so adaptability is key. Listen to your baby’s cues and your own body’s needs, and adjust your routine accordingly.
Self-care is a key component of postpartum recovery, serving as the foundation upon which mothers can build strength and resilience. In the midst of adapting to the demands of a new baby, it’s vital for mothers to remember that taking care of themselves is not selfish – it’s fundamental for providing the best care for their baby. Here are some self-care strategies that can be particularly beneficial during this time:
- Nourish Your Body: Eating a well-balanced diet filled with vitamins and nutrients does more than keep you healthy – it can also affect your mood and energy levels. Focus on whole foods like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins, and healthy fats. Staying hydrated is equally important as it helps with recovery and energy levels.
- Connect with Nature: Stepping outside can have a profound impact on your wellbeing. Whether it’s a walk in the park, sitting in the garden, or simply opening the windows to let in fresh air and sunshine, connecting with the natural world can help reduce stress and promote mental clarity.
- Prioritize Sleep: Getting consistent and ample sleep can be challenging for new parents, but it’s essential for healing and wellbeing. Aim for at least four hours of uninterrupted sleep at night, and try to accumulate at least seven to eight hours of rest over a 24-hour period through naps and restful periods.
- Practice Mindfulness: Engage in mindfulness or meditation practices, which can be done in a quiet space or even while feeding your baby. These techniques can reduce stress, improve your emotional equilibrium, and enhance your overall sense of wellbeing.
- Be Physically Active: Incorporate gentle physical activity into your routine when you feel ready and with approval from your healthcare provider. Activities like walking, postpartum yoga, or light stretching can improve circulation, boost mood, and aid in recovery.
- Pamper Yourself: It’s not only about indulgence, but also about self-respect and emotional rejuvenation. Schedule time to engage in activities that make you feel relaxed and happy. This could be as simple as taking a warm bath, getting a massage, or even a quiet hour with a book. These moments of self-care can make a big difference in your overall sense of wellbeing.
- Honor Your Individuality: While parenthood is an integral part of your life, it’s crucial to maintain your identity and continue to engage in hobbies and interests that you enjoyed before the baby. Whether its painting, playing an instrument, or a weekly meet-up with friends, these activities are key to your personal fulfillment and can provide a valuable sense of continuity and normalcy.
Understanding Postpartum Mood and Anxiety Disorders
Understanding the spectrum of postpartum mood and anxiety disorders is an important aspect of postpartum wellbeing. These conditions, commonly referred to as PMADs, range from emotional disturbances that come and go to more severe, long-lasting symptoms that require professional intervention. Here’s an overview of these disorders:
- Baby Blues: Characterized by transient mood swings, weepiness, and feelings of vulnerability, “baby blues” affect the majority of new parents. Symptoms typically emerge within the first two weeks postpartum and subside without medical intervention.
- Postpartum Depression (PPD): More serious than baby blues, PPD includes prolonged periods of low mood, anhedonia (loss of interest in previous enjoyable activities), and feelings of worthlessness or guilt. Unlike baby blues, PPD can persist and intensify without treatment.
- Postpartum Anxiety: This condition manifests as excessive worry, often concerning the baby’s health or parental competence, which can escalate into panic attacks or severe anxiety, interfering with daily life.
- Postpartum Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD): This involves recurrent, intrusive thoughts and repetitive behaviors. These obsessions often revolve around the baby’s safety, leading to compulsions that are intended to manage the anxiety.
- Postpartum Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD): Triggered by a traumatic birth experience, symptoms include flashbacks, nightmares, and an intense state of alertness or avoidance.
- Postpartum Bipolar Disorder: This is characterized by episodes of mania – periods of high energy, euphoria, or irritability – alternating with episodes of depression.
- Postpartum Psychosis: The most severe form of PMAD, it’s a psychiatric emergency characterized by delusions, hallucinations, and a detachment from reality, requiring immediate medical attention.
Distinguishing between the common and short-lived baby blues and the more serious PMADs is crucial for early intervention. While up to 80% of parents may experience baby blues, PMADs affect up to 20% and can significantly impact one’s ability to function. Recognizing the signs and seeking help is not an indication of failure, but a proactive step towards healing and health. Professional support can provide effective strategies and treatment options tailored to each individual’s experience, promoting recovery and the overall wellbeing of both the parent and child.
Seeking Support and Early Intervention
Navigating the postpartum period requires vigilance and awareness, especially regarding mental health. The first step is to be aware of the signs of PMADs and to understand that seeking professional support is an act of courage and an important step towards recovery. Healthcare providers, therapists, and support groups offer valuable strategies and treatments to manage mental health challenges that may arise.
Debunking myths around postpartum experiences, maintaining open lines of communication, and engaging in self-care are vital components of wellbeing during this time. Setting boundaries and seeking support are not just recommended but necessary for new parents to foster confidence and resilience in their parenting journey. A network of support is available, ready to guide you through any postpartum challenges you may encounter.
For those who suspect they or someone close to them might be struggling with PMADs or other postpartum challenges, consider taking the following steps:
- Self-Assessment: Tools such as the Edinburgh Postnatal Depression Scale (EPDS) can be instrumental in assessing emotional wellbeing and postpartum.
- Professional Consultation: Engage with a healthcare provider like an OB-GYN, midwife, family doctor, or a therapist specializing in PMADs to voice your concerns.
- Community Support: Seek out organizations like Postpartum Support International, which provides resources and access to support groups for those experiencing PMADs.
- Open Dialogue: Don’t hesitate to talk about your feelings with trusted friends or family members. The support from your inner circle is often invaluable and can play a significant role in your recovery process.
Always prioritize your mental health, especially after having a baby. And remember – help is available and you are never alone on this journey.