This is an excerpt from my book – Life After Birth: A Parent’s Holistic Guide for Thriving in the Fourth Trimester now in press. It’s a bit long for a blog and I hope you enjoy it. If you do, please share your comments below.
© Diane S Speier, PhD
At the start of this book, I talked about the importance of simplifying your life during the postnatal period. One way of doing that is by creating a Postpartum Wellness Plan for yourselves as new parents, and as a means of navigating the normal challenges that are a natural feature of those early days and weeks after birth. A postpartum plan is just as important as a birth plan – after all, it lasts a lot longer than the baby’s birth! The acronym that I created around Wellness covers the basics that will help you make all the necessary adjustments for recovery and parenting that dominate the experience. WELLNESS stands for the following:
W = we
E = energy medicine
L = lovingkindness
L = less is more
N = new normal
E = expectations
S = self-care
S = support
Protecting your partnership as you become parents is crucial for making life much simpler, as the birth of a baby brings so much change with it that we often take the stress out on our partners. The last thing you need is to alienate your partner when the going gets rough, because it really feels bad to not have the loving support you need in those moments. You want to be on the same page when it comes to managing the everyday reality of the transition to parenthood. Chapter 5 on relationships explained the importance of prioritizing your relationship, so that there is empathy and compassion keeping you connected with each other. ‘We’ is also about the family that you are creating, very similar to the Us in Becoming Us™, also discussed in chapter 5. Your ‘we’ has expanded to include another little person in your life. Welcome your parent self, as Elly Taylor says in her 8 Steps of the Parenthood Adventure. Both of you are going through your own transitions and also a major relationship transition, in which each of you will have your own vulnerabilities. Turning towards each other for love and support makes a huge difference in those early days as you are trying on the role of parent. Respect that each of you will do things slightly differently, and that’s fine. Avoid right and wrong interpretations because that increases stress and makes the other person feel less capable. Be there for each other and work together. I love the metaphor of being a duet, where each of you can sing your individual part, but there is harmony in the sound both of you make together. Nurture your partnership.
The four principles of energy medicine are the foundation of healing with energy: 1) energy wants to move, 2) energy needs space to move, 3) the health of the body reflects the health of its energies, and 4) the body’s energies are interconnected. One of the best things about working with energy medicine is that it offers so many opportunities for healing yourself, and doesn’t require anyone else to do it for you. You are your own healer. You can also visit an energy medicine practitioner for even more yummy treatments, but that’s an indulgence that might not be possible in the weeks after birth. The common actuality of low energy in those early weeks when sleep deprivation is the norm can be rectified by doing the Daily Energy Routine (DER) that was described in chapter 1. I do this every evening, and I find when I don’t do it I don’t sleep as well. Other people do it in the morning to get themselves off to a good start in the day. Keeping your energy flowing through the various techniques that are described at the end of each chapter puts you in control. What’s wonderful is the simplicity of these practices and how effective they can be. I truly believe this is a happy medium for tuning in to your energetic needs, and I wish I had energy healing when I was having babies. The health of our energy lies in its flow, balance and harmony, impacting on the health of the body; when the body is unhealthy the energies are also disturbed and need to be repaired.
You can also do some of the techniques as a couple together – certainly the DER, but also the stress related techniques, the relationship techniques and the one that I saved for this chapter is a real winner. The Brazilian Toe Technique is just delightful! More on that further down.
When it comes to sharing love, empathy and caring, lovingkindess is the way. It comes from the Buddhist spiritual tradition, and lights the way for the journey to the heart. In the midst of the confusion that is normal in the postnatal period, we need to open our hearts to each other and to the new baby that has just arrived earth-side. Most importantly, we need to open our hearts to ourselves with self-love and acceptance. Lovingkindness is the translation for ‘metta’ practice, a meditation in which we offer care and friendship to ourselves and then to others, wishing for mental happiness, physical happiness, freedom from danger and ease of wellbeing. The metta phrases are “May I be free from danger.” “May I have mental happiness.” “May I have physical happiness.” “May I have ease of wellbeing.” (Salzberg, 1995) This is then extended outwards to include 1) a person who is a ‘benefactor’, 2) a beloved friend, 3) a neutral person, and then 4) someone with whom you have experienced conflict, sometimes called ‘the enemy’. The happiness that we wish for becomes happiness for all. With all others, you would substitute the word ‘you’ for I, i.e. “May you be free from danger,” etc. Understandably you will say you have no time for meditation, and I’m not suggesting that you can. It’s the essence of being kind to yourself and others that can become the atmosphere in which your family blossoms. The key is that metta, or lovingkindness, starts with us: “Love for others without the foundation of love for ourselves becomes a loss of boundaries, codependency, and a painful and fruitless search for intimacy” (Salzberg, 1995, p.26). Forgiveness is embedded within metta, and is an inner release of guilt or resentment, such common emotions during this period in life. Anything that can relieve those difficult feelings will help you prosper in many ways.
Less is More.
This is the core of simplicity. This can apply to so many circumstances in the weeks after birth, and one specific example would be visitors in the first weeks. Yes, you want to show off your baby, and friends and family want to meet her/him, but it can be exhausting as I described in the first chapter. Less visiting means you can rest and restore yourself after the experience of birth. You can spend less time entertaining others and more time in self-care. You can also apply this to the ‘stuff’ you’re inclined to buy for the baby. It’s surprising how much you can accomplish with less paraphernalia. I learned this when my last son Jasper was born and we had given away all our stuff, thinking we were done after our third child. I borrowed some essentials from friends temporarily, and we did just fine. Do you really need the top of the line stroller or pram? Less money spent. In the early months babies grow out of clothes so quickly that you probably could get away with half the number of outfits you have. Less clothing. In the beginning of the postnatal period you want to settle down with the baby and learn the rhythms of baby care and parenting, and less input from others (like parents and in-laws who did things differently) will protect your mental health from comments that are not meant maliciously, but can undermine a new mother’s sense of competence. Less conflict. During your babymoon, you can be doing less activity, enjoying your time together in the cocoon, so there is less pressure to achieve things that are unrelated to getting to know your baby. I could go on and on, but I think you get the message. Do/have less. Experience more. Even this section is less than the others!
I’m never quite sure why there is such a premium in ‘getting back to normal’ after women have a baby. I suspect it has something to do with feeling more in control, when life after baby feels so out of control in the beginning. Normal has changed, permanently. It’s not like you can send it back, although your older children might wish that were so! The sooner you are able to integrate this ‘new normal’ into your identity, the better you will feel with the enormity of the change that it brings. Part of the new normal is to extend to yourself and others a lot of flexibility. You want to be prepared for life after baby, but not fixed on things being a certain way, because that’s a setup for failure. We go into this more in the expectations section below. Just when you think you’ve settled into a routine with the baby, it changes. I can guarantee that. Being able to roll with the punches makes for an easier transition, and flexibility is the tool to simplify life that’s full of ups and downs initially. Acceptance is another quality that makes the uncertainty of the new normal easier. Resistance will only bring you grief – grief for what used to be, for the person you were, for the experiences that you had. Resistance is looking backward; acceptance is moving forward with a new reality that you can embrace. There’s no doubt that grief is one of the mixed emotions that you will feel after birth, but you want to keep that one among many and not get stuck there. Go with the flow of the new reality you are co-creating and accept it as being part of the territory. After all the new normal is transforming you into a new and improved model of yourself!
When I was considering what would be the best expression for the second letter ‘e’, it could have been empathy or empowerment but I felt so strongly that we must address expectations that I chose that to be a focus of wellbeing. This is one of the most disheartening things we do to ourselves – having high expectations for how things are going to be, or should be, and then when it doesn’t turn out that way, we feel deflated and disappointed. Disappointment can be a huge factor in triggering depression and anxiety. Here is another area where we need to protect our mental health, at a time when we are feeling so vulnerable and uncertain. We need to be realistic and lower our expectations. What you will find in the next book, The Adverse Aftermath of Birth, is that expectations can undermine our capacity to function or accept the new normal. I’ve mentioned in chapter 5 how we can have helpful and unhelpful expectations, and those unhelpful ones can really do a number on us emotionally. We have expectations about so many areas of our lives during this time frame – expectations about ourselves, about our relationships, about ourselves as parents, about life, about our partners, about our babies. We need to manage those expectations effectively. It would be a good exercise to write down your expectations, and if they are unhelpful, see if you can rephrase them as helpful ones. For example, “even though we’ve been having some relationship issues, this baby will bring us closer”, is an unhelpful expectation. A helpful expectation might be, “even though we will feel closer in some ways, in other ways we will have new trials to manage.” It’s an expectation that recognizes that your ideal of what should be needs some flexibility built into it. You can do this on your own or you can do it as a couple. Don’t let unrealistic expectations cause your descent into depression and/or anxiety.
This is a tricky one, since it’s common for mothers to forget to take care of themselves while they are so busy taking care of newborns. But it is essential for our physical, emotional and mental health that we take the time to look after ourselves. That might be eating nutritious meals and/or snacks, and getting someone to supply or prepare those for you. Staying hydrated throughout the day, especially while breastfeeding. Practicing the energy medicine techniques, which are highly effective for managing your energy levels at this time. Finding time for a shower (remember Adriana Lozada’s video from chapter 1?) or bath might be challenging, but it’s something you can do when your partner is around to hold the baby. Here’s where the flexibility comes in – being able to change your normal routine to a time that works for you and the baby. So if you are used to having your shower in the morning, maybe it will temporarily change to an evening time instead. Having ‘me time’ is also very important when you are engaged in baby care 24/7. And ‘we time’ too, so you stay connected through the chaotic moments. That might just be holding hands while you watch television. And rest. Even though you may not be sleeping through the night, you can catch up on your sleep debt if you take naps during the day, when the baby is resting. Don’t succumb to that temptation to run around and clean up when the baby sleeps. Your rest is more important for restoring balance. Get outside and breathe in some fresh air as often as you can. It really does change your frame of mind to be outside in nature, if you live where this is accessible. Even a park in the city will do. What kinds of things do you do for yourself to feel good? Maybe it’s reaching out to friends by telephone. Whatever you do to promote self-care, make time for it.
And finally, and last but not least, is support. It really does take a village to raise a child. Parenting was not meant to be done without the love and support of our community; once upon a time that was the norm in which family, community and elders all contributed to the happy and healthy development of a new family. Within the relationship, you want to support each other as you move through the transition as ‘we’, because part of the synergy of we is supporting each other. And there are so many forms of support – practical support, emotional support, financial support, social support, informational support and organizational support. When I was writing my thesis for my PhD, one of the main themes was social support, along with knowledge and empowerment, and the formula was Knowledge + Support = Empowerment. This is true in birth and in life after birth.
Don’t be afraid to ask for help; for many people that’s a growing edge and they find it difficult. For those who are feeling particularly vulnerable, it feels like asking for help is an admission that you are not coping. And maybe you’re not. But the sooner you get help the faster you’ll feel better. If you’ve had a cesarean section, you have to accept assistance and support because there will be many things you’re unable to do when you are post-operative. The solution? The ‘Contract for Hours’ that I mentioned earlier in the book. People want to support you, and if you indicate what you need in advance, people can decide how they can best respond. When I was preparing for Jasper’s arrival I had people sign up for ways they could support me with their time and efforts. One person signed up to bring us dinner. Someone else, who had also just had a baby the day after me, signed up for telephone chats. Someone signed up to take my other children to after school activities. Someone signed up to shop for us. Embrace support in any way it comes for whatever your needs are. It will surely help you, and it will help those who want to be there for you in definite and specific ways. No empty offer of help or you struggling to decide what help you need. Make it part of your wellness plan!
How will you construct your plan around wellness? Working as a team, decide how you want to do this. W – create some ‘we’ time. E – practice energy medicine techniques individually and together. L – embrace the attitude of lovingkindness with each other, even when things are challenging. L – what can you do less of? Have less of? Decide how ‘less is more’ works for you. N – be mindful of how your normal has changed and accept this as a good thing. E – share your expectations with each other and see how you can make them into helpful expectations that express your development as individuals and a family. S – do something that establishes self-care every day. You’ll feel better for it, and you will bring that energy into the care you give to your baby and your partner. And get all the support that you need by speaking out. Overcome any reticence and let others help you. Your Postpartum Wellness Plan will help you shape your lives together as parents and as a family.