There’s something magical about the six-week mark.
Even though your baby may not be sleeping through the night yet, you’ve likely established some sort of routine, begun to understand what makes him whine or fuss, and started to feel a little bit like yourself again.
“At six weeks, moms kind of let out a sigh,” reports Alison VanDerburgh, a doula and certified lactation counselor who facilitates a support group for new moms at Birthroots in Portland. “You start to feel, ‘I think I’ve got this.’”
Getting to the six-week mark, though, is not easy. For most new moms, it is like running a marathon while in a state of sleep deprivation and without any real training. Uneven and ever-changing hormone levels bring on feelings of anxiety, moodiness and unhappiness in 90 percent of postpartum moms.
“For women who like to have control over their days and lives (and who doesn’t?), this adjustment can be particularly tough,” says Kara Kaikini, an international board-certified lactation consultant. “Same goes for parents who like uninterrupted sleep. Sleep deprivation is no joke!”
“Most women are not prepared for how demanding those first weeks can be,” agrees Anne Belden of Cape Elizabeth, who runs a postpartum support group for women who had previously struggled with infertility.
“The question that kept coming into my mind was, ‘Am I doing this right?’” recalls VanDerburgh, whose son Luke is now 41?2 years old.
Many women become emotional about the prospect of leaving the cocoon of 24-hour care in the maternity ward. But VanDerburgh recalls being anxious to get home and start mothering. Her husband had experienced fatherhood with her two stepdaughters, so she knew he would be there for her – to make meals and to provide breaks when she needed them.
“My mom was ready to move in for four weeks, but I told her to leave,” says VanDerburgh. “I kind of wanted to figure it out on my own.”
The hardest thing to figure out was breastfeeding, VanDerburgh says. Even though a baby’s stomach only holds a teaspoon during the first week, many new mothers fret about having an adequate milk supply. VanDerburgh says she would nurse for 20 minutes and then pump for 20 minutes to try and increase her supply. She also experienced cracked nipples and some bleeding in the first two weeks.
Come to find out, Luke had a condition called “tongue-tie,” in which the strip of skin holding the tongue to the floor of the mouth is too short and interfering with the ability to move the milk from the breast. A “specialized snip” at the pediatrician’s office produced immediate results.
“He did have some reflux issues but for the most part, he was happy and content,” she says.
Lynsey Shimala of Cape Elizabeth also had nursing issues with her first child, Theo, who is now 21?2 years old. During the first four to five days at home, she knew he wasn’t getting much, if any, milk from her breast and he was obviously losing weight.
“The nurses kept telling me he would be fine,” she recalls. “But I hadn’t been around many babies. It was all brand new.”
Shimala remembers vividly the day Theo finally got the hang of it.
“As soon as he figured it out, he drank a ton of milk and passed out,” she recalls.
Even if feeding is going well, the round-the-clock nature of the feeding schedule can be overwhelming and lead to other issues for a new mom. VanDerburgh chalks up much of her anxiety during the first six weeks to the fact that she was sleep deprived. Ironically, she would have to wake Luke up from a nap to keep him on his feeding schedule (even though she would love to have let him sleep so she could also rest). She also recalls spending precious time when she could have been sleeping simply watching him breathe in and out.
For VanDerburgh, nature had always helped to ground her when she was feeling emotionally untethered. Luckily, Luke was born at the end of April and so she would wrap him up and carry him around outside for short walks and fresh air as early as one week into her postpartum journey.
“It was as important for my baby as it was for me,” she says.
VanDerburgh also got involved with a new mother’s group through the Birthplace at Mercy Hospital to help her “find stability in the wiggly places.”
“It was the one time of the week when I was in the trenches with others like me,” she says.
By all accounts, going it alone is not the way to go if you’re a new mom. Kaikini says that “finding your tribe” is really important for new mothers.
“Whether her tribe is online, on social media or in person at any (or all) of the local mom groups, it is extremely powerful to understand she’s not alone in her joys and struggles,” she says.
Even if it’s just a 30-minute get-together with a friend at a coffee house – it heals us at a time when we are feeling depleted,” agrees Belden, of Cape Elizabeth.
Belden works with a specific subset of new moms: those who may have struggled for years with infertility, just as she did before she got pregnant with her son. Belden says the challenges of new motherhood can be even greater for these moms because of the constant stress during the years of trying to get pregnant. The anxiety can be greater and there can be a “holding back” of joy.
“They worry more about all the things that can go wrong,” she says. “You also feel that you shouldn’t be exhausted and that you don’t get to complain because you spent so much time and so many thousands of dollars to get to this point.”
In Belden’s case, she tried for almost four years to get pregnant, and after myriad procedures and “thousands of dollars,” she finally did. She’d had a “fabulous” job that she loved, but she gave it up to be home full time with her son (who is now 26).
“Everything was exaggerated,” she says. “I did it all with great gusto.”
Because she’d only lived in Maine for about three years, Belden’s only friends had been work friends. But she was able to form new friendships that centered on mothering. She advises clients now to find the support system that feels right for them as an individual. It may be family, a formal group of new moms, an objective counselor or a new network of friends.
According to Kaikini, it also helps to adopt a this-too-shall-pass attitude toward the everyday struggles of new motherhood. Each phase, after all, is transitory, she says. And, it does get easier as time goes on.
Shimala would agree with that. Her firstborn, Theo, is now 2 and she has since had another baby, 7-month-old Bea. She says the experience of those first six weeks with her second child was so much easier and relaxed, even though Bea was ultimately a lot fussier than her firstborn had been – and her husband couldn’t get much time off from work as he had after Theo’s birth.
“With Bea, I actually read a whole novel before I went home (from the hospital). I was so much more relaxed,” she says. “(With Theo) I was on alert all the time. Wondering, ‘Is he breathing. Is he happy?’ There was a lot to learn.”