Twelve Things I Wish Someone Had Told Me About the Fourth Trimester…or Things People Told Me, But I Didn’t Understand Until Having a Baby, so Now I’m Telling You

“Pheoby, yuh got tuh go there tuh know there. Yo’ papa and yo’ mama and nobody else can’t tell yuh and show yuh. Two things everybody’s got tuh do fuh theyselves. They got tuh go tuh God and they got tuh find out about livin fuh theyselves.” – Janie in Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God

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Lucia, 1 day

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Lucia, 3 months

 

Today Lucia is three months old. I could wax poetic about how quickly times is passing (and wow. sigh. is it.) and how magical Lucia is (and wow. is she), but instead I’m going to celebrate that we’ve made it through the “fourth trimester,” that frantic/beautiful/stressful/wondrous/horrible/unpredictable/life-making/earth-shattering/transitional period of time in which a newborn adjusts to life outside of the womb (and parents become parents!). The past twelve weeks, as Lucia has navigated life outside the womb and Jared and I have negotiated our new roles as parents, have been the most joyful in my life but also some of the most challenging. Before I had Lucia, I read at least twenty parenting books, I listened to well-intentioned advice, and I did my best to prepare for her arrival. But just as Janie tells her friend: “You have to go there to know there.”  So without further ado, here are twelve wise things other people told me about those early weeks of parenthood but I had to find out for myself and now I’m passing them on to you:

1.You will feel all the emotions. Buoyant with anticipation, I was basically flying high my entire pregnancy. Jared said he’d never known me to be so happy. Since Lucia’s arrival, I would say my underlying emotion is: joy, true and utter. But coupled with that joy is often despair.  My heart is made every single day. However, at the same time my heart is made, my heart breaks. Time passes too quickly for me. I find myself, at times, in the grips of anxiety. I wonder, “Am I doing this right? Is Lucia okay?” Dr. Google is at once my best friend and mortal enemy. When you have a baby, you are a soggy mess of emotions, all the time, and there’s research that says this is NORMAL!* The good news is that while your partner, as wonderful as he/she is, sometimes just won’t understand, other moms do…which leads me to point two.

* Postpartum depression is another story. It’s real and terrible, and it affects many women. Here are some resources on ppd.

2. It’s really important to have other mom friends for support. So, reach out! There’s no one quite so desperate (grateful) for a friend as a new mom. Everyone needs someone to say, “I get it. I truly get it. And you’re doing a good job.” You’ll feel especially raw and vulnerable those first weeks of motherhood. But guess what? Vulnerability is also the birthplace of love. Brene Brown tells us, “ We cultivate love when we allow our most vulnerable and powerful selves to be deeply seen and known, and when we honor the spiritual connection that grows from that offering with trust, respect, kindness and affection.” I can’t tell you how appreciative I am for the mom friends I’ve begun to make. And believe it or not, making a mom friend is relatively painless.

Here’s how you make a mom friend: “Hey, your baby is absolutely beautiful. What is your name? Let’s be friends.”

That’s it.

When you’re a new mom, you can be direct and honest about your desire to be friends. In between breastfeeding, changing diapers, managing your child’s needs, and riding the wave of your own emotions, there’s just no time for the delicate social dance adult friendships usually require. So, get out there and make some friends. Attend the new parents group at your hospital or birthing center, go to storytime at the library, get outside for walks, sit on a bench at the park, and introduce yourself to other moms. Exchange numbers, and then make a date for a walk or a simple chat at your house while you rock your babies. Take every opportunity you can to build connections, and talk, talk, talk.

 3. Sleep when the baby sleeps. There’s a reason sleep deprivation is used as a form of torture. It disrupts basic biological functioning and makes you crazy and paranoid. It contributes to and worsens postpartum depression.  Sleep is essential to sanity, so when your baby sleeps, SLEEP. Don’t do laundry. Don’t make yourself a cup of coffee. To quote a wise book, ”Go the eff to sleep.”

I was riding the euphoric high of Lucia’s arrival, so in her early weeks, I did not do a great job of heeding this advice. And then one day, I hit.the.wall. A mean, hot mess, I could barely string a sentence together. When Jared told me I needed a nap, I broke down in tears, yelled at him for “criticizing me,” told him I wasn’t tired and that he was crazy, and then slept for six hours straight while he held the baby. I woke up feeling like a human again. My “human-ness” is directly correlated with the number of hours Lucia sleeps. Sleep when your baby sleeps. Period. End of story.

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4. Treat your body well, believe in its resilience, and know that one day vegetables will look appealing again. The Chinese tradition of “zuo yuezi,” a month-long period following labor in which the mother is expected to do basically nothing (no stairs, no laundry, no cleaning, nothing) except rest in bed and feed her baby, makes so much sense. Indeed, even though I had an active pregnancy and a relatively easy labor, I was depleted in the early weeks postpartum. I was absolutely starving all the time but had no time to actual fix myself a good meal. I was sore and tired, and if I stood or walked around too much, I would ache at night. But, I tried to listen to my body closely and trust that it knew what it needed (rest and lots of Annie’s Bunny Grahams, apparently). And Jared was a peach and did all the scurrying around to ensure that I wouldn’t. That rest was vital. Sure enough, around the six week mark, I started to feel markedly better; my energy was more consistent, and I actually craved the salads and vegetables that earlier I had to force myself to eat between nibbles of lactation cookies, teddy grahams, and chocolate. Now, I feel stronger, more energetic, and more balanced every day. When you’re sitting in gargantuan granny panties on an ice pack with a mewling baby in your arms, you have moments where you believe you will NEVER feel like a normal person again. Allow time to work its magic and rest.

5. Get outside for a walk. There’s nothing a brief walk can’t cure. I remember the doula who ran my childbirth class telling us to “walk as much as possible,” and now I understand why: mama and baby benefit. Lucia loves being outside, and the fresh air – however bracing – is energizing. I try to get outside for a walk everyday, even on – rather, especially on – those days where it seems darn near impossible to leave the house. Thankfully, we’ve had a relatively mild winter so far, and on the cold days, I simply put Lucia in her snowsuit, pop her in the Boba, and zip my fleece over the both of us. Getting out for a walk can seem like a herculean task in the early days, but it is always worth it. Fresh air is so good for the soul.

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6. Accept help when it’s offered, and ask for help when you need it. Jared and I are both fiercely independent people, but when we were absolutely drowning in the new responsibilities of a baby, we took friends and family up on their gracious offers to cook us a meal or to fold laundry. We felt so fortunate to be able to give most of our attention to our new baby, instead of to meal planning and cooking. However, far and away the single best thing I did post-delivery was to plan three home visits from a lactation consultant and postpartum doula (and Milwaukeeans, if you’re looking for a recommendation, Dawn Davis is bomdiggity!). Yes, I had a couple of good meetings with the lactation consultant at the hospital, but when I got home from the hospital, I was feeling near paralyzed by the weight of responsibility: the entirety of my daughter’s well being rested on my shoulders. The home visits were essential to my understanding the nuts and bolts of breastfeeding, latching, and pumping, but more importantly, these visits gave me the confidence to trust my nurturing instinct.

 7. Make peace with not being in control, and know that it gets easier. The first weeks of parenting are a completely chaotic, magical whirlwind. Everything is new, and there is so much to be figured out. And just when you think you have something dialed, everything changes, and you’re back at square one. When you’re in the thick of it – up to the elbows in explosive, yellow, seedy poop and you’re bleary eyed from lack of sleep and your little Houdini keeps escaping her swaddle and won’t go back down – it’s hard to recognize the ways in which everyday you’re getting to know each other better and that each and every day things are a little easier because of it. People will tell you over and over again, “It gets easier,” and, you know what? They’re right.

 Jared and I have been humbled over and over again these past twelve weeks, and, at the same time, every day has been better than the last. At week four, Jared and I were bone tired. The initial euphoria was wearing off, help had dropped off, Lucia wouldn’t sleep for more than 1.5 hours at a time, she was going through her first developmental leap, which made for one fussy chica, and the manic pace of the holidays was in full swing. I’d call my best friend in a sleep-deprived panic, and she’d tell me, “It gets easier,” the refrain I’d hear also from my parents, my parents-in-law, and basically every other human who has been a parent. Guess what? It does. It gets easier. By week five, Lucia had returned to her usual happy little self, we worked out a system for sleeping, and all three of us were better versions of ourselves. And largely, every single day has been better than the last; the more awake to the world she gets, the more fun we have together. The bottom line? As soon as you get used to one phase, something changes again. So, soak in all the sweet moments with your sleepy, cuddly newborn. Look at your baby for hours on end. Forget about the chores and all the things you “should” be doing, just for a little bit, for those sweet moments are just as fleeting as the sleepless nights and the fussy afternoons. Parenting is one big lesson about impermanence. And when it’s tough, know that it’ll get better.

8. Do you. There is no right way. Before I had Lucia, I read copious parenting books, and then once she came, I found myself resorting to Dr. Google at all hours of the day as well as soliciting advice – about breastfeeding, about sleep, about acid reflux, you name it – from anyone who would offer it. My head was swimming with conflicting recommendations, and in those early weeks, I sometimes cast aside my own instincts to try out something someone had told me. A very wise friend told me after an angst-ridden conversation about breastfeeding, “Sarah, STOP READING. Just trust yourself!” Indeed, there is a balance to be achieved between relying on time-trusted wisdom and following your own instincts. And there is no perfect way to raise a child.  Sometimes, you’ve just got to do you.

 For example, when Lucia was dealing with reflux (poor thing) and couldn’t sleep for more than an hour and a half at a time on her back, we tried e.v.e.r.y.t.h.i.n.g to help her – the swing, the rock and play, the boppy, an inclined bassinet – and nothing worked. Jared and I read anything we could find about reflux, and one morning, we drove to Buy Buy Baby and spent a ridiculous sum on an inclined chair specifically designed for infants with reflux. We were confident that all our research had led us to the magical, expensive fix. Welp, I tried for three nights to get her to sleep in that inclined chair, and by golly, my efforts were for naught. I called my dad to ask for his advice. “She only sleeps in her car seat or on my chest,” I wailed into the telephone. He paused and then said matter-of-factly, “So let her sleep in the car seat or on your chest.” “Really?” I gasped in relief. “I won’t be a bad mom for letting her sleep in her car seat?”

Long story short: my daughter sleeps in her car seat, in the Bob Stroller, next to our bed. She freaking loves her car seat and sleeps beautifully in it. She adores her car seat so much I’m afraid she’ll drag it with her to kindergarten, instead of the sweet, tattered lovies her friends stuff in their backpacks. The bassinet has transformed to a very expensive, raised laundry basket. Did I imagine this parenting choice? No, but we’re doing us. You do you.

 9. Celebrate your partner (because in those early weeks, sometimes you will hate each other). Jared is a natural father, and he is a generous and loving spouse; I don’t think my heart has been fuller. We share an abundance of joy. But.

 Sometimes, in the early weeks of parenthood, you can forget how wonderful your partner is. Like when he asks you one morning, “Honey, did you wet the bed?” and you have to explain to him how engorgement works and how lucky is it that he doesn’t have boobs and also how lucky he is that he manages to sleep through any noise your child makes. So, yeah. There will be times where you will curse your partner for not having breasts and he will curse you for being the only one who does, especially when he’s holding your screaming infant while you take a much-needed shower. But.

A kind word goes such a long way; all anyone wants in this world is to be loved and appreciated. There’s nothing that will make your partner feel like a million bucks more than a long hug and kiss, some kind words, and a thank you.

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10. If you’re going to invest in two things, buy a wrap and Wonder Weeks.  We’ve got the Boba – and I can’t say enough good things! – but there are a million good wraps out there. There are so many benefits of babywearing, but the bottom line, real life reason to babywear is this: your baby will be happy, and you will have use of your hands. It’s the little things in life, folks. So, take a wrap class, ask around, and get a wrap. Done.

Secondly, get Wonder Weeks. Unlike other mammals, human babies are born with their brains largely undeveloped (otherwise, their heads would be too big to deliver vaginally!); babies are incredibly vulnerable. I could barely believe we were allowed to take our tiny Lu home with us from the hospital! The fourth trimester ushers in huge transitions and developmental changes for babies. In the cozy, safe darkness of the womb, their every need is taken care of, but once born, babies must suddenly contend with shocking light of the world; they experience hunger, thirst, wetness, and fear for the first time. Further, babies go through several developmental “leaps,” as they learn to move beyond simple reflexes like sucking, breathing, and swallowing, and wake up to the world of light, color, needs, and the joys (and terrors) of social interaction. This book sheds startling light on periods of rapid development (in the fourth trimester, these occur roughly 5, 8, and 12 weeks) and the accompanying strategies parents can use to help facilitate and ease the transitions.

So while Lucia generally needed lots of attention and cuddles during her fourth trimester, there were times when she was unusually clingy, fussy, and more attached than usual. Just when Jared and I would wonder, “Where has our dear Lucia gone?” we’d turn to the book for wisdom; invariably Lu would be smack in the middle of a leap. Get this book.

11. You’re the adult, sure, but your baby is your greatest teacher. In a fast-paced, hyper-connected, multitasking world, Lucia has given me daily lessons in slowness, in presence, in absorption. I feel called to a greater simplicity with her in my life. The wonder in her eyes at something so simple as her own fingers or a colorful pattern makes me appreciate the present, the beauty of the world we live in. The smiles she offers instruct in the abundance of joy. When your baby arrives, your world will be both grander and more myopic than ever before. Slow down, smile, and enjoy.

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12. Motherhood changes your life, and that’s the best part about it. As I’ve written about before, when you’re pregnant, you’re a magnet for all the horror stories about lack of sleep, about velcro babies, about everything you have to give up when you’re a parent. Some of these warnings are legitimate (sleep deprivation stinks — see #3), but what these well-intentioned tidbits leave out is the incredible heart-breaking, heart-making magical joy that is also motherhood. The moment Lucia came in to this world my entire life changed. My heart has grown ten sizes, and I have encountered joy in ways I never knew about before. I love Jared in a different and more profound way than before too. Not all mothers feel this way right away – and that’s okay. And sometimes the challenges of parenthood are overwhelming. But is it worth it? Yes, yes, yes, a million times yes.

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