Taking Care of Mom after Childbirth

Taking Care of Mom after the Baby Comes
by Karen Kleiman, MSW

Many women approach motherhood with a sense of wonderment and cautious optimism. What kind of mother will I be? What kind of baby will I have? How will my life change? Will I be a good mother? Some women try to prepare for these new changes by loading up on educational materials, seminars, self-help books or informal dialogues with helpful friends and neighbors.

Surely, anyone who has been a new mother would agree that there are countless things to worry about, obsess over or otherwise preoccupy your thoughts with. But in the few weeks and months after giving birth, there is one imperative that stands out among the rest. No matter what else you do, no matter how hard you try to prepare and do your best — the very best thing you can do for your baby at this time is to take care of yourself. This is not simply a matter of indulgence or, "If I have time, I’ll do such and such for myself." It is absolutely a necessity.

The postpartum period is a time in a women’s life when she is most vulnerable to emotional illness. Failure to take care of yourself adequately can create the perfect opportunity for a serious depression to set in. No one likes to think about that. But the truth is, mothers don’t spend enough time thinking about how they feel. Understandably, most of your spare energy goes toward caring for your baby. Others, too, are easily distracted by the new arrival and focus much of their attention on the baby. But the facts are clear, if you take care of yourself, you will strengthen the resources that will enable you to take better care of your baby.

Here are some guidelines for the first few weeks after you have had a baby. Some of them may appear too obvious to mention, but many women have difficulty giving themselves permission to make their needs a priority. And so, we start there:

1. Nurture the nurturer
It’s really true. It can feel wonderful if you pamper yourself a little. Whatever it takes, manicure, pizza, long-distance phone call, hair-cut, a good book, etc. You will never find a better excuse to indulge in self-absorbed and perhaps, frivolous projects. (Remember, if you feel guilty about this, you will be defeating the purpose.) So, enjoy and go for it!

2. Sleep
This is very important. If your baby is getting you up at night, it is especially important for you to find time to rest during the day. That means, when your baby naps, you do not do the laundry or clean the floor. It means, you rest. If you can’t sleep, then lie down on the couch, close your eyes and try to relax. Your body needs time to recharge, especially if you are not sleeping well at night.

3. Eat nutritiously
How many times have you heard this? From your doctor, or your mother, perhaps? Eating well is one of the best ways to fortify your resources. This is especially important if you are breastfeeding. Many new mothers are worried about excessive weight gained during pregnancy and may be preoccupied with how they can reduce in the early postpartum months. This may need to be postponed for a while until you are feeling stronger. Don’t forget to watch out for excessive amounts of high-sugar snacks and caffeine. Both can cause you to feel jittery and anxious.

4. Exercise moderately
Try to get out and walk if you are not interested in regular aerobic activity. The fresh air will feel wonderful and the exercise will help keep you in shape and feeling good.

5. Stay in touch with friends
Spend time with family and friends that you feel most comfortable with. Try to maximize the time you spend with people who will support you and help you out, if necessary. Isolation can increase feelings of loneliness and depression — try to stay connected with important relationships.

Here are some additional tips:
1. Turn on your answering machine and leave it on for a while.
This is a wonderful way to screen callers and decide who you are in the mood to talk you and who you can call back later, especially if you are trying to rest.

2. Your thank-you notes can wait.
Try not to pressure yourself into thinking that everything has to be done right now. Unfortunately, if you are used to getting things accomplished and prefer to be in control at all times (and who doesn’t!), then this may prove to be particularly difficult for you. If procrastinating is just not your style, you may have to learn to let go a little bit and realize that some of the things that you want to take care of NOW, are just going to have to wait. It may be hard, but it will definitely be worth it.

3. When someone asks what they can do to help — tell them.
This is no time to be a martyr or to suffer in silence. If someone in your family has offered to assist you in some way, don’t be afraid to tell them exactly what you would like them to do. For instance, maybe a neighbor can watch your older child while you rest with the baby. Or maybe your mother-in-law can bring dinner over so you don’t have to cook tonight.

4. Learn how to say "no".
Setting limits is not an easy thing to do. But this is not the time to do favors for other people or for others to take advantage of how accommodating you may be. You may find it necessary to say, "I would love to help you out, but today is not a good day for that." Or, "Yes, I would love for you to come over and see the baby, but I’m really tired today. Maybe we can make plans for another time."

5. Simplify everything.
Laundry can wait. Your bed doesn’t have to be made every day. Take-out dinner is fine. Everything doesn’t have to be 100% perfect right now. Try to let go of your expectations that everything be exactly the way it was before the baby. It’s not.

It would be nice if having a baby were as simple and as glorified as we often see it portrayed in the movies. In the ideal world, mother would come home from the hospital looking perfect and well-put-together. She would know exactly what to do for her baby at all times and be able to execute these actions without flaw. Her baby would be perfect, too, and only cry on cue. And of course, a mother would have no needs of her own to distract her. She would have no need to sleep, eat or care for herself in any way. She would exist only to meet the needs of her baby.

But alas, welcome to the sometimes exhilarating, always challenging world of dirty diapers and sleepless nights. With the emerging realization that this unfamiliar adventure has to somehow fit neatly into the framework you have put forth, it becomes more clear each day that things are going to have to change.

Knowing that there is no one to take over when you are stretched to your limit, exhausted, sick, or just plain tired of it, means that your responsibility extends beyond caring for your baby. It means you must also take care of yourself. Giving yourself permission to relax and nurture yourself is not a luxury. It is an essential part of this entire picture. It is vital to your well-being and you may be surprised at how wonderful it feels!

Editorial provided by Karen Kleiman, MSW, co-author of "This Isn’t What I Expected: Overcoming Postpartum Depression", and Clinical Director of The Postpartum Stress Center in Rosemont, Pennsylvania. Karen lectures and writes about postpartum adjustment issues and treats women and their families who are experiencing difficulty during pregnancy and the postpartum period.