Hold on tight
If you're a first time mommy, chances are your girlfriends didn't warn you about the good, the bad, and the ugly of motherhood. Everyone's experience is different but I want to share a few things I learned in case it helps anyone who's struggling. I know I could've used some straight talk in the early days. I'm going to be candid and honest so I hope you learn a few things and can have a chuckle from my experiences.
1. 2 is the scariest number you've ever heard
Let's get right to it! Your first bowel movement after a vaginal delivery will give you extreme anxiety. My friend Cindy gave me some great advice to take a stool softener in the days leading up to my delivery date and to continue while in the hospital recovering. While you're at it, drink plenty of water, prune juice, and eat stewed prunes. Anything to help you through the first BM. Everything down there is extremely tender and swollen. I had a really hard time sitting and walking so the thought of that first poop terrified me. Relax and it, too, shall pass. Heh. FYI some hospitals won't discharge you until you've, uh, discharged. And if you're having trouble, they can help you. I'm not exactly sure what that means but I think someone will literally give you a (gloved) hand with the process.
Prunes will be your best friend
2. My Cup Runneth Over
If you plan to breastfeed you may feel a bit anxious waiting for your milk to come in. When it does, your breasts may be engorged. Nothing happened for a few days and seemingly overnight I developed what looked like hideous breast implants gone wrong. My skin was stretched so tight that it was shiny and I had hard square and triangle-shaped wedges of engorged tissue. I could've appeared on an episode of Botched! I frantically Googled and read what I could about engorgement. A lot of sites said engorgement lasts for up to a few days but mine lasted for about 2 weeks. The good news is, your breasts will soften... Supposedly. Mine never really did and even eights months in I'd bolt awake at night with leaking boobs. In fact, I slept topless with just a receiving blanket between me and my sheets for probably all 8 months.
I think my engorgement was especially bad because I had a storage capacity issue. Nursing mothers of all breast sizes should be able to produce enough milk for their baby. Storage capacity is not determined by breast size but it can limit how much milk can be stored. A mother with a larger capacity can go longer between feedings but a mother with a smaller capacity has to nurse her baby more often. I happened to have a capacity issue which meant that my body produced the amount of milk it thought my baby needed but I didn't have enough space to store it. I was literally about to pop sometimes. It was incredibly uncomfortable and painful. When my milk first came in my friend Connie came over to help me with breastfeeding. She took one look at my boobs and said, "Yeah, that doesn't look normal." She got me hooked up to the pump and together we massaged my boobs to get the milk out. Thank goodness for girlfriends!!
Oh, and if you're desperate for relief during the engorgement phase, Google how to use cabbage leaves. Yes, you've traded in your sexy coconut bra for cabbage leaves. It works! You'll just never look at salad the same way again.
3. Reverse Pressure Softening is your friend
Doesn't that sound like some sort of plumbing term? I learned about Reverse Pressure Softening (RPS) when I visited my first lactation consultant. I removed my top and she took one look at my square boobs, inhaled sharply and said, "Holy smokes!"
One reason I struggled with breastfeeding in the beginning was because I was so engorged that my baby couldn't get a good latch. My LC said my nipple area was so taut that it would be like like trying to suck on a plate of glass. You can't get a good grip on glass! She taught me the RPS technique to relieve some pressure in the area so that the baby could latch well. Google it and just remember to do it right before you nurse. I went around the nipple area like a clock. 9&3. 12&6.
4. 50,000 volts straight to the nipples
Get ready for painful nipples. You know that Cards Against Humanity card "50,000 volts straight to the nipples"? It's kind of like that. My LO nursed like a snapping turtle and when she chomped away at my tender nipples I would recoil in fear! I couldn't bear anything touching my chest so I basically went topless the first three months. I couldn't even take a shower facing the spray of water. I resorted to cutting holes out of an old t-shirt so that I could cover the rest of my upper body but leave my nipples out. My husband said it looked like a pair of eyes so I drew a smiling mouth on the shirt. Heh. Oh yeah, and I subjected my visiting female friends to an eyeful. My mommy friends didn't bat an eye but my friends who weren't mothers yet found it a little awkward. Sorry. Not sorry.
5. Take the pressure off
Breastfeeding is no joke. Who are these women who say that breastfeeding is a beautiful bonding experience? I hated it! My baby wouldn't latch, fell asleep on the boob often, or fought me to the point where I had to pump and bottle feed for months. I cried all the time. I spent $900 on 3 different lactation consultants. I struggled with all the different breastfeeding holds. I had 3 different breastfeeding pillows but none of them helped. I wanted to quit so many times but I kept going.
My internal dialogue went something like this:
"I will continue to breastfeed."
"I hate it so much. It's so hard!"
"But I can't rob her of the best start in life. What if she's not smart and it's because she wasn't 100% breastfed? I will continue to breastfeed."
"I'm so exhausted. My hands ache so much from massaging my boobs."
"I have to do it for at least a year."
"I don't feel any bond between us. I'm beginning to resent her. I feel like she's literally sucking me dry."
"I'll do it for at least 9 months."
"If I feed her 8 times a day for the next 6 months that'll be 1440 more feedings. I don't feel like I can even get through today."
"All these other moms do it. I have to keep going."
I had it stuck in my head that breastmilk was best and that because all these other moms could do it that I should do everything in my power to breastfeed. I contemplated giving up but I felt like I would be robbing her of the best start. Later I realized she was crying so much because I was starving her! In the end, I supplemented with formula and we were both fine. In fact, I enjoyed my time with her more and it felt like a huge weight had been lifted. I did the best I could so I had nothing to feel bad about.
Moral of the story: Forget about Breast is Best. Fed is Best.
6. Au naturale
I made the mistake of being too literal when it came to practicing breastfeeding techniques. I was strict about the cross cradle and football holds and about making sure my daughter's posture matched what I had learned. Honestly, my being so rigid probably contributed more to my breastfeeding failure than success. It got so bad that I resorted to exclusively pumping and only bottle feeding. It was exhausting. I carried on for about a month or two until I had a conversation with my 2 girlfriends Connie and Connie (yes, we're 3 friends all named Connie/y) who exclusively breastfed. Spurred by their success stories, I decided to try again.
I'll never forget the look on my daughter's face when I positioned her to nurse again for the first time in months. She turned her head and looked at me dubiously. I smiled and encouraged her. She dove right in and we continued on our breastfeeding journey. From that day I stopped using the pillows and holds that I learned and instead I just nursed her by laying her down next to me in bed. It was a position my third and final lactation consultant showed me. It was natural and it made sense because humans have been breastfeeding for centuries without any special equipment. I called my mom to give her an update.
Me: Guess what?
Me: Feeding her is easy now. It doesn't hurt.
Mom: Good! What happened?
Me: I hired someone to come to my home and show me what to do.
Mom: And what did she tell you?
Me: (pause) Exactly what you've been saying for days.
Mom: (loud sigh) Put the baby on you and slowly drop her and she'll find your breast and feed?
Mom: (laughing) You big dummy! I tried to tell you but you wouldn't listen. You had to go hire someone to tell you the same thing. Okay, you just wasted a bunch of money.
Me: (laughing) Let me add it up... Yeah, I spent about $900 on lactation consultants.
Mom: And my advice is free. I've been there before. I know what I'm talking about. Maybe next time you'll listen to me.
Me: (sigh) Yeah, but if I did take your advice I would probably question if I was doing it right. I had to learn it myself.
Mom: Expensive. (and then she quoted some Chinese proverb about either gaining knowledge through experience or paying for it. I guess I did the latter.)
Breastfeeding in this new position made it easier but it didn't make all my problems go away. I still had to supplement but at least I no longer had to deal with an irate thrashing baby who wouldn't latch.
7. Realize that you're not alone
When I was 6 weeks postpartum (and going through some major anxiety) I attended a breastfeeding support group meeting. About 50 women and their babies gathered in someone's apartment complex rec room to encourage and support each other. Some moms knew each other but everyone was a stranger to me. I came because I needed to be around moms with newborns. We each introduced ourselves and when it was my turn I barely got through saying my name and my daughter's name before I burst into tears. I was ugly crying and with a shaky voice, telling a room full of strangers that I was overwhelmed, exhausted, anxious, and that I felt like I didn't know what I was doing. I could see almost every woman nodding her head and saying, "I understand how you feel." "I've been there." "It gets better." "Hang in there."
I couldn't believe it. I thought I was the only one who felt this way yet nearly everyone had similar stories. I was strangely comforted knowing that I had company. After the meeting I connected with moms who gave me great advice and even made new friends. I realized that a lot of what's out there paints a too rosy picture of what motherhood should look like when it doesn't represent what it actually does look like. A little baby just came into your life and both of you are adjusting to a major new change. It takes time to find a rhythm and to figure each other out. Give it time. It really does get better.
8. Let's Be Thin
Plugged ducts? What the heck is that? Sounds like something that happens to the vents in your house. If you're like me, you'll learn about this real fast. Sometimes your milk is too viscous or your baby's latch doesn't adequately drain the breast and you end up with plugged ducts. A clog, if you will. Early on I experienced plugged ducts almost every day. It felt like a small bump, sometimes tender, always anxiety-inducing because if you don't unclog ducts, it could lead to mastitis.
I saw several lactation consultants who imparted their wisdom on me and now I'm sharing it with you. :o)
The best way to relieve plugged ducts is with vibration while nursing/pumping. Massage only helps so much but vibration may jiggle free whatever is blocking the duct. It's only helpful to apply vibration while nursing or pumping though. So my routine was:
- Apply my Sonicare toothbrush handle (I removed the toothbrush head) to the blockage while nursing or pumping. Imagine startling your nursing baby with the frequency of 258 hz right by her head. Fun times.
- If I finished feeding or pumping and the plug was still there, I would apply ice to the area. This helped reduce swelling.
- When it came time to nurse or pump again, I would apply a warm washcloth to soften up the area. Massage lightly.
- Nurse or pump again with vibration.
- Sometimes I would point my baby's nose in the direction of the clog. I had to do some interesting gymnastics to get into position. I was desperate to try anything but honestly I don't know if this really helped.
9. Use time wisely and get used to lower standards
I won't even begin the describe the first 6 weeks because 1. I don't want to scare you and 2. You will just do what you need to do to survive. My friend Cherie who had twins (ahhh!) told me she had no choice but to take it minute-by-minute. Very smart. Make sure you do the most important things like eat and sleep. Try to brush your teeth and wash your face. Your skin will thank you.
Once you survive the first 6 weeks, try to adhere to a cycle of Eat, Play, Sleep. As in feed the baby, interact with him/her, then put the little one down to sleep. After that cycle you may be left with just 45 mins to 1.5 hours to do everything you haven't had time to do before it starts all over again. Go to the bathroom. Brush your teeth. Take a shower. Cook. Feed yourself. Sleep (ha!). Do laundry. Clean the house. Wear something other than sweatpants. If I could go back I would just complete the highest priority items instead of never finishing a dozen other things. I realized later that I needed to take care of myself in order to care for my baby. Everything else could wait.
4 weeks in and this little baby turned our house
upside down (can you spot her in the corner?)
Speaking of time... Your standards for your own personal hygiene will drop. How do you feel about showering occasionally? Because it could get that bad. Early on I didn't shower for days. Some days I didn't even brush my teeth! Hair pulled back, glasses on. Who's going to care? Your close friends and family will understand and besides, they'll be focused on the baby. Hopefully your friends and family are awesome and will bring YOU food, not baby gifts.
10. Hush the thrush
As if you didn't have enough to do... You might be one of the lucky few who experience thrush. It's basically a yeast infection on your nipples that could be passed back and forth between you and the baby. Burning, itching, flaming hot nipples that your baby will chomp on 8-10 times a day! Did I mention that your nipples feel like they're being pierced by shards of glass when the baby latches on? Call your OB for a prescription of All Purpose Nipple Ointment (APNO) stat and wipe with a vinegar/water solution after feedings. Try to keep the area dry if you can. Very challenging to do when you're leaking. I cut up a 100% cotton t-shirt into small squares and used that instead of those disposable nursing pads. They were more breathable and reusable after a quick wash.
I went a little overboard and sterilized all the bottles and pump parts every night and laundered everything in hot water with vinegar. In hindsight in probably wasn't as necessary as keeping the area dry and using the ointment. But your situation may be different so do what works for you!
11. Recognizing postpartum depression and anxiety
I've always been a planner and as a result, my life has largely gone according to plan. Naturally I thought having a kid would be pretty typical. After all, there are countless books and blogs about everything baby-related. I could read all I wanted about what to expect but what I didn't count on was how I'd FEEL after becoming a mom. I had an easy pregnancy (in fact, I didn't read anything about pregnancy since I figured it would all work out) but the delivery and recovery were tough. Eight days after my induced delivery I started hemorrhaging golf-size blood clots due to "retained placental products" and was rushed to the ER. I had D&C surgery performed the next day, all while I was engorged and exhausted. Fun times.
I struggled with breastfeeding. I was sleep-deprived. I was constantly worried about my baby's health. I was hungry all the time but didn't have the energy to eat. I was crying a lot. Googling too much. Trying to get advice from anyone and from everywhere. I listened to so much conflicting advice that I felt more confused than clear. Swaddle, but not for too long. Comfort the baby, but not too much. Feed on demand, but don't overfeed. Play, but don't overstimulate. Let them sleep, but wake them to feed. Rest, but take care of things.
I was trying to be a good mom but all I knew was that I felt exhausted, inadequate, helpless, and anxious. I hated breastfeeding so much but I kept going because "it was the right thing to do." I actually had no desire to even hold my baby. I felt no bond. I would feed her and immediately hand her off to my husband or my mom. I didn't want to see anyone or talk to anyone. I was scared to death of being alone with her. In fact, I was only alone with her probably twice in the first three months. I would invent reasons to step away - I have to go to the bathroom. I'm hungry. I'm tired. I felt a duty to care for her but I had no actual desire to do it.
My husband asked me why I had it drilled in my head that I HAD to exclusively breastfeed. He saw how desperate and fixated I was and recognized that I might have PPD. I thought I was just tired but still managing. He encouraged me to get help. I saw my OB for my 6 week postpartum checkup and start crying in the exam room. My doctor suggested that I might be suffering from PPD and anxiety and encouraged me to see a therapist. I didn't realize that approximately 10 to 15% of women suffer from some form of postpartum mood disorder. I was one of them.
It helped so much to articulate my feelings to a professional. I started by explaining my breastfeeding struggles and why I thought I should continue. First, she started by asking me why I talked about things as "should" instead of "are." Then she asked me to think about the positives if I stopped. I wrote a bulleted list about why I wanted to give up and the good that could come out of it. Most important of all, I felt like I was asking for and given permission to quit breastfeeding. I realized that all along I was collecting as many data points I could on how long moms breastfed their babies. I asked friends, asked about friends of friends, posted to my Facebook friends, scoured mother's groups forums, and even Googled for anecdotes from total strangers. I wanted to make sure I was within range and that I wasn't a total failure. So if you're reading this and you're looking for the same thing I was - stop if you want to. Or continue if you want to. YOU decide.
When I first read about moms feeling like a failure because they couldn't breastfeed, I simply couldn't understand. How can you fail at something when you did your best and you literally shed blood, sweat, and tears in trying? After I went through it myself I completely understood that feeling of defeat. I stopped stressing over my inadequate milk production, stopped taking herbs, and stopped forcing my body to produce. I breastfed what I could and supplemented with formula. In the end, I lasted for 10 months, just 2 months shy of my one year goal. And when I say 10 months, I mean that by month 10 I only breastfed her twice a day for maybe a total of 3 ounces. It only lasted minutes and it was barely anything. I'm so proud of sticking with it but in the end, I realized that the stress I put myself, my baby, and my husband through was probably not worth the benefit of those extra ounces. Looking back, I should've gone with the flow, provided whatever I could, supplemented the rest, and enjoyed that time together. I should've given MYSELF permission to quit because I could have at any time.
12. Love develops over time
I remember hearing that I would feel my heart burst with love the moment I laid eyes on my baby. I didn't. I felt nothing. Actually, maybe I felt fear. It certainly wasn't all puppy dogs and rainbows. I thought something was wrong with me. I kept expecting to feel that huge swell of love because a lot of people said I would love my baby immediately. I never did in the beginning. I watched as my husband and mom dove in to take care of our baby's every need. I felt like a stranger watching on the sidelines. It took so much energy for me to care for her that I felt emotionally and physically drained. I kept waiting to feel something but I didn't. Worse, I thought she preferred my husband and mom over me. She probably did because I was nowhere to be found. It just created a vicious cycle of feelings of inadequacy, confirmation, and retreat.
I can't tell you exactly when I started feeling closer to my daughter but it took many months. Slowly over time I saw her responding to me and my love for her grew. Now I can't wait to see her in the morning and I rush home from work to see her. I love seeing her smile and hearing her little voice yelling "Mommy!" when I walk in the door. I melt when she throws her arms around me and I have a hard time imagining that I once didn't feel anything for her.
13. Everybody poops. And I wanna see it.
You never thought you'd be one of those parents but you'll open each poopy diaper with the same anticipation as you would scratching off a lottery ticket. Let's see what we have here! What's the color and consistency? Every poop tells a story and new parents want to be in the know.
Don't be surprised if you're wolfing down dinner one minute and then closely examining poop the next. And then going back to eating. Just save the poop talk for your partner or other new parents. Not everyone enjoys shooting the s#it.
14. Hair today. Gone tomorrow.
Your once luscious locks will fall out by the fistful. You'll go from beautiful model hair to Gollum starting around 3 months postpartum.
Mourn that pregnancy hair
Hello postpartum hair
15. You realize you were a s#itty friend
I was extremely lucky and had an actively involved husband, mom, and supportive friends who readily helped with maternity clothes, advice, and baby gear. I always had someone to turn to when I was at my lowest point or when I felt like I just couldn't handle it anymore. Friends checked in on me and dropped by with food or came to visit and help in those first several hellish months. Even though I felt alone while I was in the depths of PPD I also felt a lot of support and love. I don't think friends realized how much it meant to me to receive a phone call, email, or text, just to know that they were thinking of me.
It was also then that I realized what a crappy friend I had been to my mommy friends. I felt so sorry and ashamed that I didn't call, visit, or just help out in any way that I could. I simply had no idea how hard it was to be parents to a newborn and how much help you really need. Now I try to be there for my new mommy friends however I can. Personally I loved it when friends didn't ask and just did. However, I realize that everyone is different and they're comfortable with different levels of involvement so I ask how I can help. It really does take a village to raise a child (and support the parents). :o)
16. Get used to having a waterbed
I'm one of those lucky women who never got stretch marks from pregnancy but I'll tell you what I did get. A waterbed for life. My once-taut flat tummy is now soft and squishy like a waterbed. I can definitely work on firming up the underlying ab muscles (I'd have to deal with the diastasis recti first, sigh) but I've kind of let it go. When I look down and see my little mommy pooch, instead of feeling bad that I don't confirm to some unrealistic ideal, I think about how my body made and birthed a human being. Why would I erase the signs of what my body went through and accomplished?
17. Role model for life
The beauty, entertainment, and advertising industries have done a number on us all. We've been conditioned to believe we're never pretty, thin, groomed, etc enough. It took me a long time to stop keeping a list of all the things I wanted to change about myself. At one point in HIGH SCHOOL I think that list grew to 22 items long. Today, I'd still keep things like "correct nearsightedness" but I've forgotten about changes like "fix bump on nose." I think we women beat ourselves up a lot for not being good enough. We do this all our lives. That message is all around us in almost all media we consume and it's strong in our own heads. The pressure doesn't stop when we become moms. In fact, it sometimes intensifies. You never know if you're doing enough and when you compare yourself to other moms you always find yourself coming up short. At least I do.
So you know what I did? I stopped comparing myself. Or my baby. My kid will grow and reach milestones when she reaches them. As for me, I just decided to be a better version of myself. I'm still part of some mommy groups on Facebook but I just use them to learn, laugh, and commiserate with other moms. I started measuring myself on how much I improved some process or on how much better I was able to handle situations that I couldn't before. I realized that if I continued to fret about how I wasn't good enough that I would pass on my insecurities and self-scrutiny to my daughter. There's no way I will allow myself to be the one to plant any seed of doubt in her mind. She'll have enough to deal with those messages already surrounding her. I'm a work in progress but I love what I see so far. If you're also scrutinizing yourself I hope you realize how far you've come and that you love what you see, too.
That's it, mommies! Hang in there and cherish all the good and not so good times. It really does fly by so quickly. I hope you enjoy the roller coaster of motherhood and that you grow and develop as much as your baby does.