Do those words make you think of baby snuggles and sweet moments, or do they tap into feelings of insecurity and anxiety? Maybe something in between? Those first few months are messy and complicated, and they can be a real mental health challenge for so many of us. My “fourth trimester” experiences with my two oldest kids were some of the toughest experiences of my life, but now that I’m six months postpartum with my third baby, I can say with confidence that this last time around was a definite improvement.
So what made the difference? Postpartum therapy was a gamechanger for me, and I want to share my four biggest takeaways so it can make a difference for you too.
It all started a few weeks after I gave birth to my third child, when my postpartum therapist reminded me of an old adage about families – that each baby is born into a different family. Siblings may have the same parents, live in the same house, and share a last name, but they are each born into a different family that’s evolving over time. My therapist also helped me recognize that as part of the family, I am evolving too, and I’m not the same postpartum mother to my youngest that I was to my oldest.
For days I couldn’t stop thinking about what she said.
I thought back to my first born and the family she was born into – brand new parents experiencing everything baby-related for the first time, as much newcomers to all of it as she was. She lived in such a quiet house with two parents who could focus our attention entirely on her needs. I made all of her baby food and cooked bone broth and chicken livers for her to eat because I read that they were incredibly nutritious for a developing brain (and of course she wanted nothing to do with those livers!). I felt like a failure when I couldn’t produce enough breastmilk to meet her needs and had to supplement with formula. I worried about so many things all the time. Then I thought about my son, the third child born into a larger, louder, busier family. As parents, we know a lot more, we’re much more exhausted and we can’t give him nearly as much undivided attention, but he’s also showered with so much love from his sisters each day, and he seems thrilled to be along for the ride, observing all the chaos around him – our happiest baby of the bunch!
This simple – and a bit obvious in retrospect - observation gave me a new lens with which to view myself as a mother, and it’s transformed my postpartum mindset, helping me navigate some of the mental health challenges I struggled with after each of my daughters were born. By recognizing how I have grown as a mother, I’ve been better able to embrace the challenges and vulnerability of this fourth trimester because I can see how far I’ve come and that is fundamentally empowering.
Now don’t get me wrong, my last 4th-trimester period was still messy and extremely challenging, and I don’t want to imply that I know all the secrets. I still collapsed into my husband’s arms some nights in tears, overwhelmed and unsure about the future. But my postpartum therapy taught me four critical lessons that helped me feel less miserable in those early weeks, and even appreciate that season for the first time ever, and that feels like a win.
Transitioning: I started to see myself as a newborn being no different from my brand new baby - new baby, new family, and new mom.
Rather than thinking about the fourth trimester as only the baby’s time to adjust to life outside the womb, I began to look at it as our time to transition to this new life together as two new beings. I wasn’t the same Kathryn who entered the hospital in labor. My world had just fundamentally shifted, and I was a newcomer with much to learn and grow accustomed too, just like my son, even as an experienced mom of two. And although I was the parent, it didn’t mean everything would instantly click and fall into place for me. With this mindset, I’ve been much more patient with my own postpartum experience, giving myself more space and time to make the many emotional, physical, and mental transitions of fourth trimester.
Mourning: I gave myself permission to mourn my old life.
Each time I’ve had a baby I’ve found myself mourning what my life was like before the baby was born. When my oldest was born, I mourned our life without children, free from responsibility. When my middle daughter was born, I mourned our life with only one child, and now after my son, I mourned our life with two children, when we could each help a child and were never outnumbered. I’ve always felt guilty about this – like how could I feel sad about missing my old life when I had just been blessed with a perfect little baby? These babies were choices I had made after all. My time in therapy helped me see that I could mourn my old life while still being incredibly grateful for my new life – those feelings weren’t mutually exclusive. Once I let myself move between those feelings, I felt more at peace and more confident that I would eventually have the feeling that parents describe as “I can’t imagine my life without each of my children.”
Freedom: I knew I’d be able to do “me” things again.
A common thread of my three postpartum experiences has been an almost debilitating worry about losing my personal freedom after being suddenly so all-consumingly dedicated to caring for brand new human. The feeling was most intense after my firstborn. I remember fixating on the idea that I would never, ever again be able to go out to dinner with my husband or friends because I would be stuck at home taking care of a baby forever, trapped like I was in jail. That feeling has lessened with each baby, but I still felt it recently, looking down at this boy who had captured my heart entirely, and yet feeling an almost panicked worry that I’d lost my freedom and myself again. This time around I recognized my postpartum anxiety and could identify and process it in therapy. So even when it felt impossible in my heart, this time my brain knew that I would eventually have ME back again.
Hope: I’ve been buoyed by hope rather than by big wins.
I’m almost 6 months postpartum and I still feel like we blew up our nice, stable life by having another baby. Life is chaotic on a daily basis, and I can’t tell you when it will stabilize into something that feels normal and sustainable. I think previously I would have had very high expectations for big wins and been discouraged by this lack of “progress,” but I’ve found myself seizing on glimpses of hope. I can be in the midst of the chaos and have a fleeting feeling that this could all become normal, sustainable, and even beautiful someday. I can recognize those moments now, and they continue to sustain me through the craziness.
Sitting here nearly six months postpartum, I feel grateful for my postpartum therapy because for the first time I could be in the thick of those early challenges, acknowledging the uncertainty, the fatigue, and the overwhelm, and still enjoy the beautiful quiet moments holding my son. I could look down at my last baby and feel like I wanted to soak in those moments to remember forever. I know the fourth trimester will always be a fundamentally challenging time for all parents, but I hope these lessons can help you navigate the mental health challenges and seek the support you need so you can enjoy the beautiful moments in your messy postpartum experience.
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