When I was pregnant with my first child, I was often struck by the simultaneous magnitude and universality of the experience. How could something so commonplace as having a baby, be such an ordeal? How could a trial as intimidating as giving birth, take place every moment of every day? How was it that this monumental phenomenon was treated like something completely ordinary, simply because it happened all the time?
Whenever I felt overwhelmed by the thought of the birthing process, I would remind myself that billions of other women had done it before me. This tremendous, unavoidable, and intimidating mountain I was facing was, in this way, knowable. Climbable. I could do it. At the very least, there was no chance this baby would not be born. The baby would exit my body one way or another. In this regard, a “successful” birth was inevitable.
Eventually, I set aside all of my birth books and course materials, and prepared myself for letting the birth happen to me. I knew that I had a good enough grasp on what was within my control, and that I needed to open to all that was out of my control. I trusted the process, including the parts that were unknowable and scary. I trusted my body’s wisdom.
This turned out to be the wisest approach I could have taken. Despite some hiccups, I experienced my first birth as empowering, because I completely gave myself over to its unfolding. I did not hold strong attachments to the way things “should” be, and therefore I was not crestfallen when there were some complications. Still, my birth recovery was rough, to say the least.
It turned out that the birth--which was over in five hours--was a mere blip compared to the postpartum period. I had spent so much time staring at the mountain I needed to climb, I didn’t realize how arduous and difficult it would be to traverse the miles-long overgrown valley on the other side.
Why didn’t anyone tell me it would be like this? I thought to myself. Billions of women had given birth before me, and yet the strange land of postpartum-hood was a total mystery. A complete shock. Hadn’t I read all the books? What was this place? How long would I be here? How was it that everything felt so difficult and so different?
The fact is, all that comes after birth is the brunt of having a baby. It’s called the fourth trimester for a reason. You are still gestating, you are still birthing, the baby is just outside of your body. And this strange land does not have to be a total mystery. There are maps! All of the people who came before us know the terrain...these maps have simply been taken from us by a culture that conspires to keep postpartum wisdom hidden. There are ways we can pack for the journey, or at the very least, know what we will be facing.
Compiled below is a list of 9 Things You REALLY Need to Know About Postpartum Life. Things that go beyond burp cloths and meal trains, or the broad sweeping love you will feel for your infant: the reality of life beyond birth.
1. Breastfeeding is learned, and there is a lot you can learn ahead of time.
Researchers once observed a mother gorilla in the wild put her newborn backward on her breast. Much like us, breastfeeding did not come naturally to her. She had to learn how to do it. Contrary to popular belief, there is no “breastfeeding instinct.” And because breastfeeding was erased from our culture in the past two or three generations, many of us did not have the benefit of witnessing breastfeeding while we were growing up, and cannot ask our living ancestors to teach us.
Thankfully, this knowledge is returning to our cultural landscape! Take the time to learn breastfeeding basics before the arrival of your baby, so that you are not overwhelmed trying to learn something new while in the throes of postpartum life. Start by asking “the nipple question:” do you have flat, inverted, or large nipples? Learn how your nipples may affect your baby’s latch, and what a good latch is. Read up on common breastfeeding behaviors and issues, such as oversupply, under supply, block feeding, cluster feeding, mastitis, thrush, and overactive letdown.
2. What you eat matters.
Every indigenous tradition that I know of recommends keeping a new mother warm, letting her rest, and feeding her warm, mushy food with dense nutrition. Here in the US (and in other post-industrial nations) many new moms are disconnected from this wisdom, jumping into the fourth trimester without getting much rest or time for recovery, eating salads and drinking smoothies as a way to be healthy, lose the baby weight, and get back to ‘normal.’
This mentality underlies the fact that we are becoming a society of deeply depleted mothers. During the sacred window (the first 42 days postpartum), your digestive system is weak from being moved around and compromised during pregnancy. You are open to either deep depletion or deep nourishment and healing through rest and gentle foods.
3. Building a village is essential -- no one is meant to do it alone!
Our nervous systems are not adapted to independently do all of the care, healing, learning, tracking, morphing of identity and priorities, etc that are inherently part of the fourth trimester and beyond. We need a village to hold and nurture us in early parenthood! Many of the mental health issues mothers face in the postpartum period are a direct result of this lack of support, rather than a malfunction or responsibility of the mother.
The labor involved in having a healthy fourth trimester is more than two exhausted parents can pull off. We need an extensive support network during this crucial time. Reach out to friends and family before the arrival of your little one, to discuss ways they can contribute to your recovery. Consider hiring out any help you can afford, such as a postpartum doula, gardener, sitter for older children, or house cleaner.
4. Relationships change (all of them) when you have a baby.
This includes your relationship with yourself, your parents, your partner, your friends, your stepchildren’s other parents, your career, death, life, and love. Having a baby is a massive perspective shift. You begin to understand deeper levels of relating that you did not have access to before. You gain empathy for hardships that your ancestors faced. You marvel at the strength involved in bringing new life into the world. You feel the preciousness of that life and an abyss of love, which puts you right up against death (fear of loss, fragility of life) in a way you may not have ever had to confront before.
In her gorgeous essay Mothers as Makers of Death, Claudia Dey writes about this shift in perspective:
“No one had warned me that with a child comes death. Death slinks into your mind. It circles your growing body, and once your child has left it, death circles him too. It would be dangerous to turn your attentions away from your child—this is how the death presence makes you feel. The conversations I had with other new mothers stayed strictly within the bounds of the list: blankets, diapers, creams. Every conversation I had was the wrong conversation. No other mother congratulated me and then said: I’m overcome by the blackest of thoughts. You? This is why mothers don’t sleep, I thought to myself. This is why mothers don’t look away from their children. This is why, even with a broken heart, a mother will bring herself back to life.”
5. Understanding hormones and mood normalizes the fourth trimester experience.
When we don’t know what is happening with our hormones, or what is normal in postpartum emotional disorientation, we can easily think that something is wrong with us. It’s important to know what to expect in this area, so that if something is truly “off” we can get the help we need. Or, if something actually is normal, we do not torture ourselves with the belief that things “should be” different than they are.
Mainstream narrative about postpartum mental health can often leave mothers feeling like the burden of responsibility is entirely on them. But context matters. Not only the context of lack of supportive systems and physiologic human needs, but the context of these bodily cycles.
6. Create ritual and ceremony to mark the transition to parenthood.
It is harder to integrate big life changes when we don’t see them reflected in others’ eyes. Many women and their partners are going through pregnancy, birth, and postpartum without being SEEN in real life by those they love most. This is a huge loss for them, but also for the collective as we carry on with life in our own bubbles, and our interconnection feels less tangible. Ritual meets that need to be seen. Ceremonially releasing the non-parent self, and welcoming the transformation that comes with parenthood is a powerful step in clearing the way for presence, contentment, and acceptance.
7. Preparing for postpartum with your partner deepens your connection and alliance.
Often the pregnant partner can feel alone in the process of growing a baby and preparing for its arrival. Deep connection is available during this time through tuning into each other's experiences, hopes, fears, and dreams. Sometimes the most simple ways of conversing can make the biggest impact; sharing details about your childhoods, how you were raised (and how you would do things differently or the same as your parents), can help to get you both on the same page about the values you share and the family culture you hope to create.
Through these conversations, you may begin to notice where your inner child needs healing, and start the work that is foundational to transmuting intergenerational trauma through parenting your own children and relating to your partner. There is no better sense of security than comes from feeling like you are on the same team as you enter parenthood together. For a complete list of discussion questions to explore with your partner, you can purchase the eBook Preparing for Life Beyond Birth.
8. Postpartum life is moist.
Breastmilk, spit up, pee, poo, sweat, saliva, blood...postpartum life will force you to contend with the realities of human bodies like never before. You will marvel and lament this reality, living knee deep in the animal-ness of your being to the point where you may experience a kind of culture shock in the grocery store.
First-time mothers often struggle to shift from the life they have known up until birth to their new realities of life with a baby. Most of them have never been told about the subtleties of this shift.
The to-do list, the rapid pace of life, the external achievements, and the ignoring of their deepest needs no longer serve mama in this new reality. These things are replaced with days that slip by; feeling everything deeply; becoming engrossed in your baby’s every noise, movement and bodily function; celebrating accomplishments that once were mundane, like brushing your teeth.
9. Your sensory processing and experience of time will change. Or: postpartum life is sticky.
“The days are long, but the years are short.” Never is this phrase more true than in the early stages of caring for an infant. Our entire experience of time, and our own bodies, sync up to our newborn. Every moment is an eternity. Every day marks a tremendous amount of growth.
Likewise, our sensory processing changes. Suddenly, we are more attuned to our environment; sight, sound, texture, touch, and taste bombard us. We are particularly irked by the inevitably messy state of our home. We wake in the middle of the night to a strange smell. Every time our infant shifts in their sleep, we check to make sure they are still breathing. Your baby becomes the center of your universe, but not just in a romantic love kind of way. Your whole body and way of being will orient towards their care.
Molly calls it Molasses Land. It is sweet and slow-moving, beautifully murky, and sticky. It is a magical place that gives you the opportunity for retreat, for being nurtured, and for intentionally transitioning to motherhood and bonding with your baby. I highly recommend sinking into it.
To dive deeper into each of these points, you can register for Molly’s courses:
Life Beyond Birth 101 - 9-week course for first time expectant couples OR couples who want things to be completely different in their 4th Trimester!
3 Secrets to a Happy and Healthy Postpartum - 2 hour course for any expectant mama that wants a head start on thriving during the 4th Trimester.
Birth is commonplace, but it is not ordinary. As a culture, we must begin to have more transparent conversations about the reality of life beyond birth, so that new parents and mothers are not left feeling alone and shocked by that reality. This is a season of high saturation; elation and despair may commingle within the same instant, experiences of time and sensation are transformed, brains and hormones tilt us on our axis. When we allow these realities, we set ourselves up to navigate the terrain with fortitude and appreciation.
This blog was compiled from Life Beyond Birth course and blog materials, and written by guest author Alyssa Allegretti. Alyssa is a mother, stepmother, writer, and rogue anthropologist who lives in the heart of Western North Carolina. You can follow her work on Medium and Facebook.
Life Beyond Birth provides support for expectant parents, and new babies & their families, online and in-person. Find a class or contact Molly at www.lifebeyondbirth.com.