When my daughter was born I was “prepared”. I put that in quotes because I was as prepared on paper as you might expect a soon-to-be- parent should be. I had combed the blogs and articles on what to register for, the nursery was photo-shoot ready, we had taken a birth class that covered all the basics, as well as a breastfeeding class and a baby CPR class. Let me also mention that I’m a Marriage and Family therapist who at the time was beginning my pursuit of specializing in perinatal mental health. I knew what symptoms of postpartum depression and anxiety to look for and because of my profession we knew where to go for help.
Then our daughter was born, and we came to realize how deeply unprepared we actually were. I used maybe ten percent of the things we registered for. The birth class covered the basics but addressed nothing related to the real possibility of birth trauma when things don’t go as planned. The breastfeeding class gave me a sense of what to expect but I was completely unprepared for the pressure and fear that would come with feeding my child the “best” way, and had no idea what to do when the fever and pain of mastitis hit me at 6 weeks. I’m really glad we took a CPR class just in case, but I wish I had been as vigilant about preparing my support team for resuscitating us with a break and sleep when we found ourselves fantasizing about escaping the never-ending cycle of feeding and trying to soothe our baby back to sleep.
Both my births ended up being cesarean belly births. They both left me with scars, but the first was a gnarly, vulnerable, and painful scar. This felt parallel to my postpartum experience that first time around. During my second cesarean belly birth my doctor had to cut off that scar to open me up to meet my child. I was more prepared this time, and this was reflected both in our postpartum experience and in how that wound physically and metaphorically healed the second time around. I’d like to share 5 things connected to the stories of those scars with you here, in hopes that YOU are better prepared, because you deserve it, and because I want to leave the world of perinatal wellness better than I found it for my daughter and my son.
5 things I want you to know about postpartum
1. It is very likely you may not feel the instant connection or bond with your baby that you often hear about or see on social media. Some parents may feel this, but this is the minority experience. This can lead to experiences of guilt or even shame (you can explore this more deeply in a Mom Guilt Workbook I created, found here. It can also be hard in the beginning because you’re doing A LOT to care for this little human without receiving feedback in a way that you’re used to. Your relationship with your baby is like any other, it takes TIME to really connect and get to know each other. That deep love and bond will come with work and with time.
2. Speaking of bonds, it is a myth that all parents who experience postpartum depression feel disconnected from their child. In some cases, yes this can be a very real part of their experience and can lead to scary thoughts and immediate action/support is called for. Yet it’s also possible that you can find yourself a few months in, bonded with your baby, but also feeling sad, hopeless, and shameful. It’s important to know that you can experience postpartum depression AND feel connected to your child. Too often new parents don’t pursue help because they assume that they must not be depressed or must not be struggling “enough.”
3. Speaking of perinatal mood and anxiety disorders, it is not just mother figures who can experience them. Approximately 10% of father figures are also at risk for social, emotional, cultural, and physiological reasons. Research indicates that fathers are less likely to ask for help or to be offered help. Also, depression and anxiety in fathers can look different than it does for mothers. It’s common that if one parent is struggling, the other one is as well, and that holds true for all the forms a family can take including transparents and same sex couples. I believe a shift in the peripartum wellness arena is called for. If you’re a professional who is working with this population, it can be an important step to ask BOTH parents how they are doing.
4. Having a baby is going to be hard on a partnership or marriage. Research indicates that marital satisfaction declines for most couples after having a baby. Intimacy can be impacted the first year or beyond. Lack of sleep, the shifting identity and roles, hormonal shifts (also connected to breastfeeding), the real risk for depression and anxiety, all of these are factors that can put on a strain on a relationship. Being proactive before the baby is born to look at things like communication and conflict resolution, ways to feel connected outside of sex, parenting roles and values, these are all important areas to explore with your partner. Support is available and you don’t have to be on the brink of divorce or separation to get help. Single parents can also benefit from proactively strengthening their co-parenting or support relationships.
5. Becoming a parent will bring up old “stuff”. There is arguably no experience that is more vulnerable than having a baby. As you lean into your identity as a parent, your own childhood and relationship with your caregivers will come up. Sometimes this deepens an appreciation or relationships with our own caregivers, sometimes it brings up old traumas that we thought were in the past or a renewed sense of loss or grief. It can be helpful to get support before or in that first year if you anticipate parenthood will be a trigger for you.
Think of this list as a peek behind the curtain of early parenthood. To deepen your preparation for becoming a parent, I would encourage you to connect with someone or a few people who have recently been through it and who you can trust to keep it real. Ask them, “How has the transition really been for you physically, emotionally, and relationally?”
If you need support or resources I would encourage you to visit Postpartum Support International where you can find a helpline and local resources.
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About the author
Dr. Cassidy Freitas is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist specializing in perinatal family wellness. She’s a graduate professor, host of the podcast Holding Space, and is currently working on an e-course with her colleague Dr. Christine Sterling to support couples who are preparing for birth, baby, and beyond. To join the waitlist for the course, click here!