Let’s just be honest here, y’all. Even if you had an “easy” birthing experience (I use quotes because, does such a thing really exist?), the postpartum experience is a beast. It’s a period full of emotion, discomfort, sleep deprivation, tenderness, and the realization that you’ve been lied to by your friends and family. A lot. So let’s be honest about the postpartum period, and what it means for you as a new parent.
I think there’s an evolutionary reason for this silence.
Reality of the Postpartum Experience
In the weeks following labor and delivery, women experience so many changes both physically and emotionally. These weeks after birth are hard, and as your uterus shrinks, your vaginal tear heals, and you struggle with parenting issues like sleep deprivation and how to feed your baby, no one could blame you for sometimes wanting to go back to your pre-baby ways.
But we need our species to exist, so we don’t tell women about these hard realities because we don’t want to scare women away from having babies.
Also, it’s a foggy time, and our brains forget what the postpartum experience is really like. Again, this is probably an evolutionary coping mechanism.
But there are so many things you can do to make the postpartum experiences easier and more meaningful if you just know what to expect.
Here, I’m going to get really honest with you about the reality of the postpartum period, talking about what it means, how long it lasts, and reminding you that you are not alone in struggling with it.
Also remember, it is sweet in many ways. And it doesn’t last forever. It feels long while you’re in it, but so short in the grand scheme of life.
What does it mean to be postpartum?
People often look for a timeline of the postpartum experience, which is hard to provide. Why? Because of discrepancies in medical definitions, birth experiences, and bodily recovery.
Let’s break it up a little.
What is the meaning of “postpartum”?
Let’s talk about the postpartum meaning.
Medically, the postpartum period is the time in which a woman’s body returns to its non-pregnant physiological state. Spoiler alert: I don’t say “pre-pregnancy state” because that may actually never happen. But it’s sweet of you to think it might.
Linguistically, the word “postpartum” derives from the Latin “post” (a prefix we know to mean “after”) and “partum,” the accusative form of “partus,” which means “birth.” Easy enough, right?
Postpartum = after birth.
Socially, “postpartum” refers to the period after birth in which a woman physically recovers and bonds with her child.
Awareness is increasing about issues like postpartum depression and anxiety. Yet still, we tend to glamorize the postpartum period without telling the honest stories of our postpartum experiences.
We ignore the physiological and hormonal changes, the pain, the stitches. On the whole, our society emphasizes maternal/baby bonding far more than the mother’s physical recovery and life-altering identity shift.
Read more about the all-too-common identity crisis after baby here.
In the above photo, which I posted to Facebook during my early postpartum phase, I wore makeup with clean, flat-ironed hair and nice clothes.
I achieved this illusion only because my mom stayed over the night before and kept Jack while husband helped me get ready that morning.
Oh, and I didn’t put the shirt on until right at photo time. Because spit-up.
How long is the postpartum period?
If you Google this question, you’ll get a pretty little box that says in large, bold letters: 6-8 weeks. Based on standard maternity leave practices, it seems most people in the US agree.
Please excuse me while I go laugh and cry.
Let’s learn some basics about women’s health.
When does postpartum start? The postpartum period begins when you give birth. At this point, a woman’s body goes through extreme changes–hormonal shifts that often cause mood swings, physical recovery from vaginal birth or c-section surgery, and organs literally changing size and location.
It’s a lot, y’all.
Not to mention that we have to care for tiny humans, deal with how our bodies do (or don’t) produce milk for them, and pay careful attention to our mental health, looking out for signs of postpartum mood disorder.
Most new moms feel some sort of baby blues. And they hurt physically. And they don’t sleep. And they often don’t eat. Plus they’re usually dehydrated.
So sure, most women will complete the major aspects of postpartum recovery within 6-8 weeks.
But our bodies and lives are going through far greater changes than can be fully accomplished in that span of time. The physiological effects of pregnancy can last months, even years.
Maternity Leave Practices Shape Our (Mis)Understandings of Postpartum Recovery
Standard practice in US businesses, and in short-term disability insurance (which is often used in the US to cover payment during maternity leave) is to provide 6 weeks of maternity leave.
This practice would suggest a postpartum period of only 6 weeks. This is what some researchers call the puerperal phase of the postpartum period, the first of 3 phases.
Others simply call it postpartum.
What is the most critical time of the postpartum period?
The World Health Organization has called the first 6 weeks “the most critical phase” in the lives of new mothers and babies, and yet also “the most neglected period for the provision of quality care.”
If you’re struggling emotionally or physically during your postpartum experience and you’re worried that it’s more than “normal” pain or baby blues, please contact your healthcare provider immediately. (Learn more about postpartum depression and anxiety here.)
Anyone who has given birth knows it takes far longer for your body to feel like your own again. President Bill Clinton’s 1993 signature on the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) could suggest that the US government considers this a 12-week-period.
And yet, a study published in the Harvard Review of Psychiatry found that “39-58% of mothers still have major depression at 3-3.5 years postpartum.”
Some studies indicate the effects of postpartum depression can last for up to 5 years.
For women experiencing the prolonged effects of postpartum recovery, the idea of a 6-12 week postpartum period isn’t just ludicrous; it’s insulting.
How long does it take to feel normal after childbirth?
This is such a complicated question. At 2 1/2 years post childbirth, I still don’t feel like I did before. But I can’t say with any certainty what causes what.
Perhaps some of my exhaustion is due to pregnancy and childbirth. It could also be lifestyle factors, like raising a toddler and running a business.
Or health ones, like an immunodeficiency I’m dealing with (which, again, may or may not be connected to childbirth. The timeline adds up, but the research doesn’t support the claim. So we don’t know.)
Between physical complications following a vaginal birth (which is actually easier to recover from than a c-section), exhaustion, and general recovery (like vaginal healing and organs returning to their usual positions), it took a few months for me to start to feel physically “normal.”
But I’ve honestly never felt the same, physically, since having a child, even when I was in better shape than before.
Online Depictions of the Postpartum Period Distort the Reality of Recovery
Newborn photography, and staged photography in general, show a version of reality that is curated to the point of distortion. This won’t stop me from having family photos taken. I love having photos to look back on that are nostalgic and beautiful.
But we need to be honest about the fact that it’s largely a facade. I spent most of the postpartum period with dirty hair, an unwashed face, in pajamas. (Side note: I’ve made a super helpful list of the BEST postpartum pajamas here.)
I need to be consciously aware of how these images disproportionately frame reality so I can enjoy the photos while also being truthful.
The Katy in the above photo was sleep deprived, exhausted, and debilitatingly anxious. The doting, happy mother the photo depicts is real, but it’s only a partial reality.
It’s the partial reality of Kate Middleton stepping onto the hospital steps in a lovely dress and low heels mere hours after the birth of Prince Louis. Meanwhile, mothers of the world marvel. “How in the world did her beauty team hide the mesh underwear and vaginal ice packs?” (For the days once you’re past the mesh underwear, try these guys for comfort!)
Amy Joyce of The Washington Post pointed out that, “For many, Catherine’s smiling appearance outside St. Mary’s Hospital is just one example of how our culture idealizes childbirth.”
And that’s exactly the problem. Sure, we can all recognize that our lives are different from the Dutchess’s (and I, for one, am very thankful for that), but that knowledge does little to change the fact that such idealizations of the postpartum experience make many women feel inadequate, as if their bodies are failing them.
So let’s be really honest here.
The Postpartum Period is Really, Stupid Hard
Sure, postpartum is beautiful and a bonding period. It’s also hard, ugly, sleepless, confusing, and painful.
After birth, most of us only share the Kate Middleton version of our photos. Even the hospital photo I shared, while I was makeup-less with hair that hadn’t been washed in 3 days, was curated to show a peaceful, rested, happy hospital stay.
I did not show the trying-to-figure-out-this-damned-wrap, my-arms-can’t-hold-this-baby-any-longer, constantly taking stool softeners, not-yet-graduated-to-the-lightweight-maxi-pads version of myself.
Note: Once you figure out the wrap, it’s great. If you’re overwhelmed by the moby or similar wraps, I loved my Baby K’tan, which you can buy in your size and has a much smaller learning curve. I also hear great things about the ring sling.
And I definitely did not show the dirty-hair, haven’t-showered-in-days, holding-and-soothing-a-baby-while-pumping, still-in-mesh-panties, constantly-engorged, regularly seeing a lactation consultant version of myself.
Let’s Start Being Honest About the Postpartum Experience
Recovering from having a baby is hard work, and it’s work you aren’t conscious your body is doing.
The physiological changes during the early postpartum period were, for me, often debilitating.
I’ve started a habit of taking a postpartum supply kit to every baby shower I attend now, just to make the new mom’s life a little easier by giving her all the gross things she doesn’t know she needs yet.
Gross things, you say?
Let me tell you a story.
I was sitting on my couch, plugged into my breast pump, when I suddenly doubled over in pain. I ripped out the pump tubes, spilled milk all over the rug, crawled to my bedroom, and moaned for Husband to come help me.
He brought my phone, and I called the on-call doctor at my OB’s office and could barely get words out through the pain.
She insisted I was experiencing gas, but I knew this was much, much different. She told me, though, that if it wasn’t gas, I’d need to go straight to the emergency room. Not sure how to manage that with a 4-day-old, and scared out of my mind, I pretended to be on board with the gas idea.
I promised to follow her instructions and call her back.
1 laxative suppository, 45 minutes, and the fortunate passing of a giant blood clot later, we assured each other that all was fine and I went to sleep.
So Many Types of Pain
Until I woke up with more debilitating pain.
To the point that I couldn’t get my crying baby.
I couldn’t walk, stand, pump, or sleep.
I took a Percocet given to me in the hospital and still lay awake all night writhing in pain.
Husband stayed up all night with Jack. A warm welcome to fatherhood on our mere second night home from the hospital.
First thing in the morning, I asked my mom to take me to the doctor. Thank God for family members being around to help.
I had a double kidney infection with two different types of bacteria, meaning it took 2 separate 10-day cycles of antibiotics to feel fully better.
24 days postpartum until I was no longer infected, clotted, and in pain. And I still had stitches for weeks.
I could tell you to the day when I finally overcame postpartum anxiety, and it wasn’t until Jack was 2 years old.
Postpartum isn’t pretty, y’all
I did not show that honesty before, so I’ll show it now. Postpartum is beautiful, just like all our family newborn photos show.
It’s sweet, gentle, and full of precious, tender moments. But it’s also really, terribly, horribly hard, painful, and gross. It’s full of snuggles you’ll never get back, and fluids you’ll never want back. It comes with tremendous beauty, but let us not pretend that’s the full reality.
Here’s my truth: I spent husband’s entire paternity leave lying on a bed wedge on the couch, asking for Jack to be brought to me so I could feed or snuggle him, often unable to walk from debilitating pain.
I didn’t show you my truth then, but I’ll show you now. Please, show me yours too.
What was toughest about your postpartum journey?
Posts about Postpartum
- Postpartum body image
- Best postpartum pajamas
- How do deal with postpartum anxiety
- What no one tells you about your postpartum body
Posts for Infant Parents
- How to increase breastmilk supply
- Best books for babies
- Why self care is important
- Parenting stress
- Identity crisis after baby
Gifts for New Parents
Katy Huie Harrison, PhD, is an author, mom, recurrent miscarriage survivor, & owner of Undefining Motherhood. She lives in Atlanta with her husband (affectionately known on the internet as “Husband,”) son (Jack), and dog (Charlotte). She believes our society puts too many expectations on women that make womanhood and motherhood restrictive. Her goal is to shift the paradigm about what it means to be a woman and mother, giving all women a greater sense of agency over their own lives. You can find Katy and her work featured in places like CNN’s Headline News, Romper, Scary Mommy, Demeter Press’s Motherhood and Social Exclusion, & more.