There seems to be an unwritten rule in our culture that suggests giving birth and taking care of an infant should be entirely magical, and if not entirely magical, completely private. The challenges of postpartum are often relegated to the shadows.
While we’ve certainly come a long way, patriarchy is still at the helm. The postpartum experience is so complex, so unique to each mother and baby, and there are so many opinions to wade through: what is right and what is wrong, what is healthy and what is unhealthy, what is okay to discuss and what should be kept hidden. These rules appear to accomplish only one thing: they divide. They prioritize the comfort of a repressed society while many moms suffer in silence.
We spoke with five Canadian mothers about their postpartum experiences to gain some insight on how challenging and lonely and joyful it can be to take care of an infant. Because the truth is, we’re not taught to share both the good and the bad. We’re taught to believe there is something inherently shameful about not having it all together.
We hope these stories help shed light on the shadows, and that they act as a symbol of solidarity to those embarking on their journey (or already in the thick of it).
“I wasn’t prepared for how tired I’d be,” Kate says. After the birth of her baby last year, she’s been adjusting to the newness of the experience: the lack of sleep, the hormone roller coaster, the way her body has to adapt to these changes.
There is a mourning period many women face that we don’t often acknowledge or accept. You’re forced to grieve your old life silently, and act like that change isn’t significant.
“It’s hard,” she adds. “I wouldn’t trade it for the world, but I don’t think people share or talk about how hard it actually is.”
Kate says the fear and worry is also a new challenge.
“You love this tiny human so much and your instinct is to protect them. Senses are heightened and you go into overdrive assessing situations, evaluating plans for risk to ensure they are safe.”
The influx of advice and opinions, no matter how well-intentioned, is also a lot to cope with, Kate says.
“Navigating through all the information that is out there to try and figure out the ‘best’ way to do things or what’s best for your family can be overwhelming. Every baby is different, every family is different, every mom is different…so ‘the best’ may not always work for you.”
But there’s also a lot of joy.
“It’s so hard, but so rewarding. Watching them grow, their first laugh, the smile when they see you in the morning, the sense of wonder they have discovering the world for the first time. You can be having the hardest day and all they need to do is give you a smile. It’s an incredible feeling and makes the hard parts bearable,” she says.
Another blessing is the new appreciation she has for other mothers, especially those who are not supported as much as they should be.
“They are superheroes in my opinion. Birth is just one part of it. Most mothers I know in heterosexual relationships also bear the mental load of the household.”
Lindsey is a mom of two. As an example of the fact that each mother’s experience is entirely different, and all experiences are equally valid, she finds the sleep deprivation aspect of caring for an infant to be mostly a non-issue. She has been able to take advantage of sleeping while the babies sleep.
She has also found comfort in embracing her new self.
“Having a baby rocks your entire world (in the best way possible) and you have to let it,” she says.
But for Lindsey, breastfeeding wasn’t as easy.
“No one prepared me for this painfully beautiful, natural (but not so natural) challenge. It’s a steep learning curve for both you and baby,” she says.
Statistically about 5 to 10% of women are unable to breastfeed, and many more struggle to some degree with the process.
Katie, a mom of two girls, found a lot of joy in breastfeeding. While she initially found the pressure from a hospital nurse to be stressful and counterproductive to feeding her daughter, once she was able to relax at home, it was “smooth sailing”.
“It was such a special time for me and the girls. And I was always open to feeding my children however they needed to be fed, but breastfeeding was really special.”
While Katie felt great after her second birth (which she attributes to balance and mental preparation), her first experience was very overwhelming.
“Although there are tons of people around, you feel very responsible for your child. It's hard to have it all on you, or to at least feel like that.”
If she were to give her past self some advice, Katie would tell herself to be more aware of timing.
“Both my pregnancies were unplanned. It's good now, but we rushed a lot of things because we instantly got pregnant. We were married, then boom one month later we were expecting. I could have enjoyed that newlywed life more…but we made it all work really well, and definitely for the best.”
Stephanie is a mom of a toddler who is expecting her second baby. She says the most challenging aspect of the postpartum experience is the all-consuming nature of having a newborn.
“They are so utterly reliant on you,” she says. “This is even more apparent when you are breastfeeding. I remember the early days, cluster feeding my baby in the evenings. I felt glued to the sofa all night, all while bleeding heavily after birth.”
Stephanie says it gets easier as you adjust—your body heals, and you start to understand the individual needs of your baby. But the initial shock is a challenge, both mentally and physically.
Her biggest piece of advice for new moms is to be kind to themselves.
“This will (likely) be the biggest physical and emotional adjustment of your life…In the early days, taking a shower, successfully feeding your child (however that may be), eating a meal and getting your baby down for a nap are all huge wins, and should be celebrated.”
Stephanie says the second time around she will give herself more license to just be. To appreciate the moment, to treat herself with compassion. She’s looking forward to the infant stage with a summer baby, and being able to sit outside.
“I would say the most surprising positive aspect of life once you've had a baby is really enjoying the little things in life,” she adds. “Life is very different once a newborn arrives, and, in some ways, very simple. I tried to embrace the simplicity and take real pleasure in it. A morning shower felt almost biblical in its ability to revive and refresh after a long night of interrupted sleep. I can still remember the rich, warm, and comforting taste of the first cup of tea that day. And the wonders of your baby—their first smile, laugh, roll. These moments get more and more joyful as your baby grows and you bond with them.”
For Cassina, a mother of three expecting her fourth baby, the mother-child bond was incredibly strong, to the point that she didn’t want anyone else to hold her son.
“I was surprised at how guarded and protective I was over my baby,” she says. It wasn’t the connection that came as a shock, but the unwillingness to let anyone else be involved in the beginning.
“I struggled to relay the desire to keep it to just my husband and myself for the first little while. I have since learned that this is a very natural and normal feeling, and that the societal pressure to have visits and have people meet and hold the baby isn’t what every mother is comfortable with right away.”
The early stages of the pandemic didn’t help this feeling, and when she was pregnant with her twins seven months later, Cassina’s mental health took a dive and she realized she was suffering from postpartum anxiety (almost a quarter of new moms struggle with PPA or PPD).
“I was finally able to admit to myself that there was something deeper going on. I reached out for help and have been seeing a therapist ever since and haven’t looked back. I feel like a completely different person and mother than I did a year ago.”
Cassina is currently pregnant with her fourth baby. If she could go back, she would tell herself to worry less, although she acknowledges this is much easier said than done. She has expressed to her therapist that her biggest goal this time around is to fully enjoy her pregnancy.
“Despite having a few bumps in the road so far, I am staying calmer than I have ever been able to in previous pregnancies,” she says.
She is also feeling more like herself than she ever has.
“I used to worry so much about what other people thought or what their perceptions of me were, but now I am so focused on living my life and creating a life for my children that none of that matters to me anymore. I have learned to embrace my natural and authentic self.”
Every new mother’s experience is unique and valid, no matter what struggles you face or what brings you the most joy. What works for one might not work for another, and that is absolutely okay.
If you think you are struggling with postpartum anxiety or depression, talk to your family doctor or midwife and try to explain exactly how you are feeling. Of course, it's easy enough to tell mothers going through difficult moments to speak up, to reach out in times of struggle. It’s quite another to implement systems and community care that provide relief, that make women feel more comfortable expressing their needs and getting those needs met.
Regardless of your situation, we hope you can find the support you deserve. You are not alone, and your journey is important.