If you are in a room with ten mothers, I am willing to bet that more than half, if not all of them would attest to the fact that at least something about their birth was not what they wanted, envisioned or expected. Whatever the unexpected thing might have been, they are all valid and can leave a new mom feeling upset, letdown or even guilty. Once your new baby arrives you are completely consumed by learning your new role as mother. You never really have time to process what happened. Knowing how you might feel after birth ahead of time, and learning a variety of strategies to help you process the experience, will allow you to be more conscious of your emotions before baby arrives. You will also be ready to prioritize thinking about the experience of birth. We will also talk about the warning signs and symptoms associated with postpartum depression and other perinatal mood disorders. Awareness of these before you give birth may be critical to your mental health.
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I want to share my experience with birth and my identity shift to being a mother so that you will have a better mindset and realistic expectations about what it might feel like for you. It is important for your emotional well-being and mental state. It took me a few weeks to realize that processing was something I wasn’t doing. I had a mental block towards my labor and delivery and that needed to change.
Let me help support you before your baby comes by talking about:
- How you can expect to feel
- The unexpected grief you may feel associated with birth and being a new mom
- Strategies to set yourself up to process your birth
- When to consider professional help
- Identifying perinatal mood disorders
- Next steps you can take to be fully prepared for your baby
Normalizing These Feelings
Because you are thrown right into motherhood, and there isn’t really anything quite like learning on the job as being a new mom, taking time to process this life-changing event is important. I was really emotional in my first week postpartum. I think all mothers would make this claim. Your hormones are going haywire, you are running on very little sleep, and are in one of the steepest learning curves of your life. This all happens while being madly in love with this tiny new human that joined your life. Something that I really needed to do was talk about my birth. My labor was long and exhausting. I had hoped to birth naturally but after about 14 hours of active labor through the night, I wound up getting an epidural. You can read my whole birth story for all the details. Read about what I did try in terms of pain coping, and how I ultimately felt about the experience once I fully processed it.
Never had I experienced anything so intense. To be completely honest, while I do know that an epidural was the necessary decision for me, in those first few days postpartum I already felt like I had failed my daughter and myself as a mom. I wanted to have a natural birth but in the end, it wasn’t in the cards for me. Birth felt scary, overwhelming, long and painful. My mind was racing with regrets and a sense of disappointment. I had this beautiful and healthy baby girl, and I was recovering well. On the scale of births, I was incredibly fortunate to have things go relatively smoothly and I still couldn’t shake this feeling that I failed. What was wrong with me?
Why this is Normal
Regrets, tears, grieving, and emotions are totally normal in the first few weeks after birth. And knowing this ahead of time will go a long way in helping you cope. I don’t think enough people are talking about this. It is worthwhile for expecting moms to prepare for the reality of this so that when they have their babies they are ready to come together with other new moms and share their experience. This kind of talk about birth should be normalized because these feelings are so common regardless of how your birth played out. We need to share the good and the bad to get the support we need. These feelings are often known as the “baby blues”. If when your baby arrives you are feeling more than just a bit down or emotional, or these feelings last for more than 2 weeks, don’t wait to get help. You can find more information about postpartum depression and other perinatal mood disorders below.
Let’s talk about grieving. Typically, this is a word associated with loss, so it may seem odd to be reading about this in an article about birth. Articles about birth and for expecting and new mothers are usually filled with words like joy, love, bliss, and ‘glowing’. Those things were 100% present for me when I had my new baby. I have literally never felt such joy! Still, I want to be real about how my birth resulted in this brief but new normal where joy and grief coexisted. Don’t be surprised if this is also the case for you.
The Birth You Want
For me, there were two main points of grief after birth, the first and most apparent one was that I didn’t have the birth I wanted and I needed time to be upset about this. Even though I rationally knew that I was so lucky that everything went smoothly and I had a healthy baby, I was sad. I think a big reason for this is because while you are pregnant there is so much excitement, focus and preparation surrounding this one big event of labor and delivery. So much so that I might even compare this to a wedding (though for obvious reasons is not quite the same).
There is so much effort, emphasis and joy in the planning that once it is happening I think it’d be difficult for it to ever quite reach the bar of expectation you may have set. This is especially true of birth because it is literally impossible to know or predict what is going to happen and how your plan is going to change based on you and baby’s medical and emotional needs during labor.
A Proactive Approach
Having a sense of fluidity and flexibility in mind as you ‘plan’ your birth goes a long way in this sense of grief over the birth you wanted. For some this is easier than others depending on what your general nature and attitude towards life is. Hypnobirthing is a fascinating and empowering birth philosophy that aims to do just that. Women who take these kinds of classes are guided towards a more positive and open-minded attitude towards birth. They are supported in undoing any previous and negative connotations they might have towards labor and delivery. This is done through practice, meditation, strategies, and even literally using different words than what we usually say regarding contractions and pushing. Hypnobirthing helps to break any previous associations you had with labor.
This was the type of prenatal and labor readiness education that I needed. I know my experience of grief about my birth would have been lessened with this type of mindset and these supports in place. Hypnobirth classes would have given me a different level of awareness and presence in my birth. I would have been better prepared to process and feel at peace with my birth, however it had unfolded, if I had taken a hypnobirthing class. You can learn more about hypnobirthing classes by heading here.
The Loss of Your Child-free Identity
I think on some level, I knew that women were often disappointed with their births, and while I didn’t expect it to hit me as hard as it did, I can’t say I was entirely surprised by my disappointment in how my birth played out. This on the other hand took me completely by surprise. Losing my child-free identity wasn’t something I had given any thought to before I had N. I was the kind of person who couldn’t wait to be a mama and never spent an ounce of energy considering the sense of sadness I might experience as my identity, forever, shifted to mom. Because of this, when the feelings started to creep in, I felt awful. It was again this feeling of what is wrong with me? This is all I ever wanted, right? You can be ready to confront these feelings and allow yourself to feel them immediately if you know they might be coming your way.
Why It Might Be Upsetting
I absolutely love being a mother to N, and hope that I will be so lucky to have more children in the future. However, in the first weeks and months, and still every once and a while, I miss what it was like to only have to think about me. Sure, I had Patrick and our dogs, but nothing could have prepared me for the mental shift to having a tiny and helpless baby completely dependent on me. I missed the sense of care free adventure, lack of necessary planning, and ability to do things on a whim. I missed my friends and being 100% present in a conversation and felt jealous of my childless friends and their lives. I wished I had soaked mine up and appreciated it more when it was happening. The fact that my life had now changed forever hit me hard.
The Amazing Change
But, spoiler alert, I wouldn’t change it for the world! And neither will you 😊 There are so many amazing aspects to the new identity of mom and I know that I grieve the person I was before less and less. Being N’s safe place, watching her grow and change, and seeing her curiosity and joy towards life and the world light my days. I have learned so much from her and been tested beyond my wildest dreams. I am a stronger and better person now that I am a mom. I didn’t lose the identity I had before, I evolved and a piece of that person will always be there.
I know I could have never known what that change would feel like until it happened, but I do think it’s worth being ready for this shift to shake you a bit when your baby arrives.
Now that you are prepared for these feelings that may creep up after birth, let’s talk about some strategies and plans to help you cope. Once you identify these kinds of feelings, the processing can begin. I think for a while after birth I tried to suppress these feelings of disappointment and grief because I felt like I didn’t have any mental capacity or space to go there. This was my mistake, and I hope that by being aware and intentional in your processing, you can avoid it. Whether you feel like you have the mental space or not, processing your birth and any other feelings of grief or regret about being a new mom is essential to your mental and emotional well-being. In the end this makes you a better mom. Self-care is so important and mental health is just as critical as physical health.
What You Can Do Before Birth
Believe it or not, there are some things you can do before you even give birth that will get the ball rolling on processing the experience and identify shift. You can start by talking about your feelings surrounding birth. Set a time to sit down with your partner or other support person and discuss your fears, hopes, perceived strengths and weaknesses related to birth and motherhood. The more honest you are, the more you will get out of the experience. You will feel more prepared going into your birth because you will have been honest with yourself. You will also be more prepared to identify your feelings postpartum after identifying what you were most nervous or scared about.
Trina designed an amazing Three-Part Birth Plan which includes worksheets for this specific purpose. They have reflection questions for you and your partner to share your hopes, fears, strengths, weaknesses and more. You can access this birth plan and our entire library of free printables by subscribing below.
Talk it Out With Your Loved Ones
Perhaps the most accessible and easiest thing you can do once you are a new mom is to start talking about your experience. Tell your birth story! A great place to start is with your partner, trusted friend or family member. Tell them what you remember, what stands out, what felt scary and what was exciting. Focus on the good and the bad. Focus on not only what was hard and challenging, but also describe in detail what it was like to finally hold your baby for the first time and see their face. Doing this with someone who was present with you throughout the experience (like your partner) can be especially helpful because they can fill in gaps and share their perspective. They will likely tell you how impressed they were or how strong and able you appeared as your body took on this incredible feat. Let your partner know ahead of time that this is something that is important to you so that they will be proactive towards doing this if you are not. It will also help them be aware of a concrete way that they can support you once baby arrives.
Find a Support Group of New Moms
Find new moms to talk about it with! This is another thing that you can do the legwork on before you even give birth. Research new mom and breastfeeding support groups in your area and create a list of places and days that groups are happening. Ask your prenatal care provider if they know of groups, check with local hospitals and pediatrician offices who all often host groups that you can attend even if you are not a patient at the practice. Check library events and community centers. With a little digging, you will find that there really are a lot of options out there.
The reason talking to other new moms can be so effective is because they love to talk about birth! Rarely have I been in a room full of mothers for an extended period (especially new moms) and not had birth/pregnancy/labor stories start to be swapped. Mothers love to connect about this shared experience and I urge you not to wait to start sharing. If you are seeking out support groups for breastfeeding or see another new mom in the waiting room at the pediatrician, strike up conversation. Naturally, tread lightly, but I truly believe that most women need to share their story to process it and people often don’t think to ask. Or don’t really give you a chance to tell the whole story beyond how many hours it was and how joyful you felt at the end. Be another mother’s listening ear and she will listen eagerly in return. You never know when you might meet your new mom BFF.
Write About It
This is something I wish I’d done. I love to write, but it never even occurred to me to write about my birth and the feelings I was having about my shifting identify. If you plan to breastfeed you will spend so many hours in the early weeks and months nursing your baby and likely reading or scrolling mindlessly on your phone. It’d be totally doable to grab a small journal and pencil and do some writing once you have baby latched well, especially if you are using a nursing pillow that allows you to have your hands relatively free. You could even type into the notes on your phone. Any way of putting thoughts onto paper or into a visual format that would allow you to read them back once they are ‘deposited’, so to speak, is going to be helpful in not only processing your experience but identifying exactly what you are feeling as well.
Complete List of Strategies to Help You Process
- Realize the negative feelings that may be associated with birth
- Prepare to name your feeling
- Identify your feelings of strength, weakness, confidence and fears regarding labor, delivery and motherhood
- Complete the 3 Part Birth Plan
- Find a Birth Class that will educate and prepare you emotionally, like Hypnobirthing
- Let your partner know you will need to talk about it
- Find new mother support groups ahead of time
- Share your birth story with other new moms once baby arrives
- Put your thoughts and feelings into written word both before birth and after baby arrives
When to Consider Professional Help
Because this article is all about preparing to care for your emotional and mental health after birth, it is important to talk about Postpartum Depression and other Perinatal Mood Disorders. These disorders are very real and education prior to having your baby is critical in getting the help you need quickly. Learning about these before you give birth and discussing these topics with your provider, partner and any other support people is very important.
It is important to realize that these emotional disorders can strike throughout a wide range of time beginning when you are pregnant and up to and beyond your baby’s first birthday. There is often a lot of support and awareness about these disorders in the first few months postpartum, but know that once you head back to work, others start to be less present (understandably!) in supporting you as a new mom. This is when depression and anxiety can start to occur. Know the warning signs and know that they can occur well after the first few weeks.
What is Postpartum Depression (PPD)?
This is the most common perinatal mood disorder and is known to effect 1 in 7 new mothers. Postpartum depression mainly occurs because of the huge hormonal shift that occurs after birth. This coupled with lack of sleep and rest, poor nutrition, inadequate support, health issues, and colic babies can put you at greater risk of experiencing PPD. The chief difference between this and the more typical “baby blues” is that baby blues will resolve itself in one to two weeks with the proper rest and supports in place, while PPD requires professional treatment. PPD is still 100% manageable once professional support is in place.
Some common symptoms associated with PPD according to the American Pregnancy Association are: low self-esteem, difficulty sleeping at night (even when the baby is sleeping), big appetite changes (usually a decrease), anger, worry, guilt, feeling overwhelmed, frequent crying, lack of emotion, and feelings of hopelessness (feeling of nothing to look forward to). Experiencing these symptoms to the point of being unable to function and provide for your baby, with intense frequency or for longer than a week or two probably means it is time to get help. The best rule of thumb when it comes to this, in my opinion, is that if you are ever in doubt regarding your mental health, consult a professional.
What is Postpartum Anxiety (PPA) Disorder?
This is another perinatal mood disorder, and is found in about 10% of new mothers. Sometimes it is diagnosed in conjunction with Postpartum Depression, but it can exist on its own as well. Symptoms of this disorder are: changes in eating and sleeping, racing thoughts that you have difficulty controlling, constant worry, impending fear that something bad is going to happen, trouble with sitting still and focusing, physical symptoms such as dizziness, hot flashes, and nausea.
It seems to me that there is a lot more awareness out there regarding PPD. Many mothers in the new mom support group that I attended with N during my maternity leave unknowingly had Postpartum Anxiety Disorders. I think the notion was that this sense of worry and racing thoughts was normal as a new mom because they had never heard of PPA. I will again emphasize that after you have your baby do not hesitate to ask about or draw concern to any of these symptoms should you be experiencing them.
What are other Perinatal Mood Disorders?
While PPD is luckily gaining a lot more mainstream attention, and even Postpartum Anxiety, there is a wide range of emotional disorders that can occur while pregnant or after giving birth. While they may be less common, which may be due to a lack of awareness, it is still good to have at least heard about them in case you find that you are suffering and need help. Other perinatal mood disorders can include, panic disorders, obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD), generalized anxiety disorder and postpartum psychosis. I want to stress that this is not an exhaustive list and other disorders may exist as well.
How to Get Help
Ideally, you will be screened for PPD using an evidence-based tool, like the Edinburgh Postnatal Depression Scale, throughout your pregnancy and postpartum journey. You should be screened during your first prenatal visit, once in your second trimester, once in your third trimester, at your first postpartum visit, and at any other OB/primary care visits in the year following birth. Additionally, you should be screened by your baby’s pediatrician at the 3-month, 9 month and 12-month pediatric visits. I feel extremely fortunate to have had quality care that included screenings at every one of these ideal times. If you are not being screened, you can find a link to the Edinburgh Postnatal Depression scale in the resource section of this article. Screen yourself and contact your provider right away if help is needed.
Never underestimate or give disservice to the importance of mental preparation when it comes to birth and your change in identity associated with becoming a new mom. Now that you have read this article you have a list of action items that you can start today to have a more positive mindset and plan in place to help you process your birth.
Consider a Childbirth Class
If you don’t think that Hypnobirthing is the childbirth class for you, I encourage you to consider other options. Any childbirth education prior to labor and delivery is really empowering and will help you feel more confident. You can read about a few different options in our article about different online childbirth class options and learn more about childbirth classes in general in the article, Are Childbirth Classes Necessary?
Prepare your Home and Think about your Birth Wishes
While you are preparing yourself mentally for birth, make sure that you are prepared in other ways too! Check out my article, Everything to Know and Learn before Bringing Baby Home, for some great tips about what to have set up, what to learn and what to be ready for so that you are completely prepared when you walk in the door with your new baby. Make sure you have your hospital bag packed and ready to go with all the essentials and a well-stocked home by consulting, How to Pack the Perfect Hospital Bag and Prepare your Home for Baby.
Additionally, you can learn about different choices you will need to make about your birth by reading Trina’s article associated with her thoughtfully designed, Three Part Birth Plan.
I’d love to hear about what your perceptions are about birth and processing the experiencing. What are you most confident about and most afraid of? Leave a comment below.
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Resources and Further Reading
- Postpartum Depression and Mood Disorders:
- this is an excellent article that describes symptoms, what to ask when finding a therapist to help treat your PPD and things you can do at home in conjunction with treatment or prior to developing PPD to keep it at bay
- Edinburgh Postnatal Depression Scale Screening Test
- Washington Post Article about Perinatal Mood Disorders
- Psychology Today writes about How to Help Women with Perinatal Mood Disorders