Managing your own expectations after birth

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December 10, 2019

Reviewed by Julie Ciecior, LPC, NCC

This is hands down one of the most difficult parts of the postpartum experience. People often have so many expectations of how things are going to be before they give birth and aren’t prepared for the realities following that.

Expectations around birth

This is the first thing that can “not go according to plan.” And most of the time, it doesn’t. A great exercise to do during pregnancy is write out a plan of exactly how you want birth to go, sparing no detail. Then, burn that plan, metaphorically speaking. Accept that things beyond your control can and will arise, but whatever happens, you will do your best. And your best is always good enough.

Beyond this, processing your birth experience with your therapist, care provider, doula, mom group or a friend may help. Don’t be afraid to cry, get angry, feel whatever you need to. Acknowledging your feelings can go a long way in helping to let them go.

Expectations around breastfeeding

Breastfeeding is usually more difficult than people are prepared for. A study from UC Davis Medical Center polled 418 moms and found that 92% had difficulties with breastfeeding. These challenges might be plugged ducts, latch issues, mastitis, cracked nipples, triple feeding or having a baby with reflux or oral anatomy issues. Getting support is crucial in order to continue so finding a breastfeeding support group will help, as will hiring a lactation consultant or postpartum doula. Switching over to bottle feeding is also a perfectly healthy choice for some mothers and babies if breastfeeding becomes too stressful or it isn’t physically possible.

Expectations about bonding

You may not feel an immediate rush of love for your baby. And that’s okay. Sometimes you are exhausted from birth, processing that experience or adapting to the overwhelming reality of parenthood. Sometimes stress hormones and anxiety can get in the way of bonding. Then again, sometimes it takes a little time to get to know each other, just like with any other relationship. So go easy on yourself if things don’t look and feel exactly how you imagined they would.

Newborns require a very specific type of care and some moms really enjoy that phase while others have a lot more fun with their children as they get older. Bonding and attachment looks different at each stage of development.

Expectations around motherhood

Motherhood is overwhelming, period. Even when it’s full of joy. Whether you had a vaginal delivery or c-section your body is recovering from a major event and there are things you may not have anticipated when it comes to being responsible for a tiny helpless being 24/7. That could mean there’s no time to do all the little things that make you feel “normal” like taking a long shower, seeing your friends, getting to an exercise class and keeping your house in order. You might have moments of forgetting about the baby, which is usually followed by a flood of guilt. It’s okay. This is a huge identity shift, so give yourself time to grow into the new role.

How do these feelings relate to mood disorders?

Guilt, shame, perfectionism, and worry can all destabilize your sense of self. So can lack of sleep and stress, with birth and postpartum being huge physical and psychological stressors. Certain genetic markers make you more vulnerable to the effects of stress and more likely to experience mood disorders. This is why it’s important to keep a close eye on mental health, especially if you have a history. Ideally, see a therapist before having your baby, so that your therapist has an awareness of your personal baseline when it comes to mental health.

What can you do to feel better?

  • Speak to a Therapist Specializing in Postpartum. There is no shame in therapy, and most adults could benefit from having a therapist they touch in with, even if it’s only once a month or a few times a year. It’s like mental hygiene. Speaking to someone who’s trained to understand the nuance of postpartum is key.

  • Find Community. If you can’t access therapy, this is one of the biggest things you can do to feel better. Postpartum can feel isolating. Getting yourself and a baby out of the house can also be a nightmare. But getting into a circle of other parents who are going through the same things and can normalize your experience and is so validating. Look for breastfeeding support groups, mom circles, or mommy and me yoga. Online support groups are out there too, but there is more likelihood of trolling and harassment online than in person, so be aware of that. If at any point a group you’re part of digitally or in person starts to feel draining, walk away. The point of community is connection, not judgment or competition.

  • Hire a Doula. Postpartum doulas are trained to be the friend and confidant you need during this highly charged and vulnerable time. They know how to listen, how to care for newborns, how to normalize your experience and most importantly keep you company. Being alone with a newborn all day is a lot of responsibility, and being in the presence of another adult can be very relaxing to the nervous system.

  • Make Time for Yourself. This doesn’t have to be complicated or time consuming. It can be as simple as making a cup of tea and curling up with a book at naptime instead of rushing to tackle your to-do list. Or taking a walk with your baby to your local cafe, even if it’s just to sit and people watch. Remembering your identity outside of motherhood is important and can be very stabilizing for your psyche.

Sources:

Shute, Nancy (2013). “To Succeed at Breastfeeding Most New Moms Could Use Help.” Retrieved from: https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2013/09/23/225349120/to-succeed-at-breast-feeding-most-new-moms-could-use-help

Julie Ciecior, LPC, NCC is a psychotherapist at the Postpartum Wellness Center of Boulder. She has received training in perinatal mood disorders through Postpartum Support International, along with extensive training in trauma and sexual abuse. She received her Bachelor of Arts from the University of Colorado at Boulder and her Masters in Counseling from Regis University.

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