After the experience of having four babies in a span of six years, I’ve learned a lot about the postpartum period. Because of that, I’d like to officially define postpartum as the first full year after giving birth. Currently, postpartum care for the mother is often no more than a simple six-week check-up. You could still have lochia bleeding at six weeks. You could not have yet shown symptoms of postpartum depression. The appointment is geared towards making sure you don’t have high blood pressure, infections, or blood clots. But what about the pain in your hips? Or pain during intercourse? Or the embarrassing gas and constipation? Not to mention the roller coaster of hormones that are still trying to adjust.
At the doctor’s office, I have been told, “Your body spent the last nine months changing to grow this baby by shifting organs and increasing blood volume, so give your body nine months to return to normal.” That may be the case, but we don’t have a nine-month postpartum check-up. And what if my body doesn’t return to normal on its own? Whom do I turn to for answers? The nurse practitioner could only offer surgery for my bulging belly problem, and I had to look up the effects of vitamin deficiency on my own.
When I went to my first pre-natal appointment at my OB-GYN, they handed me a packet of what to eat while pregnant, how to exercise, and the signs of danger to look out for. What if we did the same thing at the iconic six-week postpartum appointment, and handed out a packet with important information? Here are some suggestions:
1) Take magnesium, vitamin B, and fish oil for ailments such as constipation, fatigue, and brain fog.
2) The signs of postpartum depression or anxiety to look out for, and when to call for help.
3) How to check for diastasis recti, and three exercises you can do to help your body and pelvic floor heal.
On top of that, we could institute a nine-month postpartum check-up, which will help remind everyone that postpartum symptoms can last up to a whole year after giving birth.
Besides all the physical recovery challenges, there are myriad emotional and marital struggles, too. In my experience in Catholic circles, mothers don’t often talk to each other about the difficult aspects of postpartum motherhood, and this easily leads to isolation. Motherhood is a beautiful vocation! It’s holy! Of course you have to sacrifice for your kids! But what if it’s at the cost of your mental health and marriage? You can’t give what you don’t have, and where can a mother turn to ask for help?
For example, intimacy is a difficult topic to bring up, but I know that a lot of couples struggle in this area after a baby is born. I myself have been told to just suck it up, because sex is good and holy and is something you owe to your husband. I agree that marital intimacy should be a priority, but what if the pain that hinders your intimacy could be cleared up with a few days of estrogen cream or a few visits to a physical therapist? Perhaps God’s design after a baby is born includes a period of abstinence while a husband learns to grow into his role as father and support his wife in her recovery. Yet, it’s not often I hear people talking about that.
Another area where Catholic moms could use some tailored guidance is with prayer. Before having babies, I worked at a church. My prayer revolved around daily Mass and time in the adoration chapel. Yet post-baby, I was up all night and I had no daily prayer schedule. Simple prayers came sporadically throughout the day, and I feared I was doing it wrong. A few years and a few babies later, what I originally saw as a failure turned into a lesson: a lesson in humility and dependence on God. There was a sort of pride that had accompanied my doing all the right Catholic things, as if my holiness depended exclusively on my prayer accomplishments. In the days of postpartum motherhood and the struggles that came with it, I became more aware of God’s presence each moment of the day, and not just during the specific actions I could call my “spiritual life.” Surprisingly, my intimacy with God deepened during that period, as I discovered that the whole of my vocation to motherhood is indeed my spiritual life.
Oh, how I wish more conversations for mothers with young kids revolved around the simple ways to lift our eyes to God, helping us focus on the opportunities to love right in front of us instead of encouraging us to make heroic efforts to spend more time at church. While certainly upholding the value of Eucharistic adoration, and reinforcing the Sunday obligation, let’s talk about how holiness is an every-moment-of-the-day undertaking.
Lastly, I wish moms knew they were not alone in the times they don’t feel bonded to their baby, or when struggling with the anxiety of the responsibilities they face. I desire them to know that they don’t need to have it together all the time. God is not asking them to do this. God is asking for faithfulness to their daily duties, and that is enough for Him to begin the transformation. God did not ask for us to do it alone. He made us for community and to help each other through the hard times. I found that having good friendships, where I can be vulnerable and feel encouraged, help make the difficult days easier. If we can start talking about postpartum more, mothers might find community, support, and the answers they have been searching for.
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