It’s not politics, really, and yet everything having to do with juggling your life after having a baby is political — largely because women do the baby-bearing and patriarchy is alive and well in our society. And since my last post was called “The Politics of Being Pregnant,” I figured I’d stick with the theme… And mostly: pregnancy — what happens before, during, and after — is this thing no one really talks about openly. It shouldn’t be a secret, and no one should apologize for doing it. And places of employment should encourage, not discourage, it. At least in my humble opinion…
My son will be 9 weeks old in a few days, and I feel lucky to be in the position that I am. He arrived mid semester, and I was able to be home for the rest of the semester to care for him. Although I have to work at home for part of the time to make up for sick days I didn’t have, I will have been able to care for him, almost 24/7, for nearly 5 months of his life by the time I return to work full time. This scenario is pretty unheard of in our society. While I thought the lack of new-parent leave was problematic before becoming pregnant, my understanding of just how ridiculous it is has skyrocketed since actually giving birth. Allow me to explain:
The Birth Process
Gratefully, my labor and delivery were largely without incident. I went into labor at 3:00am early on a Saturday morning and delivered 18 hours later. My contractions were random and easy for a few hours, but around lunch time, they got very painful (I’m talking the-wind-got-knocked-out-of-me-and-I-can’t-put-words-together-to-make-sentences painful), and by 4:30pm I wasn’t sure if I could handle it getting worse. We called our doula, Mary Riley (who is amazing!!), and headed to the local birth center. The drive was 40 minutes, and I arrived at 9cm dilated. I can’t even begin to describe the pain — I kept saying to Mary, “but I can’t get comfortable!” and she would say, “that’s right — you’re in labor — but you know what? Your body won’t give you anything more than you can handle.” She was right, but wow, did it hurt. More than words can describe. More than I could ever have imagined before going through it. But I didn’t question my decision to do it without drugs, and I kept thinking about something that my partner had read in the book The Birth Partner: “in the end, there will be a baby.” And eventually there was. Allen arrived at 10:06pm, and our tiny family of two grew to three.
And Then the Afterward Part: My Body and Breastfeeding
I had no idea how much blood there would be. Every woman is different, but I bled (like a lot) for days. Weeks, actually. I didn’t know beforehand: I was so focused on the birth process that I never thought to read about what happens next. And I felt like I’d been in a car wreck. Walking, sitting up, bending down — it was all a challenge for weeks to come. I’m currently battling some pretty gnarly lower back pain that resulted from sitting in bed funny one night. Amazingly, I didn’t have back pain during my pregnancy, but it took one plop onto the bed for a breastfeeding session, and I haven’t been the same since. The afterpains, aches, and throbs that would continue for weeks on end weren’t something I anticipated — I kind of (naively, in retrospect) expected that I would just bounce back physically. And, I didn’t have a C-section or forceps or vacuum suction, interventions that many women need that add a whole other layer to recovery. I never heard anyone talk about what it’s like for the mother after she gives birth. And after all, there’s a kid to take care of now — I thought (naively again), maybe our bodies just kick back into gear because they have to.
And they do. Sort of. But to take care of baby; not do that and go back to work.
I now think new moms are incredible superhero-like creatures who do everything and then some. And I’m not tooting my own horn here — dust bunnies are abundant, mail is piling up, and I can’t generally start and finish a task without being interrupted by a tiny being who’s almost always strapped to my body these days. But on a miniscule amount of sleep and while being bathed in a wash of hormones, I’ve managed to sustain the life of a newborn. If that’s not superherodom, I’m not sure what is.
Which brings me to breastfeeding. Another thing I didn’t think to research. I knew I wanted to breastfeed — breastmilk is the most nourishing food you can give a newborn. A mother’s breastmilk is literally tailored to meet the needs of the baby she just carried around for 9 (give or take) months. And I figured it was something innate that would be easy to learn in the hours after giving birth.
While many mothers have no problem initiating breastfeeding with their newborns, many women struggle to lactate at all, others have issues with supply, and still more have a whole host of latching issues. The latter was my issue: it seemed that no matter what I did, breastfeeding was the most painful thing I’d ever done aside from labor. A few hours into my son’s life and my nipples were already bloody. Several weeks (6 and a half, to be exact) of bleeding, cracking, and radiating pain followed before it got markedly better. And I probably would have stopped long before if it weren’t for the support of a group of women I’ve met through a nursing circle in Poughkeepsie at Waddle n Swaddle, an amazing haven of a shop devoted to all things parenting.
Which leads me to the real reason I wanted to write this post — SIX WEEKS OF LEAVE IS NOT NEARLY ENOUGH. I had no schema to understand before, but now, now I get it. At 6 weeks postpartum:
- I was still bleeding from giving birth.
- My back had given out and I was seeing a chiropractor twice a week.
- My breasts were sore from the challenges of breastfeeding.
- I was (and still am) getting up three times each night to breastfeed, putting my average hours of (broken) sleep per night somewhere around 4 or 5.
- I was consumed (and still am) by the mountain of information I don’t know about parenting, developmental milestones, vaccinations, and the list goes on.
- I couldn’t (and still can’t) fit into any of my work clothes that aren’t maternity. And it turns out wearing maternity clothes when you’re not pregnant doesn’t work so well.
- I was emotionally erratic from the sleep deprivation and ocean of hormones that followed giving birth.
- I had no clue how pumping worked so that I would be able to feed my baby when I was back at the office (that’s a whole other post in itself).
- I didn’t (and still don’t) have time to wash my hair very often.
- I was just (and still am) getting to know my son. He changes a little every day, and I couldn’t (and still can’t) imagine putting him in someone else’s care.
There’s more, but I really can’t fathom how working parents of new babies are expected to go back to work so soon. The recommended six weeks seemed like a lengthy amount of time before I experienced it. It’s not. It goes by in the blink of an eye. And some places of employment require a return to work even sooner, which is terrible. I have such strong feelings about this for obvious reasons right now, but it’s edging on criminal that our society claims to value family as much as it does, but literally punishes people for choosing to have children. I’m glad that legislators are talking about changing the policy to 12 weeks of paid leave. But honestly, even that isn’t enough. In some European countries, parents have up to two years to care for their newborns, and after that, there’s socialized childcare until their little ones are ready to start school. We are doing it all wrong in this country.