How I practiced self-care (as a mom and a doula) to get through a really hard month
I spent much of the past month talking about childbirth recovery and self-care and then proceeded to have one of the hardest months yet, filled with confusion, self-doubt, and flat-out exhaustion! And although it was a really rough month, I also benefited a great deal from practicing self-care in the form I described in this other blog, which, it turns out, I wrote for future-me (go, past-me)!
To understand how important that self-care blog was for me, I want to take this opportunity to tell my story - something I haven’t really done before. While I think that everyone’s experience as a mom is so unique, there is huge value in hearing other people’s stories and sharing these experiences with other moms so that when things are hard, we don’t add shame and guilt to our burdens because we feel like we are the only ones who are struggling with our particular challenges.
Instead, in sharing our stories, we can start to see and appreciate that these difficulties trip all kinds of moms up, whether you’re a new mom or experienced mom, whether you have plenty of help or are kind of on your own. In the midst of our own recovery, sleep deprivation, hormonal emotions, and floating through each day without much structure or opportunity for planning, it’s good to be reminded that we all get flustered and overwhelmed. But stories can help us cope with the stress and manage our expectations, and in sharing mine, I hope you won’t feel so alone in your experience.
My New Mom Experience
If this is the first time we've met, hello! My name is Patricia and I am a postpartum doula - I serve and support new moms in the earliest weeks and months after they have a baby. I'm also a mom of two. My first baby, Felix, was born in Japan four and a half years ago. We had just moved there and we lived there for three years after he was born, and being his mom was really hard for me. He didn't seem to sleep very much and he was always extremely curious and active and I did not do very well with the lack of sleep and busy chaos. I was always trying to figure him out and I wanted to do this parenting thing well, and of course, putting that much pressure on myself made me feel even more stressed.
At the same time, I was visiting friends who had babies and whenever I would visit them with a meal, or to show them how to use a baby carrier, or giving them things that we didn't need for our baby anymore, they would welcome me inside and immediately start apologizing. “Sorry I’m still in my PJs, I didn’t have time for a shower, and don’t look in the kitchen, it’s a bit of a mess in there. Oh, here, let me move that laundry so you can sit down. Sorry it’s such a mess in here!” And this kept happening again and again!
Why I Shifted to Doula Work
Those experiences led me to begin my postpartum doula training. It just didn’t feel right that my friends were apologizing! They had just had a baby and should have been resting and having more help! I should have been the one apologizing! Instead, it felt like there was an unseen barrier between us. They didn’t feel comfortable asking me to help with their housework, and I felt awkward even offering my help more than once! It seemed like all these expectations and pressure was on the moms to look put together and have a house that was open and available for guests, which is just not right!
So that was my motivation for starting my doula training. Part of my coursework involved reading Mothering the New Mother by Sally Placksin. One section of the book talked a lot about postpartum mood and anxiety disorders (even though the book was written more than 20 years ago when a diagnosis for anything beyond postpartum depression was fairly rare) and reading her description of the emotional turmoil that can sometimes engulf new moms led me to think that perhaps I, myself, was suffering from some postpartum depression or postpartum burnout since I seemed to quite a lot of the symptoms and described in that section felt awfully familiar.
My Experience with PPD/PMADs
For me, in my endless days home with my baby, there would be a few good, easy, productive days, and then I would have a set of days where things would feel really overcast, oppressive, and exhausting, where I felt like I just wanted to opt out. I just wanted to take the afternoon in my room and sleep. And I think that’s not so unusual on its own, but those days were becoming more and more frequent for me, more than a year after I had had my first baby, and that's when I realized I was really in trouble. I talked to a doctor, we made some changes, and slowly, happily, things got better.
I learned to protect my time and my energy better, to treat myself more gently and kindly, and to prioritize my own needs and desires. I talked to a counselor who helped me out of the pit and back on solid ground, and when I got pregnant again, this time in the States, I found another counselor and spent a few months sharpening my self-care tools, preparing the resources that would support my efforts as a new mom, and topping up my emotional reserves.
When Audrey was born in the spring of 2019, even though I felt I had prepared myself quite well, I was still kind of bracing myself for a similar experience as I had the first time: feeling swamped and overwhelmed, feeling the clouds descend, and trying to shrug off the same pressure to do well, to be a good mom, and to do it right (whatever that even means). But these swooping, negative feelings haven’t come to stay quite the same way as they did with Felix four years ago, which I’m really grateful for!
How I’m Working Through the Stress This Time Around
So, how have I managed to have a better postpartum experience this time? Well, let me tell you a little bit more about what happened in the last 2 or 3 weeks and how I got through it without feeling like I might be sinking back into postpartum depression, which is something I really don't want to happen!
In the last few weeks, when Audrey was just over four months old, something shifted in the way that she was nursing that led me to think she wasn't getting enough to eat. She was really fussy, she was waking up a lot at night, and despite my experience, training, and common sense, my fretful, sleep-deprived brain offered the dreaded idea that she was maybe not getting enough to eat. Something definitely seemed wrong with how breastfeeding was going so I chatted with a lactation consultant and our first diagnosis was that maybe the baby had a tongue tie and I had low milk supply, which felt like a diagnosis of doom!
Even though my head knows there are solutions to this kind of issue, and that my feeding method has nothing at all to do with my abilities or success or love as a mom, my heart had other (loud!) feelings about the matter! I was pretty stressed out about what we could do to fix things, and all my sleep deprivation and the anxiety of trying to sort this all out and keep our household running came out physically in the form of a weird rash on my face that made my eyes really itchy, on top of everything else! Now, as far as I know, I am not allergic to anything, and I’ve never dealt with any kind of skin issues before so to me, this felt like a giant flashing sign: “Slow down! Take extra time for yourself!” and so I took the hint and put that self-care blog I wrote just a few weeks ago into practice.
Past-me Saves the Day!
In the blog I explained three different sets of self-care practices. The first set is for when you only have 5 minutes to take care of yourself because, honestly, #momlife. And of that set, the two practices I put to use a lot this past month were to drink more water (hoping it would help clear up whatever was irritating my skin so much), and to take a few minutes for deep breathing.
The deep breathing is so helpful for me because about 3 weeks ago, whenever Audrey would wake up from her 32 minute nap, I would immediately feel tense and angry, thinking, “Why is she awake again already?!” And I know that short naps are pretty common and developmentally appropriate, but it’s still more than a bit irritating to be interrupted in the middle of something you need to get done (even if it’s a nap of your own!). To avoid bringing that kind of frustration into caring for the baby, I found practicing deep breathing so helpful. I took two or three minutes to breathe deeply, remember it's going to be alright, this is not the end of the world, this is just a stage. So simple, so difficult, so necessary!
An Hour for Myself
The second set of self-care directions that I offered in the blog is when you have one hour to take care of yourself, do one of these things. And from this set, I found taking a long walk outside and spending time with someone who gets me the most helpful. Getting out of the house was important to get me away from the pressure that I feel to cook and clean and stick to a schedule and that kind of thing, and getting active outside is proven medicine for your mental and physical health. So, even though it felt like a fair bit of work to get out the door, I tried to go outside and walk nearly every day, usually along with Audrey in the carrier or stroller. And though it was hard to get out the door, I almost always really did feel better once I got back.
I also reached out to friends, fellow moms, and sometimes fellow doulas to talk things through, and my husband and I made a more deliberate effort to sit together and talk about what was going on and to take care of each other during this turbulent time. It’s so easy to fall into the trap of thinking, “no one wants to hear me talk about how hard this is again” and just smile and nod and keep the struggle to ourselves, but it’s much better for you to share your story and for your community to hear it and serve you in your time of need.
Taking Things Deeper
The third and final set of self care instructions that I gave on the blog was for what to do when you're ready to take things deeper. And at the top of that list is to take care of your body and make those appointments, so that’s what I’ve done! I've been in physical therapy for my achy back and hips and pelvic floor therapy for my core all through the month of September and I've been to the walk-in clinic two or three times to figure out why my face is so itchy and to get that taken care of because I matter, and when my body feels good, it is easier to have a more easygoing, optimistic outlook on the future (even if I am still very sleep deprived).
Finally, I suggested that it is a powerful act of self-care to say what you mean, to say what's on your mind, and to opt for your own preferences a little more often than might feel comfortable right now. And so, over the last couple of weeks I was really careful not to say, “I'm fine!” whenever I was asked how things were going. I didn’t say, “I’m fine” because things were not fine! I was feeling really stressed! The baby wasn’t sleeping, and they think she might have a tongue tie, and I’ve got this thing on my face, and so on! So if people around me are really curious and ask me how it’s going, I'm not going to lie, either to myself or to them and say that it's fine. Instead, I tried to honor myself and say what I meant. I hope you, too, can allow yourself to have a bad day, to feel crappy feelings, and to let those around you share in this hard time in your life.
When it was time to take Audrey to the pediatrician, my husband took a day off and that night, she slept only an hour at a time or less, which meant that I also slept very little that night. When I saw he was getting ready for his day as usual, my heart kind of sank, but he asked me if I wanted him to stay home to help out, and because I know myself better now than I did four years ago, for me, the choices were to say “I’ll be fine”, and then stew and rage at him all day long for leaving me, or else, honor my desires and not my pride, and accept his offer for help. And so he stayed home.
Another really thoughtful thing that he suggested that helped me out a lot was for our 4-year-old to stay at his school after his morning class for the afternoon enrichment session for two weeks. This would give me some longer quiet times during the day so that I could recover from the last two weeks. This was such a good and thoughtful idea because having a quiet home is one of the most soothing things for me and he knows that. What a guy! In these ways, I made sure that my needs were met even though it was a bit inconvenient or awkward some days. This kind of prioritizing made a huge difference in my ability to rest and recovery after a particularly rough patch!
Okay, if you’ve made it all the way through this story of mine, I’m guessing you know exactly how I was feeling. You’ve been there too, or else, you’re there right now! My hope for you is that you can find a way to put these self-care practices into action for yourself as well! I hope that instead of feeling defeated and weighed down when things get really hard, that you find a way to take time for yourself, to breathe, drink your water, and get what you need.
The Power of Community
One of the things that's been on my mind a lot lately as a doula and as a new mom is the power of community. Now I know there are a lot of mom-groups out there already, but I’m not thinking of any of those. Instead, I have been finding myself daydreaming about hosting a group (online, but not on the giant social media network you’re thinking of) for new moms who want the support of an experienced doula to talk through your earliest parenting challenges, but especially, to help you stay true to you as you find your way as a mom. To help you keep your goals and needs front and center, to learn to listen to your intuition, and to remember to take care of yourself when things are especially hard.
If you’d rather not be on your own as you try to figure out feeding, sleeping, and the new version of you, and you’d like join a small, cozy group of newborn moms to share in each other’s experiences, struggles, and joys, let me know! If there’s enough interest, I’ll send you a follow-up link with more details and a personal invitation to become a founding member!
This motherhood journey is not an easy road to walk, and some parts of it can feel downright gruelling. My sincere wish is that you’ll never feel alone as you walk this road, so if you need a hand, let me know and we can walk the next little stretch together.