The Fourth Trimester
Over the past several months I’ve written approximately 3 blog posts that ramble on and on about everything I’ve wanted to share about my journey as a mother, thus far, for my own catharsis. I haven’t posted a single one. I haven’t really finished a single one. Yet here I sit attempting, again, to get my thoughts out of my head and onto paper (so to speak) while Isla takes an infamous “cat nap.”
Here goes nothing…
Six and a half-ish months ago I was blessed beyond measure with the most precious gift in the entire world. I had a wonderful pregnancy, an amazing (and surprisingly non-medicated) labor and delivery, and a healthy newborn baby girl. I remember feeling so incredibly empowered by my experience. I see women give birth all the time as a labor and delivery nurse, but I never knew how truly life affirming it was until I had Isla. She nursed like a champ and I mentally checked that off my list of postpartum worries (ha!) and although I was sore ALL OVER, I had never been happier in my entire life. I was released from the hospital after 36 hours and was sent off into the world to care for this tiny, perfect, life we created. I was nervous but ready for the challenge ahead, not fully comprehending the hormonal shit storm that was about to hit as I entered into the “fourth trimester.”
The “fourth trimester” is a term coined for the first 3 months postpartum with your newborn; a period of rapid growth and change (for all involved parties)! If my pregnancy and labor and delivery were easy, the fourth trimester was anything but. WHAT A DOOZY. Why doesn’t anyone talk about how incredibly difficult this time of transition is? Why don’t you see it on your friend’s social media accounts? Why don’t people talk about all the shitty stuff that comes with having a newborn? For all you know they take home a perfectly healthy baby that rarely cries, nurses or bottle feeds like a champ, sleeps well, loves its car seat, never spits up, never has gas pain, mom never struggles, and the parents live in perfect harmony with one another and their perfect little baby. Well, guess what… that is NOT what happens. Maybe it does for some people (*rolls eyes*) but for most, it is incredibly challenging, exhausting, overwhelming, messy, and surprisingly lonely at times. My personal belief is that social media plays a huge role in new mothers (and just people in general) feeling inadequate.
Why is my house not that clean? Why is my hair not brushed and my face not perfectly made up? Why didn’t I get to eat breakfast or lunch? Why does her baby sleep so well? Why does she always get to go out without her baby? Why is this so easy for her?
The thing about social media is that it’s a highlight reel of people’s lives; we don’t see every aspect, yet we constantly compare our experiences to what we perceive other’s experiences to be. I bet you anything the person whose life you’re envying has struggled in many of the same ways with the transition of becoming a first-time mom. You think maybe it isn’t normal to not be head over heels in love with your new life all of the time. You think maybe you’re less of a mother because of it. I’m here to tell you that you’re not broken, and it is perfectly okay to mourn your old life a little bit as you settle into your new one, and your new role as a mother. It doesn’t mean you love your baby any less; it doesn’t make you a bad mother.
I’ll go ahead and share some of my experiences as a new mom, as well as some of my experiences during the fourth trimester. It’s raw and real and makes me completely vulnerable (which I hate) but who knows… maybe it will help others understand that what they’re going through is NORMAL!! Sure it’s beautiful, sure it’s amazing, yes you’re in love like you’ve never been in love before, but it also sucks! It’s hard. It’s exhausting.
But guess what… it gets SO MUCH BETTER!
I chose to breastfeed Isla and hoped to God it would work out, as I know that’s not always the case. In the first few days at home I remember thinking my milk wouldn’t come in, already feeling like maybe I wouldn’t be enough, and I asked Nick to go to the store to get some beer for a little assistance. I ended up never drinking it because my milk came in that night with a vengeance. WHY hadn’t anybody told me how uncomfortable it would be? Whyyyyy?!? My insurance had required me to order my breast pump after I delivered so I didn’t even have it to help empty my newly ginormous boobs that nearly drown my child during every feed. I literally went from an A cup to a D cup over night, and it’s the only place from my entire pregnancy that I got any stretch marks… go figure.
The adrenaline that had powered me through the last 72+ hours or so was quickly wearing off and reality was quickly sinking in. Nipples about to fall off? Check. Boobs feel like they might explode? Check check. Attempt to literally milk myself in the shower to alleviate some discomfort because I don’t have a breast pump yet? Check check check. Oh, the things nobody tells you…
Soon after my milk came in I got a plugged duct (and several since) that was well on its way to mastitis and was put on antibiotics that night (thanks Maggie). I happened to have a house full of visitors when I discovered what was happening… THAT was extra unpleasant. Hormonal breakdown numero uno? CHECK! As that cleared up, another problem arose in the form of oversupply and a strong letdown. How fun. I know, I know… there are many women who struggle with supply that would probably like to smack me for complaining about having too much milk. Isla would literally choke and sputter while she attempted to eat from the Niagara Falls that were my breasts and pull off continuously as I had a letdown she could not manage. This meant I, and everything around me, was CONSTANTLY covered in sticky, smelly, breastmilk. I had to lay flat on my back with her laying on top of me to nurse so that gravity could work in our favor and she could tolerate a feeding. Breastfeeding is supposed to be super portable and convenient, right? Let me just take a quick trip out of the house with the baby, lay down in the middle of an aisle in Target and nurse her….
Okay, I’m being dramatic but that’s how postpartum hormones work. Everything that complicates the idea you had in your head feels like the end of the world. This particular breastfeeding hurdle had me going full on hermit until she could manage the flow a bit better. With oversupply your baby tends to get too much of the watery foremilk and not enough of the fatty hindmilk which can cause all sorts of issues. Yep, that’s a real thing… 2 different “types” of milk. I had no idea. The amount of stressing I did about foremilk and hindmilk in the beginning has me cringing as I even type the words out. I had to literally force myself to STOP with the google overload, trust that I knew my body and my baby and just hope for the best. My milk supply has since regulated (it took about 12 weeks and lots of fine tuning) and I’m much less Pamela Anderson-esque these days, but the stretch marks remain as a taunting reminder of that one time I had big boobs.
Isla had a whole slew of tummy troubles and at 2 weeks old was sent for imaging and a consult with a pediatric surgeon to rule out a potentially serious digestive issue. She ended up being fine (of course), but it completely killed my confidence as a brand-new mother in those early weeks. I questioned EVERYTHING. I literally measured her abdomen daily and stressed about poop like I never thought I would (I’d like to tell you that ends…but I don’t think it does). Although I believed her stomach problems were a byproduct of my oversupply of breastmilk, I was told by her pediatrician to cut dairy, soy, wheat, caffeine, peanuts and spices. Okay, sure… let me go do that as a ravenous, hormonal, breastfeeding woman. Plus, Nick had just made brownies… I wanted the damn brownies!! Talk about overwhelming and overkill. I ended up eating only chicken and rice for like a week and then came to my senses and limited my dietary restrictions to just dairy as I seem to have a family history of that being the issue. I say just dairy like that didn’t feel incredibly crippling and overwhelming in the beginning but don’t be fooled, it was awful and I barely ate.
Over the course of a few weeks she seemed to be doing much better but I was a mess and I was wasting away. She hadn’t yet mastered nursing, I hadn’t yet mastered nursing, and I felt like I was making her sick with my breastmilk. I cried every time I attempted to feed her and she couldn’t handle the flow. I felt like I couldn’t eat anything without hurting her. I was my own worst enemy at this point. I was so back and forth about quitting breastfeeding altogether and formula feeding her with specialty formula. I mentally noted the pros and cons of making the switch. Pros: I would know how much she was getting, I would know she wasn’t getting any dairy on accident, and my body would no longer be solely responsible for keeping her alive; a fact that kind of messes with your head when you can’t even see if they’re eating enough. Cons: I wouldn’t get to nurse my baby anymore. The attachment that comes along with breastfeeding is unreal, even when it’s difficult. While I believe fed is best and there is nothing wrong with formula feeding a baby, it was a choice I struggled with greatly before I attempted to begin the weening process. I had friends comfort me through the decision, not pushing me one way or the other) and for that, I am grateful. I decided that, for my sanity and Isla’s “well-being,” I would try to ween her onto formula. Our pediatrician gave us a sample of specialty formula and I attempted to get her to take it one afternoon. She SCREAMED and refused it altogether. She was hungry and frustrated…she was crying, and I was crying. I put her to the breast, she calmed down immediately and nursed right away. In that moment, I knew I wasn’t ready to stop breastfeeding and it was the clarity I needed. I felt a weight lift off my shoulders and, for the first time, felt confident in my decision. From that point forward, I stopped pouting about the sacrifices I was having to make and completely embraced our own unique breastfeeding relationship and I’ve never looked back. Well, maybe not never. It’s definitely difficult to see other moms go out and actually get time away from their baby when there is no true “time away” for a breastfeeding mother. If you’re separated from your baby you’re pumping…and pumping is quite possibly the worst part about breastfeeding. Even so, I’ve come to terms with all that it entails and absolutely love nursing Isla. It is the most special part of our relationship and I wouldn’t trade it for the world. I will never tire of our time together in those (mostly) quiet moments, just her and I. Now that she is almost 7 months old people ask me all the time when I plan to stop, and the truth is I don’t know when I’ll stop. I do know that neither of us are ready now, or anytime in the near future.
I read somewhere that once you think you’ve got it all figured out with your baby and you have a nice routine going, something changes and you’re back to square one. No truer words have ever been spoken. The only constant with a baby is that every single thing is constantly changing.
While I admit it wasn’t a long-term solution, Nick and I seemed to have quite the dysfunctional, yet functional, routine going for the first couple of weeks home with Isla. Sometime in the evening I would shower while he did daddy duty after a long day of work. We would eat dinner and then Nick would hold Isla from about 10pm-1am on the couch while she slept in his arms and I slept next to them. It was the only way she would give us a good stretch. I didn’t want Nick sleeping with her in his arms though, so he stayed awake each and every time. God that sounds awful just typing it…I don’t know how he did it, but it was the longest stretch of sleep I got every day. It was amazing and awful at the same time. However, it was clear we needed a better routine and the tiniest member of the household definitely forced our hands on that one. Seemingly out of nowhere she wanted me and ONLY me. You would think Nick was torturing her with the way she reacted to him holding her. Just like that, overnight, I lost my nighttime routine partner for many, many nights. It was awful.
I would love to sit here and tell you that I handled that particular hurdle with patience and grace but I’m not here to add to the highlight reel and hopefully my honesty will allow someone to feel more human on a super challenging day.
I spent my days alone with Isla. Alone with a baby that Nick lovingly referred to as a potato in the newborn days. Pretty accurate. I couldn’t go anywhere without her having a complete meltdown in the car seat, so I didn’t go anywhere. I spent all day, every day, alone with a baby attached to me… covered in breastmilk, unfed, unkempt, tired, and lonely. As soon as Nick would get home I would be DYING for a break and I wouldn’t get one…she wouldn’t allow it. I would leave her totally content, go take a shower and come back to her screaming bloody murder for apparently the entire time I was “gone.” I would get so incredibly angry at Nick for not being able to comfort her even though I knew it wasn’t his fault. I felt bad for Nick, I felt bad for Isla, and I felt bad for myself. Wasn’t this supposed to be an amazing experience? I knew she needed and wanted only me and that there wasn’t anything anyone else could do to alleviate that, but it didn’t make it any easier for me to cope with in the beginning. Like clockwork, at 6pm, every evening Isla would completely lose her shit for hours on end and I was the only one who could even come close to keeping her calm. Just when I would get to see Nick for the first time all day, just when I would finally get his help, she would cry and cry and cry. This went on for many weeks and nearly broke me. Nothing tests a marriage like a colicky newborn.
We had family offer to help us out in the evenings, and once my sister even came over to hold her through her screams so that I could get a break. It didn’t work…I held her and eventually rocked her to sleep myself. The thing about being a mother is, that even through your own misery you will still be the one to hold your miserable baby- no questions asked. If it means they will be even just a smidge less miserable because they’re with you, you do it. You won’t be able to sit back and hear her cry in someone else’s arms no matter how badly you need a break. So each night, nerves frayed and hormones raging, you hold your baby and attempt to comfort her and retreat further and further into the depths of motherhood that only a mother can understand.
I was kind of taken aback by all of the crying that comes with the fourth trimester, and I’m not just referring to Isla. I would be fine all day. I would feed Isla (a lot) and she would sleep (a lot) on my chest. I would sleep with her or watch Netflix, it really was quite amazing at times. Yet, every evening around 4 pm I would cry. I would cry knowing I would be completely alone in comforting Isla during the witching hours. I would cry knowing I’d be completely alone feeding her throughout the night. I would cry knowing Nick could not help me, even though I knew he’d do anything to be able to. I would cry every evening like clockwork, just like Isla. Then suddenly, one night she didn’t cry at 6pm…she didn’t really cry at all. And just like that, the witching hours were no more and Isla not only felt safe in my arms, but she also felt safe with Nick…but damn, those weeks were difficult!
As soon as the witching hours ended a new challenge arose, because why the hell not? Just in time for me to return to work, Isla suddenly had a very real case of stranger danger…and anyone that was not Nick or myself counted as a stranger. My sister came over to watch Isla while Nick and I went out to celebrate our second wedding anniversary. She cried almost the entire time and refused to eat. That was the end of March and I was going back to work on April 4th. I was completely stressed out about whether or not she would eat for the sitter (my cousin, Lexi) when I went back to work. It was a little rough in the beginning but she ate more and more each day, and eachday she was better with new people.
As Isla got better at basically coping with life outside of the womb, and I got the hang of this motherhood thing, life just got sweeter and sweeter. She now sleeps in her own room, rides completely content in the car seat, nurses like it’s her damn job, takes a bottle like a champ, LOVES her daddy, and is literally the happiest baby girl ever! Whenever Nick and I do something with Isla I find myself saying “she was so good! I’m so proud of her!” The truth is, she’s almost always good these days, I just have PTSD from the beginning I guess (kidding). Nick and I flow so well through our routine, each knowing and complimenting the role of the other. Of course, there are still days that feel unending and days where nothing seems to feel quite right, but for the most part, life is pretty damn good. Isla will be 7 months next week and it feels like just yesterday she was a newborn. Those early days are rough but fleeting. My advice to any new mom would be to take a step back and enjoy this time of transition- the good, the bad, and the ugly. LEAN ON YOUR VILLAGE. Between co-worker’s, friends, and family, I always had someone to turn to when my sleepless mind was filled with unending questions. Tell your partner you love them every day, kiss them every day, and remember you’re on the same team. Live life in the moment and as a friend once told me, “don’t wish away any of it.”Before you know it, you find yourself craving the snuggly sweetness of a newborn you watched disappear before your very eyes.
For the record, this post took me about a week of “cat naps” to complete…