On not “bouncing back”

May 2, 2017

I was looking at pictures of Kaia as a newborn, a form of self-torture akin to reading “If I Could Keep You Little,” and it brought me back to the early weeks of motherhood when I’d spend hours snuggling my sleeping baby, stare at her face and breathe in her smell, completely astonished that I created her, and ate every meal with one hand. I have so many fond memories of that time — of the warm weight of Kaia on my chest, of her lifting her tightly-clenched fists over her head whenever she woke up, and of the chirps and squeaks she’d make during tummy time. While those early days were some of the happiest days of my life, there was quite a bit of sadness thrown in, and when I see pictures of myself from that time, I can remember it like it was yesterday.

In the early days, I was running solely on oxytocin, coming to grips with my new reality and a new dimension added to the definition of who I am — calling myself someone’s mom. I found myself flabbergasted each time I nursed Kaia, each time I held her, each time I pushed her in her stroller, when it would hit me that she was my daughter, she was not going anywhere, and this was now my life. For the next several months, after the initial shock wore off, I am not ashamed to admit that I felt nearly as low as I did when I had depression. I wasn’t upset about being a mother, and I didn’t regret making a decision to have a child — and yet, I was deeply unhappy. Most of my unhappiness stemmed from the dramatic shift in my relationships with the people I loved. Alex and I, mostly in our tiredness, all but completely stopped speaking to each other. The person who I had considered my best friend for nearly 10 years, the person who I used to talk to for hours at the end of the work day, didn’t feel like my best friend anymore. Some of my close family members seemed to stop caring about me at all. They would text or call to ask about Kaia, never once taking the time to ask how I was feeling or how I was doing. None of my family members came to visit me and meet my daughter. My friends without kids disappeared into thin air. When Alex returned to work, I would go a week or more without talking to a single other human face-to-face. I didn’t listen to music, which always had the ability to make me feel better, for months. Along with the loss of a majority of my social support, I lost myself, too. There was a stranger living in my body, and I didn’t recognize myself. I looked in the mirror and saw someone 20-25 lbs heavier than they were pre-pregnancy, I would stand up and walk only to feel excruciating pain, I was always dizzy, my eyes were red and swollen due to my nearly-constant crying, and I looked and felt completely empty.

In 2011, a study conducted by Dr. Julie Wray found that it can take one year for a woman to recover from childbirth. This is certainly much longer than the 6 weeks most often cited, and in my case, is far more true to my reality. Eight months after Kaia’s birth, I am only now beginning to feel like myself again. I’m starting to remember who I am outside of being a mom, outside of being eight months postpartum. It has been a few weeks now that I have been able to take steps without searing pain. Only recently have more people asked about how I am doing instead of asking only about Kaia — and talking about myself has helped me remember that I am a real person. Since Kaia started sleeping a few weeks ago and I got more time to actually speak to Alex before we went to bed, I feel like I have my best friend back. I’m definitely not near my pre-pregnancy weight and still 20-25 lbs heavier than I was (depending on the day — ha!), and while some days I am hard on myself about that, I’m feeling better about what I’m working with (my worth isn’t defined by the number on the scale or the hoard of clothes I possess that no longer fit), and starting to care about putting in the effort to look like myself again. My non-parent friends have started coming around more often, and with that, conversations that don’t involve children have started becoming part of my life again — and that. is. so. important. I am starting to feel passionate once more about the things that used to matter to me like mental health research, my thesis, therapy, writing books, writing in this blog, and photography. Slowly but surely, I’m starting to feel like myself again.

Beginning in elementary school, I was inundated with messages that told me it was shameful to look or seem like you had ever given birth. I heard men shame the bodies of pregnant and postpartum women, and listened as they said that all their wives did after having a baby was sit around, get fat, watch daytime TV, and give up their dreams. They used a woman’s accomplishment, their pain, their inability to push themselves to the limits because of silly little things like putting their child first or potentially hemorrhaging to death as weapons against them. Women in my life boasted about how they were back in their old jeans two weeks postpartum, or how they never stopped socializing, or how they never stopped doing the things they loved, or how they changed absolutely nothing about their lives to accommodate their new motherhood or their infant, and they wore these things like a badge of honor. I started to feel like there was no other choice but to have that same experience or else I was somehow less of a person, less of a mother, less of a woman. I thought I had to pretend like nothing ever happened by the time I was wheeled into my postpartum hospital room, have a dinner made from scratch on the day I came home from the hospital, socialize with my friends the next week, and fit into my pre-pregnancy clothes by 3 months, maximum, postpartum. Looking back, I feel a little ridiculous for ever taking those messages to heart and for even thinking that there was a possibility that all evidence that I had grown a human for 42 weeks could simply be erased so quickly. I feel more ridiculous for believing that I somehow owed the erasure of my pregnancy, my painful labor, the changes in my brain, the changes in my body, and the changes in my life to the world.

There has been no bouncing back over here, just a whole lot of adaptation. I had to adjust to my new physical limitations, adjust to far less free time and learn to incorporate my hobbies into my life once more, adjust to my changing relationship with Alex, adjust to life with a new human being in my household which meant navigating new waters in friendship, and eating more sandwiches than cooking hot meals. There was also that whole exclusively breastfeeding thing I had going on which made me ravenously hungry and contributed to my inability to lose weight at warp speed. My life changed dramatically, and I’m not ashamed.

Comparison really is the thief of joy, especially in motherhood. There is no use in comparing myself to my best friend with two babies that slept through the night by 12 weeks, or the friend that lost 40 lbs in two months, or the friend that was able to run 6 weeks postpartum, or the person who continued with business as usual hours after coming home from the hospital, or the woman who declared that she could never understand why people thought having a newborn was so hard. Those are their experiences and their realities — and those experiences are okay and those experiences are valid. But this is my experience and my reality. It isn’t a test, or a failure, or a wrong answer. It just is — and it is okay and valid, too.

Some days are easy, some days are hard. Sometimes I don’t mind that I have had to change my life so drastically when it feels like Kaia is my little best friend, or when I look at her face and feel like I’ve looked into the face of god. Other times I cry because I haven’t had a chance to read a book, or I cry in a fitting room because I just don’t look the way I used to. I’m still adapting and adjusting, and I feel like that’s just what motherhood is all about.

What has been helping me most lately is getting out of the house more often, making plans for the future, and attempting to dive back into my work, my hobbies, and the things I am passionate about. While standing still for a long while is what I most needed, what I need now is forward motion. I’ll never be the same again. I’m Deena with more facets. The wonderful thing, though, is that I don’t want to be the person I used to be. I desire more than anything to become so comfortable with the person I am now that it feels so natural, like I had never been anything different. I want to do it all again when more children enter my life. The person I am meant to be — the person I want to be — is the person that accommodates those children and the journey I had to navigate to bring them here and raise them. I am starting to feel like myself again simply because I am learning that my self has changed, and this is just who I am. I don’t want to bounce back. And even if I did, that’s just not realistic.

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