What happens after the baby is born?

Concepts like “recovery” or “rest” often conjure up ideas of weakness, which is weird when you think that Olympians – the highest performing athletes in the world – understand the concept very well.

They know that you need to rest in order to go out and smash a gold medal. That the body and mind need preparation and recovery before they dial up to their highest setting again.

But when it comes to the postnatal period, there’s very little discussion or focus on the idea that we might want to plan or be in charge of our own recovery. There’s a strange cultural silence around what happens after the baby is born, because we’re so worried about frightening pregnant women that we think it’s better to just not mention anything at all.

I think that the opposite is true – that it is empowering to be the ultimate boss of your own self-care, the curator of your own recovery package. Acknowledging that our bodies and minds are put under more duress in pregnancy and birth than they ever will be again is not a sign of weakness. It’s a fact and a testament to the ultimate fierceness required to bear and mother a child.

Recovery and progression are often slower than we might expect and it’s easy to feel impatient and frustrated. It can take great strength to readjust our expectations and design our lives to prioritise our own mental and physical health as we navigate this path. It can mean being courageous enough to reach out and ask for help even though it goes against your deeply held belief that strength is self-sufficiency. It can be banning visitors for the first month. It can be saying “sorry I can’t come, I’d love to see you but today I have to prioritise preserving my energy”.

All other aspects of your postnatal recovery will be individual to you. Only you can decide what you need and when. It might involve:

  • staying at home in your pyjamas for weeks

  • getting out for some fresh air or going to a gallery to feed your soul even though you’re sleep deprived

  • telling your office you don’t want a baby shower but instead vouchers for healthy ready meals delivered to your house

  • investing in a doula to support you at home

  • resting even if you can’t sleep

  • making an appointment with a pelvic floor specialist

  • going for a solitary walk around the park while someone else holds the baby

  • having a glass of wine with your best friend on your sofa

  • Skyping your mum at 11am every day

  • Going to a postnatal yoga class

It can be very helpful to think about how you might want your postnatal recovery to look before you have a baby. Like a birth plan, it can be helpful to have this as a set of preferences with the proviso that you can change it up depending on how you feel when you’re in the thick of it.

Motherhood is something to be ultimately celebrated but is also an initiation that requires great care and support. But there’s help and resources out there, and people who will encourage you and be your cheerleader. You’re really not alone, and feeling that you’re in charge of your postnatal destiny can be a huge game-changer.

Breaking up with booze

I was never totally wild but I binge drank through university and my 20s, as is normal in our culture for young people and lots of older ones too. Then I moved onto a more mature way of drinking – less bingeing but still drinking most nights, a few glasses of wine or beer or gin and tonic. It was a way to mark the end of the day. Someone with an addict in their family told me what they tell you about alcoholics at Al-Anon - that a good day needs to be celebrated with a drink, and a bad day needs to be commiserated via a drink.

Each little statement like this made me feel uncomfortable because I could identify with it. I have begun to recognise myself in patterns I now see as problematic. The way I would often struggle to get through an evening without a (albeit small) drink. To feel like some things weren’t enjoyable or “worth” doing without a drink. The extent to which I love it - apparently addicts have particularly functional dopamine receptors in their brains (like a pin ball machine, these receptors light up when they get stimulated) and though I was never on the extreme end of the addiction spectrum, I feel a strong response to the pleasurable stuff.

It’s not hard to notice all the ways our culture, and the market, endorses reaching for a drink. A cold glass on a hot day. A cosy red on a cold night. A sparkling to celebrate. A g&t in the bath. A beer with a curry. Football, the races, birthdays, weddings, Christmas, hot days, cold days, lunches, dinners, brunches, pubs, restaurants, winter, spring, summer. There are so many ways to embrace this romance and they are all woven deeply into the tapestry of our culture and our own bodies too.

After my daughter was born I pretty much micro-dosed myself with evening wine to decompress from the massive pressure I felt and to numb out from mild postnatal depression. Micro-dosing is still dosing though. Recently two things have happened – my body has reduced its tolerance, already low, to alcohol so that even after one small glass of wine I feel tired and mildly anxious the next day. In this light the pleasure is almost always outweighed by the pain, so it seems crazy to keep going in the way I always did just because I have an old fondness for the stuff.

And secondly I have just stopped wanting to keep doing this. Not completely by any means, but in the way I always have done - just giving in, because alcohol is nice. The numbing out instead of feeling wide awake and aware. A depressant inhibits the activity of the central nervous system, impairing and slowing down our reactions and processes – all of which feels great sometimes, but also not generally what I want. I think adults should be allowed to decide to drink what they want, when they want, except a lot of us are lying to ourselves about how we use alcohol and the question “how much do you actually want to drink?” gets complicated with addictive substances. Wanting to drink a certain amount right now is different to saying that you will feel the same tomorrow morning or overall in your life.

Brene Brown (sober for 23 years) said “I see drinking culture as a great cover for pain”. She also said “I’ve watched “civilised drinking” ravage the lives of so many families and friends that I’ve developed no interest in it at all.”

The idea that as long as you’re not drinking a bottle of vodka at breakfast then there’s no problem at all is in itself problematic. The pissed mum jokes (mug of wine at teatime, gin at bath-time) have become unsettling to me, part of our society’s dirty secret - that we pretend to love alcohol because it’s delicious and we’re essentially fun and young at heart, oh go on then but really we need it more than we feel comfortable with - often as a cover, a coping mechanism, a crutch to cope with difficult times (I have used it for all these things).

I have also used it as a distraction from things I don’t want to think about and as a way to numb my way out of pain, boredom, frustration. Sometimes crutches are ok, and sometimes they start to feel like they are holding you back.

When you love alcohol and misuse it, however mildly, it’s a massive downer when someone criticises your poison. A bit like the friend you go to meet in the evening who says “I’m not drinking tonight” when you’d been looking forward to sharing a certain experience with them, which triggers us  because we a. really want a drink and b. don’t want anyone to ruin our fun or make us feel judged or like we have a problem, however minor that problem is in comparison to more extreme problems (let’s be honest, a lot of us use the “I’m not as bad as that person!” argument to justify not really looking in the mirror). And because half the time we’ve forgotten how to have a nice time without it.

Like anything that “triggers” us it can be revealing to ask ourselves why we feel that way. I write this from no position of authority, moral or otherwise, especially because by many people’s standards I drank too much for too long, particularly in terms of my job in the “wellness industry” and my other job as “mother” (would you be embarrassed if something happened to your child and you’d had too many drinks to drive them to hospital?)

Clarity - this is what I want and am interested in, and have some experience of the other times I’ve cut out or cut down. What kind of realisations occur when I don’t drink much? What priorities come to the surface?

Like all love affairs I have felt a bit sad about letting go of the good times and a bit concerned that the new less-boozy me is going to be bored or boring. The answer for me is in moderation - actual, regular, lived moderation, and for me that includes cutting down a lot and also getting pissed now and again! I am a big fan of pleasure as an act of self-care, and obviously alcohol can be pleasurable and also slips easily into pain. If I’m going out for some lovely food or meeting a friend, I don’t need alcohol but often I will choose that because I enjoy it and I believe in enjoyment, as long as we’re not creating regular or long-term problems for ourselves or anyone else.

We all need to work out this stuff for ourselves, what our own rules and limits are (for example, I cannot have wine in the house otherwise mate, I’m definitely going to drink it). When we renegotiate something we don’t exactly know what our recalibrated lives will look like, what our relationships look like. But for the first time in a long time, minimising drinking doesn’t feel boring as hell. I’m interested to see what happens when I really wake up.  

Enough space

How to create a space for someone to say what they need to say and feel heard? In the circles of women I sit in every week as part of my classes, I think about the right questions to ask that open a space for someone to contemplate and speak. 

The feeling of a group of empathic people listening to you attentively can be cathartic and therapeutic and a great boost for our self-esteem, as we find a willingness to talk and be heard and take up space in the world. 

Being quiet while the person thinks or speaks, however long they need, is an obvious way to create this space. And the non-verbal stuff like nodding, keeping eye contact, making sure my body language is open and receptive.

Sometimes it feels appropriate to say something after they’ve finished speaking that validates what they’ve said. And sometimes it feels better to leave the space open afterwards, so the extra room isn’t filled by me placing myself in the middle of it (an interruption, a rupture in a moment, moving attention from them to me).

Sometimes it works to open the space up to others and ask if they have anything to add. Sometimes it feels ok to say something about my own experience and sometimes it doesn’t. On the one hand, this isn’t about me; on the other hand it can be helpful to hear others’ experiences and I don’t like placing myself in the position of unattached, robotic observer. 

And at times I do one of these things and reflect that another option might have been more appropriate. Unless you’re psychic it’s impossible to get this stuff “right” all the time but if the intention is there I’d argue that’s the most important thing. 

In my family when either I or my partner try and solve each other’s problems one of us usually ends up realising that the person just wanted to be heard, not have solutions offered. Actually it’s simple to say “that sounds really hard. I’m sorry you’re feeling that way.” To keep listening, and keep the space wide open for every imaginable, legitimate feeling to be felt. 

Less Prep, More Presence

I met a man at a party once and he told me about the speech he’d made at his wedding. He said he’d realised he spoke in public most effectively when he didn’t over-plan what he was going to say, so he just had 5 or 6 important points written down and trusted that he would say the right thing in the moment.

Trust. I loved that and wished I could take that kind of leap. But I know myself - I’m not great at ad libbing and need to have done a certain amount of planning to do a decent job in terms of speaking in front of people or holding space in a room. Still, it made me think about the nature of preparation and where I might be able to trust myself more. When can preparation help us? When can it hinder us from having useful and interesting experiences, i.e. do we miss out on something spontaneous and exciting because we’re too busy sticking to the plan?

As a yoga teacher, if you’re totally wedded to the plan you’ve created, you can end up teaching a class that doesn’t work for the bodies in the room. You teach it just because that’s the one you’re determined to stick to, because you worked so hard on it and it’s all colour coded in your notebook and it’s the class you’re going to teach goddammit.

You also expend a lot of your energy on executing the practicalities of the plan and less energy and time on … well, just being you. And your presence means something. Your ability to be there, in space, in the moment. That’s at least half the reason people are in the room with you.

So spending a good degree of time thinking about how I want to show up, not just preparing the technicalities, is just as important. If I feel calm “in the room” and with a clear intention of the bigger picture – what I want people to get out of being in the room that day, or each time they practice with me – then I feel like I teach better than when I remember the exact sequence, moment by moment.

It’s a bit like spending time with kids – the perfect days out you plan are often less valuable to them than simply you being fully with them. I think my daughter often ends up having more fun playing at home than anything elaborate I’ve prepared for. The simple stuff. My arms, my thoughts. My presence – which can sometimes be the hardest thing to give fully, especially if you have other stuff going on (like trying to get work done, or wash up, or be there for another child).

I’d like to be “in the room” with her, and I know that it’s impossible sometimes, because of other priorities, tiredness or my mind being elsewhere. We’re only human after all, and worrying we’re not present enough shouldn’t be anotherthing mothers feel guilty about. But maybe the prep vs presence question can help us whether the challenge is parenting or work or relationships or so on. How do we “prepare” or care for ourselves to allow us to be present for other people? Maybe sometimes we can let go of the details or technicalities or fancy frills and trust we’re enough, exactly as we are.

Call it in

One of the cornerstones of yoga, meditation and other “spiritual practices” is that feelings aren’t facts – they are not immutable truths about you or anything else. So while I’m a big fan of feeling your feelings and not denying or running away from your emotions, there’s also much truth in the idea that we can significantly shift our experience of our lives.

This is different from someone insisting you should “cheer up” or count yourself lucky, the kind of toxic positivity that leaves us feeling unvalidated and lonely.

It’s considering the times when we can call in some kind of positive emotion that will lift our mood and experience of a situation.

I’ve picked up a gratitude practice again, but this time instead of counting my blessings at night while I lie in bed, I’ve started writing them down in the morning. From the tiny things to the big things, they are my reasons to feel thankful.

I did it because I don’t want to be a slave to my feelings and forget to see all the good things right in front of me. It’s a life-changing practice. Coming from a place of gratitude is coming from a place of fullness and richness instead of scarcity and insecurity. It feels very empowering to imagine I can “call in” feelings of gratitude, joy, hope, strength, bliss.

I’ve played with this when I meditate, visualising these feelings coming into my body – sometimes feeling them as a colour or with a form, like a light or moving through me like smoke. I do it when I move in a yoga practice with my hands or spine opening to receive a feeling, or when I run through the house playing chase with my daughter.

I do it when I remember to stop. When I stand on the back step and feel the sun on my face or the wind whipping up, as if nature can shift my state (because it can, of course).

If I was having a terrible day or a terrible time generally I wouldn’t imagine I could wave my wand and transform my feelings – we’ve got to be true to our experiences otherwise it feels like a lie we’re telling ourselves. At times of fatigue or sadness I just feel what I feel. But when the energy lifts or a door seems to open somewhere, that can be a time when it helps us to remember that we’re more powerful than we might think. That we have the ability to cast small spells on our perception of life.

What's Your Medicine

There's so much stuff we can do for ourselves, to make us feel a little better. We can try things and become more skilled at knowing which medicine works, and when.

In the workshop I ran last Sunday we did guided writing, where I asked a question and the group had time to use writing as a way to explore an answer. It's a therapeutic experience because what comes out on paper can be a much more ordered version of what’s in our jumbled, overwhelmed minds. Or what comes out is disordered and jumbled but our minds feel clearer and more spacious afterwards.

When our conscious and semi conscious thoughts and feelings go down on paper, they sometimes surprise us. They draw out themes or make us remember things we know deep down. It is kind of a gift, someone asking you a question about your experiences and allowing you space and time to explore it. 

Outside of a workshop, is this a gift you can offer yourself? I’ve kept journals sporadically throughout my life but the habit always fell away. I think I struggled with it because I was too concerned about it being presentable or palatable to myself or my future self who would read it or anyone else who would come snooping.

Something that’s stuck a little more for me are “morning pages”. This approach is from Julia Cameron’s The Artists Way, a book about unblocking creativity. The idea is that you fill 3 pages (ideally first thing in the morning but any time is good) with freely written, unselfconscious words. It can be about anything because it’s the process not the product that matters.

It doesn’t have to be neat or tidy or spelled correctly or make any sense or be nice or rational or kind. It can be full of fear or fury or sadness or joy or frustration or excitement. You can even chuck the pages away afterwards if you want. 

Sit for a few minutes and scrawl freely. Just for you, right now. It doesn’t matter if nothing much comes out. See how it feels to try and turn on the tap. See how you feel afterwards. In my experience it's almost always better, a little more aware, a little more conscious. A little more ready to face the day.