The most important thing I’ve been told in this early stage of motherhood is “the postpartum period is two years long.”
I was required to receive a psychological evaluation from a therapist who specialized in pregnancy, postpartum, and motherhood, as part of the process of donating eggs (that’s another blog post). At the time, I was in between trips abroad and was commuting weekly by plane to LA. It was a stressful situation and it was hard to know when my feelings of stress and anxiety were too much. This is an emotional state that I’m sure a lot of us can relate to now – how do you manage stress, when do you seek help, when your life is simply stressful with no end in sight? The therapist asked whether I had experienced any postpartum depression, and I said I wasn’t sure how to answer: I’d had a hard time bonding with my children early on, but my doctor told me I should only consider it postpartum depression if it persisted for more than a couple of weeks and it didn’t; I was repeatedly flagged by my kids’ pediatricians for depression, but they never told me to seek help; I had anticipated depression, because I have a history of it, but when I moved across the country I lost continuity of care with my therapist and so I had no one to guide me through my emotional changes. And by the time I was asked to evaluate my emotional state, I figured it was so long after giving birth that any anxiety I was feeling couldn’t be related. But this therapist performing the psych evaluation pulled no punches. She told me that the anxiety I was feeling might be related to the stressful situations in my life, but that I couldn’t separate that from having had children, and, more importantly, I was still in the postpartum period and it was important that I seek help.
She was definitely right. I started to admit to myself that what I was feeling was serious and so much more than a reluctance to leave my family. Of course, even if it had just been all the travelling, that still would have been reason enough to see a therapist. During my first trip abroad, I was deeply depressed and began to experience thoughts of suicide and self-harm, which is very far outside my personal symptoms of depression. But it took me until just before my last trip to start talking to a therapist, and just after I got back to start medication. Those depressive feelings had so much more weighing on them than just travel. There was the constant feeling of loneliness that came on as soon as I gave birth; there were the strange and painful changes to my body; there was the process of learning how to take care of two (!) infants at the same time; there was the frustration of breastfeeding, pumping, and attempting to travel with milk; there was the exhaustion of waking up before dawn to feed my children (and that was with my husband going to sleep after midnight to do their earlier feeding); there was the new wave of loneliness that came with stopping breastfeeding when I left for my first trip; and there was the sense of having missed out each time I came home and had to adjust to the fact that I was no longer an expert on my kids, that they had grown and developed beyond what I knew about them while I’d been gone. I made peace with the idea that I would miss major developmental milestones while I was gone, but I didn’t realize how disorienting it would feel to come home and have to learn a whole new set of routines and preferences each time.
But as I’m coming up on the two year mark, I’m surprised to find that things really do feel different (and it’s not just the drugs). That two-year period is about both me as a person who experienced a major medical and life event, and my children, who have developed into what my dad calls “the smallest possible unit of a person” in that same time. Part of the period of infancy is stressful just because infants create stress. They are developing their capacities to see, think, eat, move, and want. They don’t know what they need or want, they don’t know how to express it, and they can’t get it themselves. The hardest time in my kids’ infancy was when one of them couldn’t sit up on their own, but they wanted to see everything, so they insisted that someone be holding them up so they could look around at all times. Now, at almost two years old, my kids can talk, they have nuanced preferences, they have relationships with each other, and they have self-soothing mechanisms. They feed themselves. They ask to do specific activities. They negotiate. They still can’t express everything, and there are a lot of things that upset them, but now they need me more to facilitate and supervise than to do everything for them (like literally putting food in their mouths and making sure they don’t choke on it).
For me, the personal changes have been slower and harder to track, but also significant. We talk about “returning to normal” after pregnancy, but that’s like saying you’re going to return to normal after puberty. You’re in a new life stage – maybe your body will look the same as before to the casual observer, but it’s never really going to be the same. Some changes feel good and some feel bad, but in reality they’re neutral – it’s just a new normal. Just last week, my stomach muscles knit themselves together just a bit more when I discovered perhaps the most patriarchy-justifying form of exercise, pushing a stroller while walking briskly. Emotionally, I’m finding that I have a new kind of patience I never used to need before – patience for repetition. A big part of toddler learning is doing the same thing many times, repeating words, and testing limits. This process can be… trying as a parent. Sometimes we hide books that we are sick of reading half a dozen times a day. Sometimes I don’t know that I can repeat my request that my child not touch the washing machine buttons another time. I’m a patient person, but this kind of patience is about understanding why this same thing still holds something new for my child, even though I’m long past the point of enjoyment. I also feel that even though I still experience stress and anxiety, and even depression from time to time, these feelings are different from the postpartum issues I was having. I’m no longer preoccupied with death. I no longer feel sad about not breastfeeding. I still cry when I’m really tired, and I still feel lonely sometimes, but I experience these occasionally and circumstantially, rather than as part of my daily routine.
Two years postpartum, I feel comfortable with the title of “mom”. I know who I am as a mom. I don’t have to make excuses about being more than just a mom or being a young mom. It’s part of what I am, like my height or my hair color. It’s not who I am, it’s just an aspect of my life. My kids are members of my family, and we have a relationship – they’re not just my job, and the affection doesn’t mostly go one way anymore.
So, yes, the postpartum period is two years. It’s two years to adjust to a new way of being, to a new version of yourself, to a new person (or people) in your life. It’s hard not to look back on it through rose-colored glasses, mostly because those kids were so darn cute and nothing compares to holding their warm, squishy little bodies against your chest. But at the same time, the hardships of that period were real, and they can have a lasting impact. I’m looking ahead to the next phase, even knowing what people say about the terrible twos and threenagers and all that. It’s the next phase of my life, and in that sense it’s exciting.