This piece is part of our Empowered Birth series, highlighting ways Black women can have birth experiences that leave them and their families feeling safe and respected. Click here for more stories.
You’ve given birth. It’s over. You’re lying in a bed with a tiny human on your chest and the immensity of what just happened crashes through you. It is a wave of love and terror that you’ll be surfing for the rest of your life. Welcome to motherhood. (Don’t be scared, you can do this. I promise.)
What you’ve just entered, more specifically, is called The Fourth Trimester. It’s the first three months of your life as a mother, and it is just as important to your health and the health of your family as the other trimesters were.
It begins as soon as your child is born and your body begins healing itself. No matter how beautiful and empowering your birth experience was, it will also be traumatic to your body. Your organs are shifting, pregnancy hormones are washing themselves out of your blood, and there’s a literal wound where your placenta was attached.
Oh, and you also have a whole human being who you’re responsible for now.
It is so easy to lose yourself. But hold on to you, mama.
This is why most countries and cultures around the globe have rituals and traditions welcoming a new mother and baby into their family and community. The goal is to give mother and baby time and space to focus only on each other. In some cultures, mothers stay in bed and are waited upon by family members, in others there are special foods and bathing rituals. These times of transition are considered sacred and can last up to four months.
But in the U.S., 25% of mothers return to work within two weeks of giving birth. They aren’t doing this because they’re Supermoms who are fully recovered—they’re doing it because they don’t have a choice.
You may not have a choice about when you return to work, either, but there are things that you can plan for now—or before/during your pregnancy—that will help you heal afterward.
I know that everyone has made jokes about how you’re never sleeping again.
I know that mothers can talk about how little sleep they get as a badge of honor.
I understand that you may have a partner who is working a full-time job and also needs to sleep.
But I don’t care about any of that. You need to sleep. You are the one who is healing. You are the person in your household who needs sleep the most right now. Yes, even more than your baby. If you’re not healthy, everything falls apart.
So start talking about this with your partner now. How will you ensure that everyone is getting the sleep that they need? How can you be creative about schedules? Where can you ask for support around this?
My partner and I split nights. I went to sleep from 8 p.m. until 2 a.m. and he went to bed from midnight until 6 a.m. This is also where a night nurse or a postpartum doula can be extremely helpful to a new family. And if you have family or friends who are offering to help overnight—LET THEM HELP.
Stock your freezer with as many meals as you possibly can. Set up a meal train so that your friends and family are bringing you meals for at least the first four weeks. (Yes, I said FOUR weeks.)
BE PICKY. Let people know your preferred foods and places to eat. Tell them what you don’t like. Your job is to heal. Their job is to support you in healing.
Even if you have the energy and are feeling wonderful, wouldn’t you rather spend that time with your baby or your partner (or sleeping) instead of cooking? There is no prize for who can jump back into running a household the fastest.
You do not owe access to your baby to anyone. This is your family, and you are going through a huge transition. It is your right to set the boundaries that will work for you.
So if you don’t want to see anyone for the first week, say that. If you don’t want more than one or two people at a time, say that. You can send out a family-wide email letting folks know what to expect. If you have a hard time setting boundaries, ask your partner or a close friend to help you stick to them.
There is no prize for who can jump back into running a household the fastest.
Here’s the real secret that no one tells you: You will have more power over your family and friends in those first few weeks than you ever will again. Everyone wants to see that baby, mama. So use it if you’re up to having visitors!
Work with a close friend or your partner to keep a running list of items that you need. That way, when Aunt Gladys says she’s coming over and asks do you need anything, you can say, “Yes, we’re out of toilet paper, Auntie, thank you so much!”
Don’t be shy about handing that baby off for a diaper change if your sister wants a snuggle. And your father-in-law can hold the baby while you go take a shower.
Remember that hormone wash I talked about earlier? Your body is literally resetting itself from pregnant to not pregnant. You need folks around you who will understand if you are crying or angry for seemingly no reason, or if you can’t sleep, or if you get anxious. In the first two weeks these are all normal hormonal changes.
But you also need people around you who can get you help if these issues last into three or four weeks postpartum.
According to a 2016 study, 38% of Black moms experience multiple symptoms of postpartum depression, anxiety, OCD and/or PTSD. Less than 10% of mothers of color with symptoms are ever treated. But maternal mental illnesses are treatable and there is no reason for you to suffer through one. There are support groups and therapies, and there are medications that can help you (yes, even if you’re breastfeeding).
Check with your insurance provider for a list of therapists in your area. If you are uninsured (or underinsured) spend a few minutes online looking for postpartum resources in your city or town. Support groups are generally free and they usually have connections with local therapists and psychiatrists who offer sliding scale or payment plans. Make sure that the people closest to you know what the symptoms are and know whom to call.
So much changes as you begin your journey through motherhood. It is tempting to shift all of your focus to your child. It is so easy to lose yourself. But hold on to you, mama. Remember who you are. And remember that you aren’t alone.