Tuesday, February 16, 2016

The ugly, unspoken truth about postnatal recovery

When we’re pregnant, all our focus is on how we will get through the next nine months, how long the morning sickness will last, and finally, how we will give birth at the end. We spend hours obsessing over the pregnancy, writing up useless birth plans, and finally watching videos on how to look after your baby from moments after they are born up until their first birthday. Problem is, no one tells us to read on how to look after ourselves post-birth.

After giving birth, I, as all women do, went through a physical and emotional rollercoaster that no one prepared me for. I finally understood the hidden physical strain new mothers would hide behind their smiles when greeting visitors hours or days after giving birth. It wasn’t tiredness from sleepless nights or annoyance with breastfeeding struggles, it was far worse with far deeper and darker reasons.

It all starts in the delivery room. As soon as the final push is made and the baby is pulled out there is a sudden tearful symphony from the baby and the mother. Is it a cry of joy? Relief? Happiness? Or an overwhelming mix of all those emotions and more? I’m not sure myself but I have come to think it could be a cry of fear of the unknown. The pregnancy is over. Your baby is here. What you have been reading about has become a reality. So what next?

Whether you gave birth naturally or via cesarian, you will most likely have stitches from where the baby was pulled out that will burn and sting for days or weeks, and sometimes months. You suddenly wonder how you are possibly meant to look after a tiny helpless screaming baby when you can barely walk. Going to the toilet becomes a struggle. Sleeping becomes painful. Fevers, chills, and breast engorgement from milk production whether breastfeeding or not become a day-to-day reality. It is not pretty. You will be a mess. And on top of that you will be left with a saggy belly that still looks like it’s carrying a baby, stretch marks, and a line across your abdomen from the pregnancy. You will no longer recognise yourself when you look in the mirror.

It is all but a small price for bringing a human into this world, but it is also no wonder that so many of us fall ill post-pregnancy. And no, I don’t mean struck down by a cold or a flu. That would be a walk in the park after pushing out a baby. I mean mentally ill with depression or even psychosis with hallucinations and delusions. According to a 2014 report by the Maternal Mental Health alliance, one in five women experience mental health problems during pregnancy in the first 12 months of giving birth. For some, it could bypass as a few tearful hormonal outburst for unreasonable reasons. For others, it could be as dangerous as suicidal thoughts and even acting upon them. And it can strike at any moment with no prior warning signs.

Recognising something isn’t right is crucial, not just for the mother but also for the baby. It is family and friends’ responsibility to act upon any clues they might come across of a mother’s suffering. With many mental health problems, they are silent killers and the one affected is least likely to realise something is wrong. The father has the biggest job of all in this, from small things like giving words of encouragement in the delivery room to bigger things like helping to calm the mother during break-downs and reassuring her that she is doing a great job. It’s sad that so many fathers are absent or don’t realise how important their jobs are.

The road to recovery is long and full of hurdles. The first month after giving birth will be the hardest and worse than the whole pregnancy and birth. The next few months will be sleepless and tiring. The months following will be combined with excitement of all the things your baby is learning and shock over the amount of hair you’re shedding. Taking a shower will have you running out every single time to wipe the steam off the mirror to check you haven't gone bold yet. I am here to tell you that it will all pass and become a distant memory. Your baby’s first birthday will be the end of the postpartum race to recovery. Enjoy this day. Enjoy one of your greatest accomplishments, your child, and reaching the end of your postnatal rollercoaster how ever hard or easy it was (just remember to use protection when celebrating). And if you know of someone who just gave birth, be sure to ask how they’re doing and offer help in any (reasonable) form.

Twitter: @Ola_Salem
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