There are so many things that seem like the “biggest” priority to a new mother. Am I complying with safe sleeping habits for baby? Am I producing enough milk? How much coffee is too much coffee? What is my baby’s poop telling me about his/her health? Is my baby’s head going to be a weird shape if she sits in the car seat for too long?! (Maybe I am the only one that stressed about that last one.) While all of these things are important, I am going to argue that one of the most important priorities that you can set after having a baby is your own self-care.
I really struggled with this at the start of my postpartum journey. It seemed to me like any minute away from my baby was a minute where something terrible could happen to her or I could be judged for being a negligent mother. (This was likely related to Postpartum Anxiety/Depression that I was suffering from, which I shared more about on a different post.) For example, my husband would often hold the baby while we were out grocery shopping or running errands. I would torture myself by assuming that every look from a stranger was them judging me. Besides that, I would assume that my baby obviously loved my husband more than me. A mother should always be holding her baby. Whoa. Talk about pressure.
It can be super overwhelming to set oneself up like that. At any rate, thinking that a mother’s job is to never let her child out of her sight, is just wrong. For me, and for many women I would guess, it is this expectation that we place on ourselves that can lead to a lot of anxiety. We want to be everything and do everything for our child. But with this mentality, there will always be a breaking point. For me, it felt more like a point of implosion than just simply breaking.
My Typical Self-Care
Before having my baby, I was actually very good at self-care. My typical routine included taking long, warm showers, regularly using face masks, ALWAYS having my nails painted, and exercising (usually running, yoga, or home workouts) 5-7 days per week. I loved meeting up with friends for coffee dates at trendy Portland shops. I have also been known to indulge in a little margarita occasionally. This balance of taking care of my appearance, socializing, and working out led to overall good mental health, in my opinion. I managed my stressors in life with mostly positive coping mechanisms and had a good self-image.
This routine completely fell by the wayside after delivering my baby. I was lucky to sneak in a shower every couple of days. We were doing daily tongue stretches on baby because of her being tongue tied (I discuss having a tongue-tied baby here) so I wasn’t ever wearing nail polish. And let’s all laugh at the idea of taking a newborn with me to a quiet hipster coffee shop. But the biggest adjustment to my routine of self-care was actually imposed by my doctor and not by my baby. As is typical after a vaginal delivery, I was told to take it easy and avoid really working out for about 6 weeks.
The Effect of No Self-Care
I quickly realized (maybe by the second day home from the hospital) that my mental health was VERY intimately tied to my self-care routine. Of course, many other factors play into mental health. But all in all, those other factors like a stable marriage, finances, and support from family did not really change after my delivery.
The effect was that I felt very anxious and outside of myself. It seemed like overnight, I had lost all of the things that made me who I am. Some of this is true, and very natural. Obviously a lot is supposed to change after becoming a mom. But I hadn’t actually lost any of those other values. I had just stopped prioritizing them.
I don’t think it is realistic to expect that you can keep up with all of your previous routine of self-care. But you should definitely make sure that part of your day — every. single. day. — is dedicated to your own health and well-being. Once I began doing this, with a bit of coaxing from family, I immediately began to feel the fog clear. ***If you are experiencing symptoms of postpartum depression or anxiety, please speak with your doctor.***
How to Work in Self-Care
My first secret to working in self-care is that I have a very wonderful husband who was not at all intimidated by all of the “firsts” that new parents have to figure out, like diapering or putting baby to sleep. He was a rockstar who bought me time to take care of myself without any guilt or nervousness about how the baby was doing. I acknowledge that this type of support is obviously not possible for every woman. (Maybe your husband is deployed or you are a single mom.)
So I am going to go out on a limb here and hopefully not bring down fire from child welfare advocates. But I would even say that it is okay for you to set your baby down and let him/her cry for a few minutes in a bouncer in the bathroom while you shower. Gasp. You aren’t ever supposed to let your baby cry, right? Of course, use good judgment. Make sure the cries are not because your baby is starving/dirty or something else that should be addressed. But it may just be a restless, I-want-to-be-held cry. In this case, it is more important for you to get that shower in than to immediately console your baby.
I also felt that a huge boost to my mental health came from taking the time to take a bath each night. BONUS! Baths are not only a good mental break from your new responsibilities, but they are also a great way to help your healing perineum. I write more about how you can take care of your postpartum pelvis on a different post.
Getting outside and doing modified exercise was another great tool of self-care. I began going on walks with my baby to get some Vitamin D and to get those endorphins that my body expected each day before baby. Walking is a great way to ease back into a fitness routine without putting too much stress on your pelvic floor muscles (and organs like your uterus and cervix) as they heal. While I recommend exercise for every postpartum women, the intensity must be tailored to the individual. ***If you are unsure of how vigorous your postpartum workouts can safely be, do not hesitate to call your doctor.***
Another great thing about going on walks is that you can take your baby along! And all you need is a good stroller. Then you can avoid feeling any new-mom guilt of being away for too long. Just make sure that you get a good stroller or jogger that supports your newborn baby’s head and neck without too much jostling. I have reviewed a few different strollers under my product reviews session, including this cheaper travel system, and this more expensive and fancy jogger.
The Overlooked Self-Care
The last bit of self-care that I feel obligated to mention is in taking care of your pelvic floor. I did a series of blog posts about the postpartum pelvic floor, including incontinence, inflammation, perineal tearing, and postpartum bowel movement. Sometimes, you may need additional help in the healing process. Then, I recommend finding a local pelvic health physical therapist and getting a consult. You want to go back out into the world feeling confident and continent!