I looked for any means of escape. I knew I couldn’t do this. I knew I needed to go back. I needed to get out of there. My breath quickened and my arms were shaky and weak. But there was no escaping. Even if I wasn’t being pushed in a wheelchair by a hospital transport, this baby was coming. He was looking to make an escape of his own, and no matter how hard I crossed my legs, he was going to leave my body.
I’d read every article I could about having a baby and raising a baby and eating healthy while pregnant. I knew he would need to be fed; I’d breastfeed. I knew I’d be up a lot at night. I knew the basics of caring for a newborn. I knew he needed a sponge bath until the umbilical cord nub fell off, naturally. I knew baby powder was now frowned upon. I knew when to start him on solids, I would make homemade baby food when that time came. I knew all of this. I was a newborn research expert.
But when it came to postpartum me, I was a novice. All of the research had prepared me for him; none of it had prepared me for me. I was 25 when I got pregnant, young for today, but not a teen mom. Maybe medical professionals assumed I’d know more, but I didn’t, and I was utterly blindsided.
What I didn’t know with the first tiny human can now be summed up in a tidy little list. Though, while living through it, or rather, barely hanging on through it, it wasn’t tidy at all.
I didn’t realize …
1. That I’d hurt from head to toe.
I didn’t expect to feel like I’d been hit by a truck. All of those lovely photos in books and articles made me think this would be an ethereal experience filled with muslin, warmth, and blissful snuggles as soon as he was cleaned up. Nope. Everything fucking hurt.
2. That my vagina would hurt no matter what I did.
Standing was a fucking nightmare — was my uterus going to end up on the floor with that diaper pad monstrosity? Sitting, holy shit balls. Between the pressure on the stitches and my entirely battle-weary vag, I was certain it couldn’t get any worse. Then my milk came in. Feeding the baby, I felt like I’d bench pressed 500 pounds with my pecs. And somehow, even lying down hurt. I was sentenced to a couple weeks of pain no matter what.
3. That medical professionals would come in and out of my room pressing on my engorged stomach and uterus.
Over and over, until I was discharged. For fuck’s sake, a baby stretched all of that out. Now that it’s vacated the premises, please stop mushing it around like you’re about to make a Play-Doh pizza. Thanks.
4. That I’d still look pregnant.
I thought we just looked glowing holding that new bundle of joy. Nope. Your gut stays for a while and, well, it doesn’t feel as cute as it did when the baby was hanging out in there. I brought this white nursing tank top to the hospital with me, because it was cute, and then shoved myself in it and sat down holding my one-day-old baby. To my absolute horror when I looked at that picture, I had for the first time in my life a very round belly and no human inside there taking up space. I was the one taking up space all on my own. And no one thought to mention this was going to happen after he left me. Someone could’ve at least told me to bring the black tank top.
5. That I’d get mastitis.
I literally called my OBGYN in a panic because at one point I thought I had a giant lump in my breast. They sent me for an ultrasound. I thought I had breast cancer a couple months after giving birth, and in my brain this meant he’d live a life without me because I was definitely dying. I was going to die. They’re rushing me to an ultrasound. Dead. I’m dead. But nah, it was just a really badly clogged duct and infection. I had that twice. So that was a blast.
But there’s something in our biology that convinces us we can do this more than once. I think it’s the sweet baby smell, and how cute and miniature all of their features are. Youthful creatures are adorable solely to trick our brains into wanting to keep our population going. It’s a concept I’m convinced of. And I found myself pregnant with my second child about three years later.
Everyone assured me, Oh, your second baby is easier! Bullshit. Delivery was faster, but faster doesn’t necessarily equate to “easier.” The labor and delivery was very traumatic for me. Have you heard of overlapping contractions? If you haven’t, I hope you never do. All those natural birthing classes prepare you how to get through the highs and lows of a contraction. With overlapping contractions, there are only highs; the contractions never zero out. It’s one long, hard, painful contraction. So maybe the process was faster, but it definitely wasn’t easier.
Recovery wasn’t either. Same vag pain. I was assured by a well-meaning woman that her second just basically fell out and she was good to go a couple days later — but not for me. Nope. I also had the added prize of having a toddler to chase. You should practice that hurting vagina waddle beforehand. It’s better to be prepared than wanting to cry into your giant diaper pad, because you’ll still need that for all the bleeding.
A different woman had told me the second child always sleeps better. It’s just a fact, she’d insisted. He didn’t sleep better. In fact, he’s still my child that crawls into bed with us in the middle of the night. Life moved faster, but it wasn’t easier. At all.
I fell into postpartum anxiety and depression after my second son, which was a whole new adventure. I didn’t develop that the first time around. My OBGYN asked about it at my six-week check-up. And the pediatrician asked me about it the first few times I brought my second baby for checkups. But for me, it didn’t really consume me until much later and really spiked when I stopped breastfeeding after fourteen months. No one handed me a depression questionnaire when we weaned. My mental health was long forgotten by then, and yet, I slipped into that deep dark place.
Now that my kids sleep through the night and my vagina is long healed and I have no plans to grow our family with another adorable crying, squishy, perfect, exhausting, vagina-tear-causing bundle of joy, I see what I lived through.
Postpartum everything can be very hard for women. Why don’t we talk about this more? Could it be that we’re too afraid as humans to open up about the trauma that women endure as a result of childbirth? Part of it might be that if we were honest about it, women wouldn’t do it and we all know the patriarchy can’t risk that.
That is what women go through: physical and emotional trauma. All while being expected, in America, to jump right out of bed to care for everyone they know, get back to work in mere weeks (if that’s their situation), look like an airbrushed magazine cover with little to no sleep, and be charming, doting, smiling. Meanwhile, your whole world has been upheaved and you’re responsible for another human’s life. Is the fear that if we all know what’s about to fucking destroy us, that we’d hesitate to procreate? Is this a weird instinctual lie we harbor?
I honestly don’t know, but I think that the tide is beginning to shift. Social media and the internet have created the perception of a vast garden of perfection. Yet, as we all know, no one is perfect. The tide is shifting, and the average person is fighting back, using social media to showcase more and more reality.
Celebrities have jumped in too. Amy Schumer has been refreshingly honest about her newly earned postpartum status. And that pumping photo? It definitely triggered memories for any woman anywhere that’s pumped; you feel like a dairy cow. I, for one, have enjoyed seeing this openness.
That led me to talk to the moms I know. They’ve shared with me harrowing stories of their postpartum journeys. They’ve faced medical conditions I was unaware were even possible after giving birth. Conditions we just don’t learn about or talk about. These women are amazing mothers and, like so many of us, silently struggled with postpartum life.
In this time of men policing women’s bodies, it’s crucial to keep the dialogue open on the truths of women’s postpartum health.
Crossing my legs didn’t keep my son from being born. They wheeled me to a room and broke my water bag, another thing I didn’t know was possible. I thought it would just burst on its own, bringing on a panic of fluid and contractions and immediate crowning. Twelve hours after being wheeled across that very quiet empty tiled hallway to my room, I gave birth. Then about four years later, I was back in that hospital doing it all over again.
Birth is traumatic, and that’s the brutal truth. If you want your “mini-me” (or several) running around, it’s the price you may pay. But that truth doesn’t have to be relegated to a dark corner. Talking about it openly and honestly won’t deter women choosing to give birth. If anything, it will arm a whole generation of women with the pertinent information they need to be brave and strong and ready to face the uphill battle of postpartum recovery.