How the body changes after giving birth and how to be free from the typical sense of malaise
Becoming parents is a delicate process that changes the life of both women and men as they find themselves engaged in the important task of accompanying their child through the various phases of life.
Pregnancy is a crucial step for a woman in biological, emotional, developmental and existential terms, and it's marked by rapid, visible changes. A woman only has nine months to adjust to the vast restructuring of her life; her mood can swing between conflicting feelings and emotions.
The popular myth that asks mothers to always be bright and cheerful, fuelled by unrealistic expectations, leads women to feeling guilty and less inclined to seek help, forgetting that it takes time to adapt to motherhood. We're not born parents; we become parents.
A sense of malaise in the days after delivery is a fairly common reaction known as the ‘baby blues’, characterised by a non-specific sense of sorrow, restlessness and irritability that peaks 3-4 days after giving birth and tends to fade over a short period of time, usually within the first two weeks after birth. This is the most common and mildest of the difficulties of maternity and is mainly caused by the hormonal changes that occur in the hours after giving birth (a drop in oestrogens and progesterone) and the physical and mental exhaustion of labour. It can affect 7 out of 10 mothers.
However, if the mother manifests a mood disorder a few weeks after the pregnancy that interferes with her ability to share actions and emotions with her child and loved ones, she may be suffering from Post-partum Depression, an ailment that affects 7 to 12% of new mothers with varying degrees of severity.
The mother feels unexplainably sad, irritable, ready to cry, unworthy of the tasks she's faced with. Sleep and appetite are also affected. A common feeling among mothers who face this issue is a mix of shame and guilt and the fear of being considered inadequate as mothers.
Post-partum depression is not a weakness or a character trait. It's a real problem, but prompt intervention can help keep the symptoms in check and allow the mother to enjoy her child fully. When not recognised and adequately treated, post-partum depression can continue even a year after it first appeared and thereby amplify the negative repercussions on the child.
The weeks immediately after a baby is born are very complex for new parents both in terms of actually managing the events and because the tasks, emotional challenges and responsibilities need to be recognised and addressed. New fathers can also suffer from neonatal depression, due to a sense of responsibility or inadequacy developing into a form of worry, which can become pervasive and morph into full blown depression in some cases (one in 25 fathers).
Key points include learning to ask for help when we feel tired, especially when we haven't slept much; engaging our partner in the experience of parenthood, without thinking or feeling that we alone must take care of the child; accepting approaches to caring for and relating with the baby that are different from our own. This helps improve the well-being of the child and sets the foundation for optimal family interaction, both in the present and the future. The loving and capable presence of a father who is emotionally willing to be part of his child's life has a protective effect on the mother and baby and helps overcome this moment of emotional tension. Here is some more useful advice:
Adopt a healthy lifestyle, such as taking a walk with your baby as part of your everyday schedule.
Maintain a healthy diet.
Set realistic expectations without putting pressure on yourself for every single thing that needs doing. Do what you can and forget the rest.
When possible, involve the grandparents, who are in most cases an irreplaceable figure in infancy. Let them help, and don't expect to have control over everything. The house will survive a little untidiness and shirts are okay even when they're not ironed
Take needed time for yourself, for grooming, to get out of the house, to visit a friend, and to have time as a couple.
Avoid isolation. Keep in touch with the other parents you met at childbirth classes and, if you can, participate in infant massage classes.
Remember, the best way to take care of your child is to look after yourself as well.