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Navigating the Fourth Trimester

[Navigating the Fourth Trimester] Article Hero

If you are currently pregnant, beginning to contemplate the journey, or even if motherhood is still just a twinkle in your eye, then you need to know: 40 weeks is just the beginning.

By Hannah Shanken

Dec 01, 2020

In hour one of your little one’s life, your body begins the incredibly arduous process of recovery from the intensity of pregnancy and trauma of childbirth, all while holding and nursing a helpless and very needy infant. The next twelve plus weeks involve drastic hormonal, physical, emotional, and spiritual shifts that “What to Expect When You're Expecting” can never prepare you for. When a baby is born, so is born a mother: not just a new title, but a new identity, a brand new Self.

During trimesters one through three, a mother’s body becomes more visible and doted upon than ever before. First a grape, then a lemon, next a mango, and finally a watermelon: the shape and size of the growing belly is chronicled and celebrated. It feels nice to be greeted by smiles and encouraging words from friends and strangers alike, admiring your new roundness, even as you begin to feel huge and lumbering. “Take care of yourself! Take it easy,” they admonish, and of course you do. As a pregnant woman, you pamper yourself, without guilt. It is your time in the spotlight and it feels quite good.

But as soon as the baby is born, the focus shifts abruptly. From center stage to the stagehand, the pregnant woman suddenly becomes nearly invisible. Thus begins “The 4th Trimester”. Waddling into the hospital all eyes are on you: waddling (or rolling) out, all eyes are on your baby. The trouble with this, is that invisibility can lead to neglect at a time when you are at your most vulnerable. It’s easy for a mother to allow herself to fade into the background: to ignore her own needs, as her babies’ take priority. And this is where we, as mamas—but also autonomous beings—must become our own caretakers with both intensity and gentleness.

Putting Your Self Last

It’s easy, in this stage, to put your needs aside and plow through. Through the sleeplessness, the uncertainty, the pain, the clogged ducts, and the overwhelm. It’s easy to politely decline help and do 99 percent of the work rather than enlist your partner in the newborn duties. I know how easy it is to do, because with my first baby, that’s exactly what I did. And I suffered. Not to the degree that some mamas do, and I thank god that postpartum depression was not a part of my journey. But I reached my breaking point and blurred my boundaries on a daily basis. I let all my healthy habits go out the window because grabbing a bagel sandwich was more efficient than putting the baby down long enough to eat an occasional salad. My baby got all my love and attention and my Self, got none.

The hospital nurses warned me that by night two, the baby would be wakeful enough to prevent me from getting a good nights’ sleep so I should “enjoy it while I can.” Ha. That first night while I was disoriented, sore, swollen, and bleeding—having to ring for professional assistance to shuffle to the bathroom and take a painful burning pee: that was the best night of sleep I was going to get for many months. And while I kind of expected that to happen, nothing can prepare you for what this type of recurring, debilitating, sleep deprivation feels like.

But oxytocin and snuggles alone do not make a postpartum self-care plan.

Did you know that 24 hours of sleep deprivation is equivalent to a blood-alcohol content of 0.1? And that it takes four hours of sleep to make up from one hour of sleep deprivation? And that prisoners of war are forced to stay awake around the clock as a form of torture? I don’t share this to frighten you, but only to reinforce the fact that mama: you WILL be tired. And by tired I mean, deep down to your skin cells exhausted—all the while your body is working so hard. If you are nursing, your big, swollen milk-engorged boobs will become the center of your entire existence. After years of just sitting there looking cute—the “girls” are finally put to work. Your body will be shedding blood and tissue and your pelvic floor will need to regain its strength. Your hips and vagina will continue to ache as you pace back and forth from the nursery to the loo to the rocker on repeat.

Nourish vs. Nurture

While you are nursing, your sweet little baby is actually leeching nutrition from your body. You might be worrying about losing your “baby weight” when you really need to be ensuring that you are getting enough: enough calories, enough nutrients, enough water, and yes, enough sleep. I’ve heard many mom-friends say they were so busy they “forgot to eat” and then wonder why their milk supply is dropping. Breastfeeding does not come naturally to everyone and while a lactation consultant can help, you must focus on keeping yourself hydrated and fed. Otherwise, you’ll struggle to keep up with your little one's demands which leads to a lot of self-doubt and unnecessary worry. 

Let go of what should be and celebrate what is.

Milk production (or lack thereof) is one of the most common anxieties that creep in for new mamas but it is far from the only one. Is my baby making eye contact soon enough? Where does she fall on the growth chart? Why is she hungry every 30 minutes? There are a million tiny decisions a mother must make everyday and a million voices out there making you wonder if you are making the right ones. It can get so noisy in the mom tribe that it’s hard to hear the voice of your own intuition: your innate maternal instinct. Exhaustion coupled with this anxiety are a recipe for a meltdown.

Thriving In The 4th

There is something magical that happens when you hold a baby. Part of this is of course, the swelling of primal, all-encompassing love that you feel for your little bundle. Part of this is oxytocin, or the “love hormone,” which is released during childbirth, nursing, and even while just cuddling your little one. But oxytocin and snuggles alone do not make a postpartum self-care plan. The irony is that it’s easy to neglect yourself but much harder to make yourself a priority. While everyone’s postpartum period will look drastically different, I do have some gentle suggestions to make your Fourth Trimester as easeful as possible.

1. Practice non-attachment.

Aparigraha—a Sanskrit word that yogis define as “non-attachment to results” applies so directly to the early days of motherhood. You do all the “right” things: swaddle, feed, shush, and soothe. The outcome however, does not always follow what you’ve read in the baby books and blogs. I’m here to tell you that that is OK. No two babies are the same. There is no one way to be a mother and you are doing a great job. Even if your baby shrieks nightly from 2-3 a.m. and won’t take a bottle or are low on the growth chart or your cousin’s baby spoke sooner or… ______ (fill in the blank). Babies are just little humans. They are weird and unpredictable and perfect just the way they are. Love your baby fiercely and don’t beat yourself up if your reality doesn’t match what you’ve seen on Instagram. In fact, immediately unfollow anyone who makes you feel bad about your mothering style or nursery decor.

2. Gratitude + Prayer.

You just did something so incredibly hard and brave. Do you remind yourself of that daily? Do you look in the mirror at the belly pooch and stretch marks and remember why and how you got this new look? Do you tell your body “thank you” and “excellent work”? Do you tell the Universe—or God—how endlessly grateful you are for this baby for whom you likely wished and dreamed and prayed? There is no manifestation more holy than the arrival of a child. Even when it’s hard—especially when it is hard—remember to say thank you!

Commit to micro-acts that you can incorporate daily.

3. Ask for + accept help.

Friends and family will come out of the woodwork to offer you help but more often than not we politely decline. Why do we do that? Allow yourself to be supported and moreover schedule this support before the baby comes: “Great, why don’t you plan to send me meals on X date?” or “That sounds lovely. A gift card to a cleaning service would be the perfect gift.” Don’t be afraid to remind them and don’t wait for them to offer again. As a new mom, it is so easy to slip into martyr mode and feel completely alone. But help is there and even the tiniest forms of support can feel monumental when so much is being asked of you. “Hold the baby while I pee” is currently my love language, in fact. And if you can afford it, hire the help that you need and don’t have a moment’s’ guilt. It is an investment in your mental and emotional well being.

4. Practice micro self-care.

When I was pregnant with my first, I meditated for 20 minutes then did 90 minutes of gentle yoga in a studio every single day before work: five days a week until I was three days past my due date. What your self-care looks like pre and post baby is going to be drastically different and that simply has to be OK. If you wait for a full hour to take care of yourself, you might be waiting 18 years. So instead, commit to micro-acts that you can incorporate daily: I do my full three-minute skincare regimen both morning and night, taking my postnatal supplements, enjoying a cup of Mother’s Milk tea every morning, and making sure I pray or meditate or dance or journal at some point throughout my day. This is true even if my baby is strapped to me while I do it—some self-care is always better than none. In addition to these micro-moments, my husband’s calendar is full of invitations for dedicated 30 minute blocks of “baby time”. Thirty minutes feels like a spa day when you are a mom. Thirty minutes means you can shower and then soak in an epsom salt bath, or do a workout, or meditate or call your best friend. Thirty minutes of “me” time a few times a week reminds your Self that you matter. I actually believe that that energetic shift is the difference between thriving in your fourth trimester and just surviving it: remembering that YOU matter. 

5. Flood that body with good stuff.

Celebrity gossip mags would have you believe that your primary postpartum objective should be to get your “body back” but this is absolutely not true. Your primary objective should be to take exquisite care of your body by consuming enough high quality, nutrient dense food. This will allow you to heal more readily from childbirth, counterbalance the effects of sleep deprivation, and also produce enough milk to nourish your growing baby. No diet is perfect—nor should it be—and that is where a high-quality supplement comes in. Think of it as your “nutritional insurance” to fill in any gaps that your diet may be missing. One pack—once a day—which makes it easy to commit to, even when you are juggling it all. Your body has been through a lot and it needs this nutritional support as much as you did in the previous trimesters. 

6. Savor it! Savor it all!

As a parent, the days are long but the years are short, and as a mother of two, I know this to be very true. There are moments you feel like the sleepless milk-soaked nights will never end and then suddenly you are marching your little man off to preschool with misty eyes and wondering how it happened so fast. So hold your baby close and appreciate the miracle of life, a miracle that you yourself performed. Squeeze in those extra few minutes of rest when you “should” be productive. Soak up the cuddles and coos without worrying when a sound will become a syllable let alone a word. Let go of what should be and celebrate what is. Let no stretch mark nor clogged duct detract from the raw, excruciating beauty of your fourth trimester nor from the magical miracle maker that is you.


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