My beautiful daughter Teagan was born on November 4th, the newest addition to our combined family of seven people. Teagan is my third biological child and I was interested to see what kind of baby she would be, compared to my others. My first was an amiable baby, with limited fussiness and not many tummy issues when I was breastfeeding. My second was the opposite — a crying, gassy mess who I eventually determined was a high-needs baby (and is now an intense toddler). So far, compared to other newborns, Teagan is somewhere in between. She has her gassy, fussy moments and seems to prefer being held or worn to bouncey seats or swings — but she is easily soothed and sleeps a lot.
Though this is my third round caring for and breastfeeding an infant, I find that I’m still looking a lot of things up. An analysis of my Google history would show searches for things like “breastfeeding and broccoli” and “how much caffeine is safe when breastfeeding” and “how much should my one month old be sleeping.” It’s only been a little over 2 years since my Erinn was an infant, but I’ve already forgotten all the rules and milestones. It’s coming back to me though, slowly but surely.
After a fussy afternoon earlier this week, I mentioned it to my friend Maddie. She reminded me of the book The Happiest Baby on the Block and the concept of the 4th Trimester. Never heard of the 4th Trimester?
According to author Dr. Harvey Karp, it goes something like this: Newborns are born about three months before they are ready for the world. When they come out, their digestion is not up to par, they don’t know how to sleep like normal humans and they are (obviously) helpless and dependent on their parents and caregivers. Newborns are not supposed to sleep through the night at a few weeks’ old, and they are biologically wired to spit up/be gassy when they eat breastmilk or formula.
Do some newborns sleep well early on? Sure. Are some newborns never troubled after they eat (allowing those moms to eat onions, spicy foods and chug coffee)? Yep. They exist too. But by and large, newborn newborns are just not developed enough to be “easy.” The idea that from the moment our kids are born we should be trying to normalize them, and our own lives, quickly is not only unattainable, it’s unhealthy.
Parents are not doing anything wrong to make their newborns wake every hour in the night, or to make them fussy throughout the day. That is just the state of newborns in the first three months of life. It’s a biological fact.
Pediatrician Claudia M. Gold has written about the misconceptions surrounding the first three months of a baby’s life and how all of our skewed expectations can lead to feelings of isolation, failure and even depression in parents — particularly mothers. According to Dr. Gold, more than 70 percent of a baby’s brain development happens in those first three months after birth (not in the womb) but I’d venture to say that most new parents are not aware of that.
Building on what Dr. Karp says in his book, Dr. Gold refers to the first three months after birth as “the social womb,” and calls on parents to modify the way they view this important developmental time in a baby’s life. She points specifically to society’s belief that a woman should get back to normal so quickly after a baby is born as part of the reason these first three months seem so difficult. She writes:
When the expectation exists that a new mother will function as she did before the baby was born, offering this “social womb” may be very difficult. Faced with this expectation, many mothers feel very much alone…In my behavioral pediatrics practice, whether a child is 2, 5, 10 or 17, mothers frequently describe feelings of deep loneliness in those earliest weeks and months that stand in stark contrast to the cultural expectation of joy and love.
What Dr. Gold writes seems spot on with what I’ve seen among my parents friends and what I’ve experienced in the months following my own kids’ births. The mom who posts a selfie on Facebook in her pre-pregnancy jeans two weeks after giving birth is praised, as is the one who is back to work, back in the gym and attending all the functions of her older kids within a month of baby being born. Being back to normal, as if having a baby was just a small hiccup in our lives, is celebrated. Remaining in stretched out Yoga pants, covered in spit up, holed up on your couch breastfeeding for longer than a few weeks is viewed as being, well, pretty sad.
All cards on the table — I was back working about a month after Teagan was born, and I started running again then too. Both things felt good to me, but only partially on a personal level. I worked because as a contractor, when I don’t work I don’t make money and with Christmas (and medical bills) on the horizon, I knew I needed to get back on my laptop. So was I getting back to work because I love my job, or because I love making money? Perhaps a little bit of both. But if I had maternity pay coming, I can guarantee I would have put off my work longer.
As far as running — it gives me a reason to leave the house that my husband backs without question or complaint and yes, it will hopefully help me get my pre-baby body back (eventually). I wouldn’t say I do it because I feel an enormous amount of pressure from society but there is a bit of vanity involved. Even when my house is cluttered and I was up all night with a newborn and toddler and I’m wondering how I can possibly make it through the rest of the day without an exhausted meltdown, I can run for 20 minutes and feel like Superwoman. When people “like” my running statuses or photos… well, that’s just a fan to the flame of my ego. No one sees the dishes in the sink or the spit-up stained pile of laundry or the bathtub full of toys I never put away from last night or the medical bills piling up (waiting for my next round of client invoices to be paid) or the birth certificate form still sitting on a desk that needs to be filled out and sent in.
But when people see that somehow in the midst of the chaos of a new baby, and raising four other kids, I managed to have time to run, it sends the silent message that I must have everything back in order already. How else could I sneak away to work out? Do new mothers post pictures of their clean kitchen counters, or empty clothing hampers, or completed permission slip/medical forms/hospital stay questionnaires? They don’t and yet those are the things that are a daily struggle for me to accomplish right now. I’m not lazy or incompetent. I’m the mother of a one-month-old who NEEDS me to be doing other things.
When I do have a break from that duty, I take care of the other kids, eat, shower, snuggle up to my husband or run. My husband picks up a lot of the slack, allowing me the time to nurse and be with my newborn. But he can’t do my work for me without neglecting his own, and it’s a fact that we need both incomes.
After reading up a little more on the concept of the 4th Trimester and how Americans are so far off in their idea of what life with an infant should be like, I realized that in keeping up my own appearances, I contribute to the misnomers that surround the early months of a new baby in the house. I’m not doing it alone. In America, 50 percent of working mothers have NO paid maternity leave, and those that do often only get 6 weeks or less at just a percentage of normal pay. Three months off at full or partial pay? That’s very, very rare yet based on what Dr. Karp and Dr. Gold (and others) tell us, those three months are a developmental necessity.
So what can realistically be done about it? President Obama has spoken out about the need for better maternity care and coverage in the U.S., but there are currently no bills or laws on the table for consideration. What’s more — many Americans don’t believe it’s the responsibility of the government or employers to provide the needed financial assistance for moms or dads to allow during this three-month developmental period (remember: 70 percent of brain development!).
So it seems to me that the change in perception needs to start in our own homes, among our own circles of friends, on our own newsfeeds and timelines. We need to cut moms (and dads) of little ones some slack and support policies that give an extra boost to families in those early months with an infant. It’s okay to celebrate the mom who seems to be getting her groove back quickly after her pregnancy — but we should also be conscious of the fact that taking care of an infant is al all-encompassing, all-consuming, overwhelming task that often leaves no room for anything else.
As moms, we should do what feels right as far as working out and other forms of “me” time but not make “getting back to normal” a race with each other. Why do we feel the need to run so quickly away from the evidence of our pregnancies? We should do a better job of embracing those early months with our babies, and beyond, and worry less about showing off that we have it all figured out or erasing the evidence that our bodies built our beautiful children. Let’s accept the fact that having a baby doesn’t end the day he or she is born, but continues for many months after (and the job really never ends, just changes over time). And let’s support each other in this quest.
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