Conquering Your First Year as a Mom

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Know what to expect of your post-pregnancy self … and embrace it!

Sandy Walker watched in horror the image she saw in her bathroom mirror. No, it wasn’t a ghost or even the sight of her 4-year-old cutting her hair. It was Sandy’s post-natal body … sagging, bulging, stretch marks and all.

During pregnancy you may imagine your sophisticated and well put-together self bouncing a cherubic baby on a shapely hip. But if you’re expecting that metamorphosis within the first post-natal week, you’re headed toward a post partum meltdown – one where you confront a sagging body, bizarre hair loss and dark circles under your eyes. As your body begins downsizing, uncomfortable symptoms like hemorrhoids, vaginal bleeding and soreness from an episiotomy or Cesarean incision might leave you wondering what you were thinking when you played Russian roulette with your birth control.

Your baby’s first 3 months is really your last trimester, a healing time for your mind, body and soul. Eating well, sleeping when you need to and slowly returning to exercise will help you make the transition from mom-to-be to mom-extraordinaire long before you light the candle on Junior’s first birthday cake.

Your Changing Body

Although life with your first child marks a happy time in life, so much of what you do in your baby’s first few months revolves around survival: diapering, feeding, sleeping and, if you’re lucky, a shower once in a while. If you’re planning to mimic Heidi Klum’s boomerang back to her pre-pregnancy hips or return to work immediately, think again.

“Money can buy you almost anything,” says Amy Hendel, family lifestyle therapist and owner of healthgal.com. “With their every need answered, it’s easy to understand how celebrities are able to pull this off.”

While you may dream of rediscovering your abs before you send your child to preschool, it’s dangerous to jump back on the treadmill soon after giving birth. “For the average woman taking care of children, managing a household and getting back to a job, most expectations are unrealistic,” Hendel says. “If you’ve had an episiotomy or C-section, exercising too soon or without your doctor’s permission can cause trauma to that area, separating or even tearing delicate muscle tissue.”

But walking is a natural for new moms. Pop baby into her stroller or carrier and hit the sidewalks. It doesn’t require specialized equipment, and you can do it whenever and wherever you want. And while walking may be a conduit to a healthier body, it also brings peace to a busy life.

Challenges

Postpartum Support International (postpartum.net) reports that 10 percent of women struggle with mood disorders linked to changing hormones (including postpartum depression), stress and exhaustion. “We have to acknowledge that this is a time of realignment, reassessment of who we are,” says Leslie Jones, a member of the organization. “Knowing that helps us give ourselves the space to accept the waves, the upsets, the out of control feeling, the hormones … it’s all part of the process.”

You don’t believe that your worth as a mother isn’t directly related to how quickly you shed baby fat? Sharing your experiences with other women will knock your reality testing back to normal. “And remember, looking perfect is not what motherhood is all about, and your body’s changes represent the most miraculous thing that can happen to a woman,” Hendel says.

Not enough time? Not enough energy? Not enough sex? You and your partner are trading romantic interludes for midnight parent patrol, and also trying to figure out each other’s parenting styles, struggling to see yourselves as responsible parents and manage the chores that go hand-in-hand with having a baby. Though you’re acquainted with sleep deprivation, the reality you’re living now can ravage you, making you feel like you’re existing in an alternate reality.

“Sleep deprivation robs you of a lot of the enjoyment of this once-in-a-lifetime stage in your child’s growing up years,” says Ann Douglas, author of Sleep Solutions for Your Baby, Toddler, and Preschooler: The Ultimate No-Worry Approach for Each Age and Stage (John Wiley & Sons, $13.99). “There’s also growing evidence to show that sleep deprivation may increase a mother’s risk of postpartum depression, so sleep can’t be treated as a ‘frill’ for new moms; it definitely falls on the ‘necessity’ column of the ledger.”

The problem with sleep deprivation is that it leaks into every aspect of your life. If you’re awake half the night, feeding and changing diapers, that ice cream in the freezer can start to look like a meal replacement. Not eating well jeopardizes your milk supply and causes crankiness, colds and other sleep problems. Plan your postpartum menu during the last few weeks of pregnancy – it takes no more time to prepare and cook two casseroles than it does one. And unless you’re super-coordinated, you may want to plan post-pregnancy meals around foods that can be heated and eaten with one hand.

Healthy food is important says Shawn Talbott, Ph.D., nutritional biochemist and author of The Cortisol Connection Diet (Hunter House, $6.95). New moms need to maintain an even keel (no spikes or dips in energy), and going more than three hours between meals strains you physically and mentally. Breastfeeding women need extra calories. “This means that if you eat your breakfast at 7 a.m., and lunch is at noon, then you better have a snack at 10 a.m. (perhaps a fruit and a protein/fat – such as an apple and a handful of cashews). Aim for three hours between meals and two hours between snacks.”


Get Organized

You’re not an incapable person. Pre-pregnancy, you regularly fielded curve balls from your boss, choreographed family get-togethers and always found time for yourself, your girlfriends and your partner. But managing your baby’s first year of life requires organizational skills. Before your baby arrives, start a daily notebook of questions for your obstetrician (and pediatrician), appointments and chores or errands that need doing. “Think of your notebook as your personal assistant – a little black book that keeps you on track and feeling slightly less overwhelmed about all the information in your head,” Douglas says.

Douglas offers these tips for coming to grips with household chores:

  • Once Baby arrives, tack a list of weekly jobs to the fridge. Mark them off as you or your partner finish them, and don’t think about them again until the following week.
  • Chunk your chores into 15-minute jobs that can be done quickly and simply.
  • Streamline other chores so you’re only doing what you need to do at the moment.
  • Fold your clothes from the dryer, but throw the towels and linens into a basket for later.
  • If your finances allow, a postpartum doula is the ideal way to get the support you need. “The gift of a few hours of hands-on help can make a huge difference if you’re craving a few hours of sleep.

Even if you’ve always been able to juggle a million priorities, having a baby throws you off your game. While it might feel like a carefree, relaxed life has officially gone by the wayside, your new reality just takes a little getting used to. By the time your baby utters his first word (which, of course, will be “Mama”), you may even be willing to contemplate baby number two.

Julia Rosien is a freelance writer.


BOOK SUPPORT:

The magic of motherhood is revealed in Oh, Baby! 7 Ways a Baby Will Change Your Life the First Year by Bettie B. Youngs, Ph.D., Susan M. Heim and Jennifer L. Youngs (Hampton Roads, $15.95). Each chapter includes helpful sidebars to make new parenthood a little easier as well as what you can expect emotionally as your family grows.

LOST IN TRANSLATION:

So much of what’s difficult about Baby’s first year is figuring out the new rules of engagement between you and your partner. To help you hear your partner better, we asked top experts for advice. Here’s what they had say:

She says:

  • “I’m going to bed.” Author Ann Douglas: “Most of the time she means, ‘I’m going to bed TO SLEEP.’ Remember, sleep is one of our most basic needs. Until that need has been met, pretty much everything else – including sex – falls off the new mother’s radar screen.”
  • “You never do anything around here.” Douglas: “She’s also saying that it only adds to her workload if she has to spell out what she needs from her partner. She wants her partner to figure out what needs to be done and pitch in.”
  • “Do we really have to visit your parents on Friday night?” Douglas: “This is likely code for letting her partner know she’s had enough advice for one week and it’s time to cocoon – just your little family.”

He says:

  • “How was your day?” Psychiatrist Scott Haltzman of Brown University: “Dads need to take their partners’ emotional pulse and often use that reading as a reflection of their success as providers. If you respond with a list of complaints to that question, you may notice your man become more distant and serious.”
  • “What can I do to help?” Haltzman: “Most men like tasks, and saying the house is a wreck is not a request; it’s a criticism. As a consequence, he may withdraw and feel helpless, and then even less gets done around the house.”
  • “You look tired, why don’t you go have a shower.” Haltzman: “Don’t read between the lines. It’s not a critique of your looks; it’s the words of a man who loves you and wants to take care of you. He notices that you need time to tend to your own needs, and he wants you to have that time so you can feel more in control of your life.”


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