During pregnancy, there's a ton of attention to the growing belly, the baby gear, and the birth process—but much less so on what life will actually look like once your new kiddo is actually born. A lot of new parents have the vague idea that their postpartum experience will be difficult, but many are taken aback when they realize just how hard things are when you've got an adorable baby who depends on you for all of his or her needs. Many cultures have built-in birth and postpartum traditions, but in the United States, we have to create our own. One way to do that? Plan while you're still pregnant.
"Most couples find it hard to think beyond the birth, but there's so much they can do to plan for a positive postpartum experience," says Elly Taylor, a parenthood researcher and author of the book Becoming Us: 8 Steps To Grow A Family That Thrives. "I call it nest-building: plan to take as much time off work as possible, gather your support system (it takes a village!) and have your partner actively involved from the get-go."
So, how exactly do you build that nest? These seven suggestions can help ensure you have a positive postpartum experience.
Write it down: Make a written postpartum plan. This can be as simple as a list of important numbers (doctor/midwife, pediatrician, doula, lactation consultant), or something more detailed and comprehensive. While it may seem a little Type A to actually put pen to paper about post-pregnancy life, the exercise of thinking about it and discussing it with the people in your life will be almost as valuable to you as the actual plan. (There are many ways to make a written plan, of course, but this postpartum plan template from the doula organization DONA International can help you get started.)
Prioritize your own needs: There's absolutely nothing wrong with being a little selfish during pregnancy and postpartum—you can only provide good care to your baby if you're feeling safe, happy, and supported. That means staying rested, hydrated, well-nourished, and calm—so don't be afraid to ask for or get what you want, physically, mentally, and emotionally. The words "I need" can go far during the postpartum period, so learn to use them. A happy mom and baby are more valuable than a clean kitchen or a freshly-vacuumed rug.
Get meals taken care of: Having at least one meal a day already planned, prepped, and/or prepared is a lifesaver when you have a needy newborn; bonus if the meal is healthy and nutritious! Thinking ahead about meals for after baby can cut down on instances when your partner is desperately ordering pizza at 8 pm with a screaming baby in the background. It's great if you've been cooking extra food and freezing it, but don't hesitate to ask your community for help, too. MealTrain is a great service you can use to organize a group of people to bring you meals, and it's totally free!
Set boundaries: Your family and friends are so excited about the baby! You don't want to diminish that excitement, but you need to make sure you're not getting overwhelmed with well-meaning visitors just after you've birthed a small human. Some people want company soon after birth; others prefer to wait a few days or weeks before showing off the babe. So set clear boundaries with family and friends. Say, "We're only having immediate family visit in the hospital," or "We're hoping to limit visits to 30 minutes so we can rest" or whatever works for you. Boundaries can also include conversation topics or advice, i.e., "If we need breastfeeding help, we will ask you for it," or "I know you think cloth diapering is too difficult, but it's what we plan to try." Setting up expectations for the kind of company and support you want can help to avoid hurt feelings and conflict during the often raw, tender postpartum period. The conversations may be awkward now, but clear communication will be worth it in the end.
Ask for help: You don't have go it alone—if you need help, ask for it! Women in our culture are often scared or embarrassed to admit they need assistance, but there's seriously no shame in reaching out to your network, even if they're not close family or friends. Experienced moms know just how hard it is to have a newborn and they're often eager to help, even if that help involves just coming over to sit on your couch and listen to you cry. So put out that SOS status on Facebook; you can repay the favor once you're feeling more confident.
Hire a postpartum doula: Don't have family nearby? Don't want family nearby? Are you a single parent or does your partner have limited leave? A postpartum doula can be just the thing to help ease you into new parenthood. Postpartum doulas are trained in infant care, breastfeeding, and general support of postpartum families. They also do light cooking and cleaning, errands—basically whatever you need to make your life more calm and manageable. They generally charge by the hour, but you can buy a package or just a few hours of help, on a regular schedule or only when you feel you need it. Many postpartum doulas will also do overnights, which lets you get the precious rest you need to recharge and take care of your baby. Check out DONA International or CAPPA to find a list of postpartum doulas in your area.
Aim low: This may sound harsh, but lower your expectations for what life as a new parent is going to be like. Whatever you're picturing, it's likely not going to look anything like that—and that's okay. Some days, just getting out of the house to buy a nipple shield at Target or taking a shower is all you're going to be able to do. Give yourself the emotional and mental space for your postpartum experience to be whatever it will be—both positive and negative. Don't expect life to be anything like it was before you gave birth; You'll find your new normal in time.