On the first night home with our newborn daughter, I woke up at 2am, frantically searching for her underneath a pile of laundry. She was sound asleep in her bassinet. On the second night, I woke to her screams only to realise she was (again) sound asleep. I knew babies cry a lot but I didn’t realise their cries continue in your head long after they have stopped.
No one told me that the fourth trimester - the clinical term for the first three months of the baby’s life - would be torturous, and in my opinion on par with the pain of childbirth.
I remember when I was 35 weeks pregnant and my partner and I went to an antenatal class. Sue, our teacher, had spent four hours preparing us for birth. We covered stages of labour, discussed pain relief options and even passed around forceps.
We spent a mere 30 minutes on post birth. Sue mentioned the fourth trimester, a time when babies were vulnerable and underdeveloped, hence an extension of the third trimester. Attending to their needs was often exhausting on new parents. In class, we brainstormed ways to settle a crying baby.
Breastfeeding, sleep deprivation and postnatal depression were vague concepts that I didn’t understand or take seriously.
Foolishly, I left class craving more information about the birth. Feeding, swaddling and singing to a baby – how hard could it be? Childbirth was so overwhelmingly distracting, I paid little attention to anything else.
Although my 12-hour labour and forceps delivery wasn’t easy, it was over relatively quickly. I was also well looked after by a team of professionals. Immediately after birth, I was thrown into something a lot harder, something that required all of my mental strength and then some. And I was grossly underprepared.
Breastfeeding, sleep deprivation and postnatal depression were vague concepts that I didn’t understand or take seriously. I had no idea how demanding feeding would be. I was breastfeeding, pumping and burping up to 13 hours a day. I thought I would be watching Netflix and browsing the internet. In reality, I spent most of feeding time adjusting her latch, tickling her so she stayed awake and massaging breast lumps to avoid mastitis.
Graveyard feeds were the hardest. I sat in the dark fighting back streams of yawn tears, wishing time away and then feeling guilty about it.
Of sleep deprivation, I used to rely on eight to nine hours a day and more on weekends. With five to six hours of interrupted sleep, I wasn’t “just tired”, I was moody and irritable. Household mess that never bothered me before annoyed me to no end. Life’s everyday hiccups (Medicare rejected my application due to a technicality; there was a recall on my pram; the internet stopped working) became impossible to manage.
I resented my husband, even though it was unreasonable. He is a great partner and dad. But he could go to after work drinks, even if he did only stay for one. At least he had an “after work”. He could have a night away from the baby. He could go for bike rides and long runs. His life, while changed, resembled the one he had pre-baby. My life was barely recognisable.
If I wasn’t annoyed, I was anxious. I worried if my baby was getting enough milk. I worried if she was getting too much. I worried if she was too cold. I worried if she was too hot. I worried when she slept too much. I worried when she didn’t sleep enough.
Keeping my anxiety in check was exhausting.
I worried if my baby was getting enough milk. I worried if she was getting too much. I worried if she was too cold. I worried if she was too hot.
It’s estimated that postnatal depression will impact one in five new mums and one in 10 new dads. Postnatal anxiety will impact most new parents. Given its prevalence, we don’t talk about this nearly as much as we do about birth. When we do, it’s always about treatment whether that’s counselling, support groups, helplines or medication.
Recently, a friend asked me if I did “crazy Chinese confinement”, a common practice in my birthplace, Hong Kong, and other predominantly non-Western cultures where new mums are kept indoors for at least 30 days after birth. Mothers stick to a strict, protein-rich diet while not bathing or washing their hair (to avoid getting chills). They don’t do any cooking or cleaning, instead these tasks are delegated to a live-in family member or an experienced confinement nanny.
Dismissing it as outdated, I didn’t do confinement but now I see how it can help. Beyond staying at home, new mums are provided around-the-clock care. It’s recognition that the first months of motherhood are tough, and there is no expectation that new mums do anything other than feed, rest and eat well. When she graduates from confinement, she is in the best physical and mental state to care for her baby.
What if we borrow the best parts of confinement and incorporate them into our birth plans? If we take the mental challenge of the fourth trimester as seriously as we do for the physical challenge of childbirth, perhaps then we could make the transition into parenthood a little smoother.
Lucille Wong is a freelance writer. You can follow her on Twitter @luci1307.