When I was pregnant, many women who had already given birth would give me a squeeze of congratulations then pause, weighing up whether they should tell me what I might go through. No one did. We went to antenatal classes that covered labour, breastfeeding and swaddling, but there was no mention of what would happen in the hours and days following birth. Nothing.
Over drinks the other night, a fellow mum and I over-shared about our first foray into motherhood, and realised that no one really talks about the horrors. And that means very few women are prepared for birth and those first few momentous days post-partum. So here it is – warts and all!
The reality of having a baby. These points aren’t intended to scare any mums-to-be, or put you off getting pregnant, but to simply reassure you that it’s all normal. Even if it’s unspeakably bad at the time.
1. Cross those legs – 90 per cent of women experience tearing when giving birth naturally, and 60 per cent of those need stitches. It might be the result of pushing at the wrong time or the baby needing forceps/ventouse, but from minor tears to – whisper it – third- or fourth-degree tears, stitches are really common. Your recovery will depend on the severity, and it could take up to six months and what feels like hours of Kegels to feel ‘normal’ again.
2. For the first few days, you’ll be wearing a giant pad (much like one we used to toilet-train our puppy) in your giant mesh knickers. It’s huge. For most new mums, some form of pad will be needed for the first month: by the end it’s like a period, but in the beginning it’s like a scene from a CSI episode. You might leak through your clothes and on to chairs. You’ll have a wee then goodness knows what liquid will gush out as you stand up; there might be blood clots (some alarmingly large); and it might feel like your guts are in danger of dropping out.
3. Whether you have a C-section or push, in the days after birth – when your dignity well and truly nosedives – you don’t give a monkey’s who sees your bits. Consultants will come in to check your stitches, nurses will change stained sheets, virtual strangers will take you to the bathroom, and pretty much everyone will squeeze your breasts to get that precious colostrum out.
4. In my view, unless you’re really lucky, your labour will be hard. That’s why it’s called labour. After giving birth, when my daughter was put on my chest, I was in shock, unable to process the fact my bump was now a baby – one who looked more like a bush baby, all eyes and hairy shoulders. It’s very normal to not have an immediate connection with your newborn after the trauma of birth, or feel that rush of love that you hear about so often. It will happen; for some it takes a few hours, for others it’s months.
5. You now get to take the baby home. You, who is still unsure what a sub-prime mortgage is, and has joyfully lived off Frosted Flakes for weeks on end. A tiny human is now in your charge, and you’re expecting it to all ‘come naturally’ because there’s something called maternal instinct you’re not sure you have. Prepare to be a bit scared, and ask for lots of help.
6. Speaking of things coming naturally, breastfeeding doesn’t for the vast majority of women. You might spend six hours on the couch with the baby attached to your nipple, be up every hour to feed as they keep falling asleep on your breast, be in so much pain that you have to stamp your foot and scream silently until it subsides. If you’re struggling, get help. If you hate breastfeeding, it’s OK if you stop.
7. Six weeks after giving birth, you go back to your gynae for a truly weird appointment. She’ll be checking that your uterus has contracted and stitches healed so you can get the go-ahead to exercise and have sex. (Note: if your husband doesn’t come to the appointment he doesn’t need to know you got the all-clear.)
8. It’s a cliché that the parents of newborns experience fatigue on another level, but it’s clichéd for a reason; this kind of exhaustion could be used to torture spies into sharing state secrets.
9. I cried when changing the baby, when feeding the baby, from joy, from desperation, from sheer exhaustion, when my husband looked at me ‘in a funny way’, at the news, at my body, at absolutely everything.
Again, this is normal, even when you feel like you’re losing your mind and no-one in the world understands. Just remember: this too shall pass, and one day you won’t cry in the car when someone beeps their horn at you unfairly.
So, there you have it. And if you happen to know a pregnant woman and she’s talking about getting her eyelashes done for the post-labour photo, or what outfit she’s going to wear on the way home from the hospital, do her a favour and pass her a pack of heavy-duty sanitary pads and the number for your lactation consultant.