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The nursery is filled to the brim with everything from the baby first aid kit you got from your nurse friend to the most adorable baby outfits you’ve ever seen. You have decided to either breastfeed, bottle feed or a combination thereof. Supplies for either cloth or disposable diapers are well-stocked somewhere in the house. You are ready.

Or maybe nothing is ready. The baby shower is in a month. No decisions are made. And that precious bundle of joy has decided to make an early appearance.

Labor and delivery goes smoothly. Or it doesn’t. You deliver vaginally or have a cesarean.

Despite how you get there, the destination is the same. You are a mom now. So what happens next?

Much like the last few weeks leading up to the birth of your baby, the six weeks that follow can be filled with the biggest joys, struggles, triumphs and challenges of your entire life. Known in the mom realm as the fourth trimester, the first three months postpartum are among the less talked about parts of the adventure of motherhood. And it’s different for everyone.

No two postpartum experiences are alike

For Diana Migacz, who is in the midst of the fourth trimester following the birth of her second baby girl five weeks ago, it has been a smooth, but challenging experience she said is more than worth having – and sharing.

“I think one of the most important things I’ve come to live by is there’s no wrong way or right way to do anything provided your child is safe and healthy and well cared for,” said Migacz, who lives in Pewaukee. “We have so much information at our fingertips, but you need to do what’s best for your family, not what worked best for your best friend or coworker or even for your parents.”

"It’s a delicate, emotional time filled with ups and downs that almost requires you to have a sense of humor," Wauwatosa native Jennifer Wolf added.

“Everyone tells you when you’re pregnant for the first time that being pregnant is the easy part and you’re all smug about it,” said Wolf, who recently gave birth to her second baby. “Then you have the baby and realize that if you thought your hormones were totally berserk the first trimester, you had no idea what fun you had to look forward to after the baby is born.”

Then there are the moms who can’t take their babies home for weeks, or even months, after they are born, entrusting them in the care of doctors and nurses in a neonatal intensive care unit.

“Five of my first six weeks postpartum, my son was still in the hospital,” recalls Christina Destrampe, who had her son at 28 weeks. “Ironically (my scariest moment) wasn’t right after he was born or when the NICU team took him, it was when we came down to the NICU to see him for the first time since they took him….talking about it really brings back some of those memories and honestly, things seem so surreal now looking back.”

A time to adjust

The whole experience of becoming a mom, whether it’s for the first, second or sixth time, can seem surreal.

"It is not uncommon for moms to lose track of time in those first few months as everyone in the home adjusts to the changes," said Dr. Katharine Van Fossen of Froedtert and the Medical College of Wisconsin in Menomonee Falls.

“I do think of it as kind of a confinement period of time, and that’s okay provided you have a strong system of support as well,” said Van Fossen, who is both a board-certified OBGYN and mom of four. “Your body has just gone through nine months to build a life – that’s 280 days from your last menstrual period – and it has what we consider to be 42 days to fix it…that is really an amazing thing we need to respect by slowing down, eating well, sleeping as best we can and giving our body time to recover.”

Cases of postpartum depression and anxiety are not necessarily on the rise, Dr. Francine Cosner of the Aurora Health Center in Grafton added, but there is a growing emphasis on the importance of awareness about the mental condition that long outlasts the baby blues.

A time to heal

Recovery is a very emotional thing that Cosner and Van Fossen agreed needs to be talked about.

“We’ve just gone from seeing each other and establishing a relationship for the last nine months to not seeing you for six weeks, but we’re still here and we want to help,” said Van Fossen.

“Even with deliveries that are by some standards considered ‘easy,’ the event itself takes it out of you,” said Cosner. “You can be exhausted and fatigued, and then you’re home and need to mentally and physically recover while you’re also adjusting, running on less sleep and caring for your baby.”

Here’s what the doctors advised about physical recovery the first six weeks:

  • It is considered standard to bleed and spot for up to six weeks postpartum, and the flow can vary in intensity throughout. 
  • The pelvic floor is greatly impacted by a vaginal birth, which can lead to issues with bladder control. Kegel exercises and core building exercises can help, but only moderate exercise like walking is encouraged the first six weeks.
  • Stretch marks happen, and have a lot to do with genetics. Best practice is to keep the skin moisturized and rub the skin gently to encourage natural healing of the skin.
  • Sleep habits will most likely be all over the place for a while, and sleep deprivation is to be expected especially if a mom is the primary caretaker for the child in those first few weeks.
  • It’s just as, if not more, important to eat a healthy, well-balanced diet after the baby is born as it was when you were pregnant. Drinking a lot of water is crucial to maintain breastmilk supply as well, and it is usually a good idea to continue taking prenatal vitamins as long as suggested by your doctor.
  • Hemorrhoids are common, and tears are painful, but more than likely, both issues will resolve with time.

A time to unite

“As much of a struggle as the adjustment period can be, you need to remember this is something you have accomplished, this is something to be proud of,” Cosner added. “There are ups and downs but it is something you get through and should respect each other (as parents) for doing the same.”

You’re not alone that first time both children under the age of three have a meltdown, and you’re sure everyone is watching and judging.

“I was sitting in the back of the church fighting back tears because everything felt like such a hot mess,and this woman stopped me to say congratulations on the new baby and what a blessing she is,” said Migacz. “Stuff like that is really important because there can be so much judgment and criticism, so it means that much more when someone stops to say something kind.”

You’re not alone when your whole family is sick with snotty noses at Beef-a-Rama in northern Wisconsin, and a stranger approaches you armed with a compliment you’ll never forget.

“Everyone was boogery and not sleeping well and I’m 100 percent certain I had some kind of booger stain on my shoulder when a woman came up to me and said what a beautiful, happy family we have,” Wolf recalled. “Life and love is in those moments when someone can look beyond the boogers and the dark circles under your eyes and see you need to hear you’re doing a good job."

In the thick of it with the hormones all over the place, when all you can think about is taking a shower or getting some uninterrupted sleep, you need to remember it’s just like when you were a seventh grader and you thought for sure the world was ending.

“It got better then and this will too,” Wolf said. “I think it’s just so important that we all be lights for each other and remind that mom who looks frazzled at Target or has booger stains on her shirt at some crazy event in northern Wisconsin that they can survive this and it gets better.”

You’re not alone when you sob after holding your son for the first time, whether it’s seconds or days after he was born.

“The nurses handed him to me for a minute or so (the day after I was discharged) but he was having issues breathing so it was such a short amount of time before they took him away,” said Destrampe. “It took two people to bring him to me because of all the tubes, and it was extremely hard to wait that long, but it was amazing.”

No two cases are the same, but one thing unites us all.

We are moms now. And "mom" is one of the best job titles in the world.

Ty Schmidt is a freelance writer and mom to two boys.

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