Postpartum Uncut: RELATIONSHIPS
This week, I am discussing all things boundaries, how our lovers deal with postpartum and how we deal with intimacy after our baby is here. What a shockingly boring intro. But you get the picture!
You’ve just arrived home from the hospital. Your maternity bra is un-clipped and your left boob is falling out because you’ve just breastfed for the 567th time today and you smell body odour that’s most definitely coming from you. Your baby just did a poo explosion and you are scrambling through those perfectly folded drawers of clothes looking for a simple zippy. The baby is screaming because it doesn’t like being naked. Your husband is unpacking the hospital bag because he is an angel. Or maybe he is sitting on the lounge checking the footy score because he doesn’t know what’s good for him. He calls from the lounge room ‘mum’ll be here in a few minutes. And she is bringing Aunty Lisa, Aunty Emma and their collective 5 children ranging from ages 2 to 10. I might try and set up the Wii.’ You’ve still not washed your hair since birth, and you feel like your eyeballs may fall out. You feel a new rage you never knew existed within you.
We all probably have a story like this one or varied, but you know the feeling of dread when people ask if they can come over and meet the baby. Sometimes, we welcome it and love the thought of our family and friends meeting our baby, but at times, let’s be real, it is more of a burden. We can feel as if it’s impossible to say no, but you also feel a strong want to tell them to come another time.
Communicate with your partner whether visitors are going to help or hinder you in that moment. Perhaps, you would appreciate some company, and all of you is saying ‘yes’ in that moment. More often than not though, there are probably parts of you wanting to just run a bath for you and bub and have some peace and quiet in your own haven of home. My suggestion would be if the part of you screaming ‘go away and let me bathe in peace’ is louder than the former, organise a different time. If your partner is organising visitors, be clear with something like, ‘right now isn’t going to work, but tomorrow morning would be great.’ Make sure you are clear with your partner, and don’t leave what you mean or what you’re really deep down feeling up to interpretation. There is nothing wrong with being firm. Sometimes, deep down, I also regretted saying ‘yes’ to visitors. I grinned and bared it, but in hindsight, this was total people pleasing. I totally ignored what my heart and gut needed in that moment, and sometimes was a little too selfless. Organising another day is not selfish. You don’t have to do everything or see all the people in one day.
People get funny and selfish and at times entitled when a new baby comes along, but the reality is, that baby is your baby and setting healthy boundaries isn’t selfish. This is a sweeping statement, and I didn’t have too many experiences of this, but I did have a few moments where I felt a bit bad about saying I needed space within those first few days. Especially as my labour was long, and people were keen to hear news and see Henry. Yes, they have invested interest, but no one should be setting the timeline on when they can visit or when they receive news. Obviously, people aren’t going to let 3 years go by without announcing their baby’s birth. Announce your baby to people when you like and make no apologies. Once you do arrive home, if boundaries are being stretched to not even asking to pop over and you are not okay with that, you are within your rights to say something. It doesn’t need to be rude – a simple, ‘hey, I love hanging out with you, but this time in the week would really work for us instead of xyz.’ Sometimes the conversation will need to firmer of course, but if anything, try not to be talked into the fact you are overreacting or making it a bigger deal than it is. Boundaries are there for a reason, and at the end of the day it is a matter of mere respect, courtesy, and kindness when it comes to people sticking to those boundaries.
You may be someone who thrives off company and love having your home filled with people. It is common in many cultures to have family around during the fourth trimester and beyond, and that is okay too. It all comes down to what you, as the healing and new mother, desire and need in that space and feeling as if you are being heard and respected. There is no right or wrong in terms of visitors because everyone has different preferences, however respecting new mothers as they are learning and unwinding from pregnancy is essential. Let her bond. Let her decide. Let her breathe. Do not make it about anyone other than her.
Your partner may have a varied response to the postpartum season than you and that is okay. Even the couples who are most in tune with each other may come up against challenges around interpreting postpartum differently, or merely experience a different set of emotions than one another. I always felt like Josh and I were on the same page with the important things. People who know us personally will understand Josh is one of the most tender, sensitive and gentle guys out there, and I can’t say we struggled majorly with this, but there were moments I felt like he just didn’t get it. I told him this, and he agreed that he didn’t quite get how hard breastfeeding was. He agreed he didn’t quite get the tiredness that I felt down to my bones. He agreed he didn’t quite get the mood fluctuations in those early days. He didn’t try to tell me what I was feeling was menial or invalid. He didn’t try to ‘measure up’ next to me. Instead, he sat with me and did everything in his power to help me feel supported and not alone. Without him, my postpartum journey would have been epically harder.
The reality is men will never 100% understand what a mother goes through during her postpartum season in its entirety. But we also can’t expect them too. They are wired differently, and quite simply are not experiencing every single emotion we are as mothers. What you can and need to expect though is understanding, solidarity and support. They can’t take the pain, stress or overwhelm away, but they can cheer you on, carry you, cry with you, laugh with you, and encourage you (oh and they can change nappies, just in case he wants to argue). If you are feeling as if your partner is dismissive, or unsupportive, it’s time for a conversation. Having an open conversation and being explicit and specific about ways in which your partner can help and love you during this time should at least plant a seed. Start with what you are loving about their support, and then talk about what you feel like you may be needing more of practically or emotionally.
Understanding that postpartum is hard on men is also worth noting. Just because they may not be feeling what we are feeling all the time, they are feeling things that we may find hard to relate to. Josh experienced challenges such as taking care of me and trying to make me feel as supported as possible without disappointing me, he also felt tired and exhausted, and practical things like paying the bills. He also dealt with missing Henry when he went and worked and struggled with the idea of Henry missing out on spending time with him through the day. These feelings are all valid too. Creating a space together in our home where conversations and check-ins with each other are always welcome really benefits us. Putting time and effort into your relationship and taking time out to listen is paramount. It will connect and unite you.
When I fell pregnant with Henry, I lost my libido almost completely. We had been blessed with a very fulfilling and active sex life before I fell pregnant, and we were never having sex to fall pregnant. It was a result which we always knew was possible, but it was never felt mechanical, dull or boring. When I fell pregnant, it was like a switch flicked. Suddenly I was crippled with fear that I would miscarry or ‘hurt’ the baby, which in hindsight I know now was the main roadblock to sex being enjoyable for me physically. It felt different, I felt tense, and it was put on the back burner most of my pregnancy.
During the postpartum stage it wasn’t much different. During this season, it sadly just wasn’t a priority for me, as I was riddled with tiredness, physical shock of what just happened physically and mentally, and I felt no urge or want. I learnt that breastfeeding can cause lower libido, as well as sleep deprivation, so I listened to my body and we decided to take it really slow. We wanted it to feel how it used to once feel, which was relaxed, fun, and natural.
I feel so passionately about not putting a time limit on yourself to begin having sex again. Some friends liked to remind me that it is ‘safe’ after six weeks and it ‘should’ be normal again after that, however I flatly dispute that. You may feel like having sex again once you’re home from the hospital, in which case, go you (as long as its safe!)! But others may not feel like it something they feel like doing for months after birth. Don’t let anyone peer pressure you or make you feel odd about giving yourself space to let your sexuality come back in its own time. It encompasses a lot more than just our bodies and needs to be treated with care.
For us, it took six months. After that, I felt safe in my body, safe in my mind, and it meant I could relax and thoroughly enjoy sex again just like before. There was no awkwardness, no tension, no inhibition. It was a huge blessing, and I was so glad we didn’t force it just because the leaflet said it was ‘safe’ to do so. Listening to your body is a vital key here. The more in tune you are in with your body, the better the experience will be when it does come around, and the more you will experience the fullness of healing and the natural build-up of your libido again. Many issues women face with intimacy or sex first manifest in the mind, so letting yourself and your partner explore this together in different ways is so important. Healing is always possible, but we need to let ourselves take our time.
Once you do feel like it again, let it become a priority again. I am totally ready for people to disagree with this, which is fine, but it is my whole-hearted opinion that sex can be a priority in your relationship after a baby/babies and in amongst work/day care drop off/family functions/breastfeeding/housework etc. Allowing time and space for physical intimacy alongside being a parent is okay and I would go as far as saying important. It’s designed to be an awesome and blessed part of our lives. Everyone is different, every couple is different, the frequency between couples will vary and I totally understand. But if it was important to you before babies, there is no reason it can’t be now. If it feels like a chore, examine why it feels that way and explore that thoroughly. Are your stress levels too high to enjoy it? Do you not feel good in your own skin? Do you need to put in place a light exercise regime for a burst of endorphins and sunshine? Are you in a good space in other areas of your relationship? Do you feel valued? Perhaps you need to schedule time for intimacy within the week to build anticipation. Perhaps you bed share and need to explore different avenues for creativity. Don’t stagnate and declare its too hard. Whatever your roadblocks may be, explore them openly. Take it as your own pace, but just know you can enjoy a fulfilling sex life after children. (our beloved parents and family, if you made it to here without quitting, I AM SORRY/I won’t be able to look you in the eye again for a few weeks!).
It’s also common that you feel like being intimate with your partner but haven’t recovered yet physically. Some women I know shared that they really felt like having sex again but physically were told to hold off. In this case, I would say listen to your midwives and GP. There is beauty in taking things slow. There is a beautiful energy and a force that occurs within your body in waiting for this moment to share with your partner again. Try to find other ways to enjoy intimacy with your partner that isn’t sex, such as taking baths, cuddling, getting outside together, or physical touch that is more mellow. Again, the key is listening to your body and trusting each other to make and keep the physical side of your relationship safe and relaxed.
Dating your partner is going to look different now. Having a baby is a huge adjustment to your relationship. You won’t realise it when your pregnant, and it’s something you are none the wiser to until your baby is here. Cry through your life being different now. Grieve it, even. We cried together once standing in the kitchen when Henry was days old, realising that our old life was gone. It really hadn’t gone, but the shift it had taken felt as if it was. Date nights will require some more forward planning and even simple alone time in the house together will be something new to navigate. Lean into it and call upon your supports to help you dedicate time together. It could be sharing a coffee together once the baby is down or going for a walk together while one of those pesky visitors rocks up. Its going to be different, but it’s a beautiful different.
Thank you for joining me on this journey of Postpartum Uncut. It’s been so fun and healing writing all this down, and I hope it’s been a blessing to you. Pass it onto a girlfriend and spread the word that postpartum is messy and fabulous all rolled into one.