For many people, the experience of being in labour and giving birth feels like a mountain they have to climb. Often, when you’re pregnant, you can’t see beyond that mountain. You spend a lot of time thinking about your birth preferences, such as where to give birth, which birth partner or partners you hope will be there, what drugs you might want or not, and so on. Due to the looming, hulking hugeness of this mountain, few people remember that once they’ve climbed up it, they still have far to go on their parenthood journey.
This is why, in my work as a doula, I always suggest my clients and I spend at least one antenatal session talking about their postnatal preferences. When I first bring up the concept, people often look at me oddly. Their understanding of the postnatal period tends to be that they’ll recover from birth and get to know their baby. And of course, to some extent, this is absolutely true. But that’s not all there is to life past the mountain. So, what kinds of things should expectant parents consider when it comes to postnatal preferences?
Your postpartum cocoon
First of all, you need to think about what you want your setting – your postpartum cocoon – to be like. Do you want to spend the initial days or weeks in your own home? Or would you prefer to stay with a relative or friend who you know will lovingly care for you? Where would you feel safest? And how can you make that location feel cosy? Are there lights or images that you’d like to have around you? Do you expect to spend a lot of time in a bed, supported by piles of pillows? Or do you plan to make your nest on a sofa?
Once you know where you will most likely be, consider how many rooms your cocoon will have, or whether it will be across different floors. You might decide you need multiple changing and feeding stations dotted around, complete with nappies, wipes, cloths, breast pads, reusable water bottles, reading material, and so on. People underestimate how often a baby might fall asleep on them, leaving them stuck on a couch, and it’s essential that you have access to plenty of drinks, snacks and books, wherever you are. Hopefully, you’ll have people around you who will rush to your side with a nappy or a granola bar, but there may be times when you’re on your own and you don’t want to disturb your settled baby just to plug in your phone or put the kettle on.
Speaking of people, who are you allowing into your cocoon? Just as you might carefully curate your list of who you want with you while you give birth, you should ponder this same issue in regard to your postnatal period. Some new parents feel overwhelmed by relatives descending on them, eager to meet the baby. There are folks who simply don’t want to play pass the parcel with their newborn, while there are others who long for company and would be glad to have people there to help them. Some aren’t sure, and no matter how you feel, you have the right to change your mind. So, how social do you think you’ll be feeling after you’ve been through the marathon that is birth? Are there people who would bring joy to your life if they visited? Are there some who you know would be helpful and would put on a load of laundry or cook you a meal? Are there people you feel you need to put off seeing for as long as possible? It’s your baby and it’s your new family; it’s acceptable and necessary for you to put boundaries around who is allowed into your cocoon.
Stuff to buy or prepare
When you’re pregnant, people often start telling you about things you absolutely ‘must’ have. Guess what? You probably don’t need most of them. Humans have successfully been raising babies for a very long time without the fanciest pushchair or a wardrobe full of adorable outfits. If you want those things and can afford them, go ahead. But also consider a few items that would be useful – potentially even necessary – in the postnatal period.
It’s not terribly exciting, but maternity pads for your lochia, breast or chest pads for your milk, laxatives, pain relief, and a small jug for pouring warm water on your genitals as you pee might all come in handy in those immediate weeks. If you think you might want to express milk, a pump can be a good purchase, but try to give yourself some time to get the hang of breastfeeding or chestfeeding before you stress about adding in pumping sessions.
If you, your partner, or anyone else, can prepare meals for you in advance, that can be a real time-saver when you have a new baby. Another option is to purchase a lot of ready-toeat meals, or easy-to-cook items such as rice, pasta, tinned vegetables, beans and so forth. If there’s anything you would love to have, get it in the house in advance. It may be a celebratory bottle of beer or some of that cheese your tastebuds decided should be off-limits during pregnancy. Some people have particular foods linked to their ethnic or religious background that are considered important to have in the postpartum weeks. If that’s you, think about whether this is something you can cook or whether you need to arrange for someone else to make it for you.
And don’t forget to treat yourself to a good pile of books or magazines, bought or borrowed, as you will probably be spending a lot of time resting and feeding. Your thumbs might get tired of scrolling on your phone so prepare a list of reading material, TV shows, films, audiobooks or podcasts that you’d like to enjoy while holding your lovely new baby.
Things to do
By ‘things to do’, I certainly don’t mean you should be making plans for running errands, getting out on the football field or attending stand-up comedy shows – unless that’s what you want to be doing. Rather, I mean thinking about how you might like to structure your parental leave and that of your partner, if you have one. Consider how much time you’ll have off and what sorts of activities you will want or need to do in that time. Of course, you’ll have some required appointments – officially naming your baby, for example, or seeing the GP or midwife. But mostly, you’ll have a lot of unstructured time, which can be challenging for some people.
There may be cultural or religious traditions that you want to partake in: a baby’s christening or head-shaving, for example. You may also want to have some ‘keeping in touch days’ at work. (Then again, you might not.) You might feel you need some solo time, whether that’s a walk on your own or a massage. All these things will have to be scheduled.
In addition, many regions have lots of baby-centred activities. Find out what’s on offer near you and what you might want to do. Do you like the sound of baby massage, postnatal yoga, baby cinema, baby swimming, bounce-and-rhyme sessions at the library, breastfeeding cafes, sensory sessions, or something else? If you did an antenatal course, do you think you might want to hang out with other new parents from that group? Don’t push yourself to leave the house too soon, but do consider whether you might feel isolated if you stay in too much. Be cautious about planning too many activities; think about what might work for you and your baby.
Finally, who will help you if you need it? Keep a handy list of friends who might be able to get your older children to school, or who could take a restless toddler to the playground for an hour, or who might be willing to walk your dog or water your plants.
Look into grocery delivery and, if it’s within your means, cleaning or cooking services. Anything you can do to make your life easier tends to be well worth it. You don’t want to be recovering from birth and stressing about the thick layer of dust in your living room; if you’re the type of person who can’t overlook a mess, consider a short period of hiring someone else to do some tasks for you. If you think you’ll need help taking care of the baby and transitioning into your new role as a parent, look into a postnatal doula, who is there to support you as an individual, and you, the baby and your partner (if you have one) as a family.
Meanwhile, don’t forget your own wellbeing. You will have a GP check-up, but it is often rather perfunctory. Make sure you know where to turn if you need physiotherapy or other physical support, especially if you have had a tear or a c-section. And as for your mental and emotional health, see if there are any therapists, charities or others who might be of help, should you find you need to talk to someone once you’ve had the baby.
There are many brilliant charities and helplines in the UK (and in other countries), dedicated to everything from breastfeeding to baby loss. Think about the issues that may currently affect your life, such as eating disorders or depression, and how they might change as you become a parent. Line up support before it becomes too hard for you to reach out for it.
Giving birth is an exciting and transformational event, but there’s a lot beyond that mountain to think about as well. Make your preparations for the postnatal period while you’re pregnant, so your parental leave is as easy and pleasant as possible.
B.J. Woodstein is a doula, lactation consultant, writer, translator and associate professor in literature. Her most recent books include We’re Here! A Practical Guide to Becoming an LGBTQ+ Parent and The Portrayal of Breastfeeding in Literature. She lives in Norwich with her wife and their two daughters. bjwoodstein.com
Published in issue 82 of JUNO. Accurate at the time this issue went to print.