There is a lot that is wildly hard and unpredictable about motherhood. Not only are we immediately tasked with caring for another human 24 hours a day (with no end in sight!), but we're also going through our own rapid physical and emotional transition. New moms are basically never alone and barely sleeping. We can't recharge. Managing the postpartum period carries a unique set of challenges, then throw into the mix the nature of being an introvert, those who inherently need quiet alone time to rest and recover energy, and the walls close in tighter.
It's been a tough two years and I wish I'd known someone who could have told me all of this because it is all normal, natural, okay and really, really hard.
You may already be familiar with the circumstances of my miscarriage, immediate next pregnancy, traumatic delivery and subsequent time in the hospital with my son, who was in the NICU for a week. Yes, that was all really hard, but that tested me in a different way than the realities of postpartum life.
The postpartum period challenges every mother in a myriad of ways. The most common issue of postpartum depression or anxiety, which affects one in nine women in the US, is becoming more and more accepted as a condition. It can be hard to get accurate numbers as the criteria for diagnosis is always changing (and the drugs for treatment become more and more ethically questionable), but my guess is that more women are being diagnosed and medicated than need to be, and less women are accepting that they may be experiencing a more mild case of it and so endure it alone and in silence.
No matter what our circumstance may be, the first year with a new baby is rough. You don't get a day off, time to decompress, regroup and come back at it as the person you pictured you'd be when your little one arrived.
How Does The Postpartum Period Uniquely Affect Introverts?
As I outline in my post about being an introvert in an extrovert world, "The main differentiating factor between introverts and extroverts is where we gain our energy. Extroverts get it from being out in the world, socializing, stimulating that brain reward centre in big ways, and having those interactions. Introverts re-energize by being alone. Even better for us – being alone in nature."
As a new mom, or a mom to more than one, in that first year, we have no time to be alone.
When I wasn't with my baby, I was working. And if schedules aligned, and my husband could take the baby out after the first feeding of the day, I was hopefully sleeping. I found sleeping really hard. I always do. There were many nights when my son would wake up for a feeding and I wouldn't fall back to sleep before he was up again a few hours later. My days were so full that between being a mom and running my business, the middle of the night was about the only time I had to be by myself and process my thoughts.
The spiral began.
I was, as most moms are, excruciatingly exhausted. I qualified a good night as one that included a single four-hour stretch of sleep and maybe another hour in the morning. I wasn't getting enough sleep and so I didn't have the energy or motivation to exercise. I know enough about health to know that if I took on any regular intensive physical exertion in this condition, my adrenals and thyroid would likely be the next to be compromised. Any subtle noise would make me jump thinking it was the baby crying. I felt constantly like I was a step behind. The depletion, lack of motivation, and waning ambition ran deep.
This isn't at all unique to my own experience. This is common.
The Challenge With Support As An Introvert
We're often told to ask for help, being reminded that it 'takes a village'.
What many mothers do to cope is often to call on a support network of friends and family, invite someone over to lend a hand. I couldn't. I didn't have the energy. The thought of having anyone over, even family, felt like more effort at times. It would mean making conversation that I just didn't have the energy to make.
Some moms find solace in joining mom and baby groups. Acquaintances who had babies around the same time as me would ask if I was going to story time at the library, if I'd signed Finley up for this music class or knew about this other program, or if I wanted to meet for a playdate. I had not and no, I didn't want to. I couldn't – I just didn't have the capacity for any extra social interaction, more conversations, smiling, and engaging. I didn't have the energy.
As an introvert, this creates a strange conflict.
We are too exhausted to socialize, and yet the sleep deprivation increases feelings of loneliness. I was recently listening to this podcast and it clicked for me. It wasn't just that I was an introvert and being anti-social. Studies have been done on this. The podcast episode referenced a study that demonstrated how a lack of sleep causes specific changes in the brain that creates a cascade effect on behaviour and emotional wellbeing. Furthermore, this change also affects the functioning of the immune system (which I've written about here). The result of this mechanism in the body is that when we're sleep deprived, it's built into our DNA to avoid social interaction. In turn, those in our lives may stop making the effort and now a cycle has been put in place.
In regular terms, introverts typically shy away from a heavy load of social interaction. Add sleep deprivation to that and we go to extremes. All anyone tells you about that postpartum space in life after having a baby is not to be afraid to ask for help, to get out and meet other moms, to be part of the mom/baby scene. But what happens when reaching out feels even more overwhelming and lonelier than hiding within?
"You Make It Look Easy". Ha!
Isn't that what we all do? I recognize that I do have it 'easy', all things considered. I have just one child and at the most basic and most important level, I have all the resources I need to support the health and safety of my son. I also have a husband who is as active and attentive to our baby as I am. He cooks, he cleans, and he does whatever is needed. And we have childcare which allows both of us to work.
On a daily basis, I wonder how single parents do it, or how parents of two kids or four kids manage. I wonder how parents of a special needs child manage. I wonder how a friend of mine, a single mother of twins who works full time, can ever brush her teeth and take a shower.
I see women out with their babies and fancy strollers and diaper bags and the moms have their hair washed and might even have a spot of make-up on. It often felt like everyone else has it figured out.
Not once in the last two years have I felt like "I got this". I still forget his diapers when we go out. I don't even have an actual diaper bag. l feel like a superstar if I remember a snack and his bottle of water. If we leave somewhere and I haven't forgotten some crucial item of his gear, it feels like a miracle.
We see each other online and we all make it look so easy. Here I am with my baby travelling for work. Here we are on a road trip. Here we are having brunch at a restaurant. Here we are out shopping.
What we don't see or share are the tantrums (the kids' and maybe our own bout of exhaustion-induced tears), or the 5am wake-ups, the middle of the night wake-ups, the no-nap days, the refusal of a dinner you spent time making and this list could go on a long, long time. We don't share how we beat ourselves up for how we look after having a baby, or what we regret saying or doing when we are too tired to be mindful.
Parenting is hard.
I think it's simply that we learn to manage. That being a mother means we adjust to the circumstances we are in and we do our best. But I don't believe it's truly easy at every moment for any of us. We just try.
How Did I Manage?
To be honest, I'm not sure that I did that well. I would text with friends and we'd make loose plans to meet up and when the day came and went, I'd be relieved they didn't happen. I'd genuinely want to catch up with people and talk about having them over for dinner, but when I thought about using every nap break on the weekend to make a big dinner, the deal was off.
My Sanity Preserving Strategies:
- I consciously declined as many invites as I reasonably could.
- I set a one-activity per day limit. If we went somewhere for brunch, that was our one outing.
- I protected my son's nap times fiercely. I could not give up a weekend nap for him to nap on the go in the car or stroller. I needed that nap break for self-care to sleep, or do yoga, or do absolutely nothing.
- I was disciplined in going to bed on time (for me, in bed by 9:30).
- I limited what I took on with work to just what was essential to keep things moving smoothly and serving my school's Culinary Nutrition Experts.
- I was mindful about going out at night. If I went out for dinner with friends, I needed time to decompress from the stimulation before going to sleep, or I wouldn't sleep.
Finding The Light
My son is now nearly two. It has taken this long for me to feel like myself again, or at least feel strong, energized and fully engaged in my life, in my business and to have the desire to socialize and connect in meaningful ways with others. I have a hard time remembering specific moments from the last two years. I can't really remember what my son was like as a baby. I can't remember how we passed that time. I know we played and made him giggle, but I also remember how desperately I just needed a moment. Though it's hard to admit it, mostly what I remember is feeling just overwhelmed and tired.
One part that is so challenging about this postpartum period is that we are in it, and because of the exhaustion, our cognitive function is so heavily impaired that it becomes impossible to see through to the other side. To even consider that it will pass and that one day we might wake up with energy, feeling inspired to move and create and engage seems like an absolute impossibility.
I am a healthy woman. I know what to eat, and eat it. I know I need to exercise and after what feels like a lifetime, I am over the moon excited to say that it is back in my life 4-5 times a week. I am now sleeping better than before I got pregnant. I am excited to go into work in the morning, I'm inspired to take on new projects and be challenged. And I am most excited of all to come home and see my little boy's sweet smile, his happy dance, and try and make sense of his toddler babble description of his day. It's taken a lot to get here.