Today I reach six weeks postpartum. The magic number that everyone talked about and I thought would never, ever come. I feel like a butterfly having been in a cocoon. I feel as though I’ve been in hiding in a cave underwater, underground, and now I’m back in the light. I feel as though I’m expected to move on and be completely normal again, whatever that means, and I feel the pressure to do so from inside myself as well.
To help me adjust to my new life and role, I’ve been reading The Birth of a Mother by Daniel Stern. It is true that the book is heteronormative and I find it, at times, assumptive. When he says ‘all mothers’ I cringe a little but I have to admit that most of the time, his descriptions broadly include my experiences. I may not have thought it through this deeply or done this much reflection but he sure seems to get what I’ve been going through the last six weeks. Sometimes he takes the words right out of my mouth and at others he describes feelings I never could have expressed on my own.
In my opinion, one of the most important points he makes is that the mother is not born the day her child is born. I think this is something we don’t understand nearly enough. When they put my baby on my chest 6 weeks ago, little Q was mostly a complete stranger. I was not full of joy and love; I was full of fear, pain, amazement, discomfort, anxiety, and worry. I didn’t know this person, not really, and I certainly didn’t feel capable of taking care of him in a moment when I was wholly unable to take care of myself. It took weeks to become a mother after that moment. And the process, while strange and new and uncomfortable, has been slowly transformative.
While I was becoming a mother, I spent the first three weeks immersed in what Stern calls the Affirmation Matrix. My husband, son and I stayed home during this time, alone with my mother, while friends and community members brought or sent food, clothes and love, staying only briefly. I also spent many hours of my day, while nursing or resting or fighting through tears, texting and emailing with mothers I knew around the world. In this way. I was simultaneously supported and isolated, allowing me to heal, bond and develop my skills. My mother encouraged me to talk to the baby, even though it seemed clear he didn’t care if I did or not. She showed us how to bathe him, urged us not to take crying personally and gently encouraged us to try new holds or a new view over and over until something calmed him. And perhaps most importantly, she allowed me to talk in circles about my worries, plans and insecurities, and told me that no matter what I was feeling, it was ok. In this way, I learned to become a mother slowly, through guidance and modelling, and through direct experience with that little baby without the pressure of having to keep him alive all by myself. That said, the extra support meant the day my mother left I was a puddle of anxiety. How could I possibly do everything I’d been doing alone?
And thus began what I think of as the second stage of becoming a mother: being home alone with the baby. Though I didn’t feel ready, I needed this time alone with baby to grow my confidence and skills enough to take care of him on my own.
Thus, in two stages, we arrive here, at the magical six weeks postpartum. I have been for my checkup with the midwife. I am healing just fine, although when people continue to offer that strangely culturally appropriate sentiment: you look like you’ve never had a baby (while vainly reassuring and unfortunately comforting, I find this sentiment also suggests that I am supposed to look this way, that this compliment is meant to encourage us all to strive for this ideal, literally or subconsciously, and that is surely unfair) I continue to respond in a most honest way: I sure feel like I have.
For me, the arrival at six weeks postpartum is also perfectly marked by my transition home to Canada for the summer. I am forever grateful for the timing of this, as it allows me in my time of rebirth to explore so many relationships all at once, and how they are changing and growing with this new transition.
I had three weeks with my mother, three weeks alone and now I feel I am about to rejoin the world. Like a doe on shaky legs, I am grateful to be doing so not by going back to work, as so many Americans do (and those in Papau New Guinea, in case you haven’t heard), but by being home in my own country with my own favourite people. I will have more resources available to me, in my own language, and people around me who have seen me through so many other life changes, keeping me grounded and compounding this feeling of emerging from a cocoon and into the light.