"All My Senses Were Heightened"
I remember the exact moment when I noticed things were changing. I was sitting at a table in the morning sunshine -- it must have been the second or third day after the birth of my first child -- and I was organizing a week's supply of vitamins. One of these was an oval translucent capsule of reddish gold that glowed as the sun shone through it. How beautiful! I was captivated... Why was the world suddenly so enchanting?
For some of us, the sensory changes in newborn time are quite intense -- and they are all the more surprising because no one prepares us for them! Or they may be mild and fleeting and go unnoticed because we're not tuned in to the possibility. In the flood of new experiences that a baby brings, sensory changes are easily overlooked. But when we know something about them, we can make those first days and weeks more nurturing for ourselves, or for any new mother. (I suspect that some of these changes are felt by fathers as well.)
I don't want to generalize about these experiences, for they are individual and unique to each person. But there are connecting threads. In the first place, why should the postpartum time involve sensory changes at all? I can think of several reasons.
Recovering from childbirth will slow your body down a while, so that you may see and hear and feel your surroundings in a new way. Paying attention to your baby's tiny form and small sounds will tune your eyes and ears to a more subtle scale. And as one new mother puts it, "sleep deprivation certainly is part of the brew -- and those omnipresent, anonymous hormones." (Have you ever seen a truly useful, user-friendly and comprehensive rundown of the hormones that affect us in the days and weeks after childbirth? I would like to find or create such information -- not just the names of hormones, but how they may relate to the changes of newborn time.)
Bonding with your baby calls forth a new quality of attention. Past and future fall away when the moment is so absorbing. You may feel as though your eyes are more open and see more, your ears hear more delicately, and your touch is more intelligent than ever. That feeling of "connectedness" (described in Part One of Postpartum Rainbow) extends to the world around you as you look at it with loving eyes and listen with loving ears. "The world opened up and everything took on a new luster," says Karen. "It was as if I too was seeing the world for the first time. It was a place full of wonder. My senses seemed to heighten. I was especially sensitive to noises. I wanted everything to be softer and quieter."
Adoptive parents may find their senses altered in the bonding time in much the same way. After adopting her baby boy, Patricia noticed "more visual awareness, awareness of environmental sounds, changes in texture and touch."
Linda, a birth mother, recalls similar perceptions in the first postpartum weeks: "My touch was much more sensitive, and all of my senses heightened. Colors looked vibrant; everything looked alive. I had slight hallucinations -- seeing a flash of something out of the corner of my eye and knowing it wasn't really there -- flashes of light, images, color."
Sensory changes can be delightful, but they also can be disturbing. Another woman writes, "Everything seemed to have an alternate meaning. For example, inanimate objects seemed to come alive. Pictures and statues seemed to be looking at me. I had to put my little porcelain animals away, because their eyes seemed to pierce right through me." To see everything "looking alive" may feel sweet and friendly, or it might be frightening -- or even a little bit comical, as in Alicia's story of "the Brussels sprout incident":
The night after I came home from the hospital, my mom came to stay and care for us. She made dinner and Jim brought it to me on a tray. There was a dish of Brussels sprouts which I stared at -- they looked like babies' heads. They all turned and looked up at me.
Why do things sometimes look "alive" in newborn time? Being with our baby, we're deeply engaged with a powerful presence in a tiny body -- have we ever been so intensely aware of another life? We're attuned to seeing "presence." And maybe our edges are so softened that we flow ourselves right into the objects around us.
Vision can change in other ways too. "I feel as if new eyes and ears have been given to me," I wrote in my diary on the third postpartum day. The glowing vitamin capsule was only the beginning -- colors were drawing me in, relaxing me, making me breathe deeper, and nourishing me with their beauty. Carla described her perceptions this way: "Colors were so intense at times I imagined I could even taste them!" <
The surface textures of things may look different ("Everything looked soft, like an impressionistic painting"), and even the size of objects and people may appear to shift. I tended to see things looking small and "cute," while another woman had the opposite experience: "Sometimes when we'd be lying in bed nursing, I could tune in to him and I would see the room and our surroundings through his eyes. Everything looked so BIG!"
Our sense of hearing can change too. Most often, new mothers notice their desire for quietness, and their magnified sensitivity to small sounds: "I became very aware of all the sounds of nature -- trees, birds, ocean -- that were quite far from my apartment complex." The levels of noise we're used to may be too intrusive now: "The TV was bothering me much more than usual. I wanted it to be really quiet." We might experience music differently, as though we're hearing it more deeply and responding with more of our being. "Music spoke to me in a special, moving way," one mother recalls. Another woman remembers going outdoors for the first time, three days after childbirth, and hearing "the music of the spheres -- a sort of cosmic concerto."
From the first moment of feeling the incredible softness of newborn skin, our sense of touch may seem transformed. And our own bodies can feel different, in size and texture and the way they move. Alicia describes "Alice in Wonderland" shifts, of feeling "quite tall, feet too large. Very small and scurrying." I remember how the parts of my own body felt tiny and dainty as I touched them, as though my hands were tuned to small dimensions. Soft and warm feelings are often part of this physical change, and they can be delicious, relaxing sensations. We may be aware of moving as though in slow motion. Some mothers even experience moments of feeling just like a newborn baby:
I was lying on our bed -- Caitlyn was sleeping nearby. The sun was shining onto the bed. I remember being frozen in the moment -- feeling "out-of-body" for a moment as I looked at my hands; and it was as if I was looking at a newborn's hands. I felt like I was a newborn. Everything looked unusually bright... I felt very warm and peaceful. My breathing also felt like I was a newborn baby. It was as if I could feel each breath in my chest. I'm not sure I had ever felt that peaceful before -- completely relaxed -- body, mind, spirit.
There is one other physical change which can be puzzling to new mothers and their families. The hormones present at birth tend to leave us energized and wakeful for hours afterward; but some women are surprised to find that they go on feeling high energy for weeks and even months. "After my second baby was born," one mother writes, "I was 'shot from guns' filled with energy, needed little sleep for three months; this gradually tapered down and now I'm somewhat back to normal but almost couldn't sleep after birth!" Such intense energy levels are sometimes (rarely) connected with a developing psychosis, and should alert us to pay good attention to how the new mother is doing.
These sensory changes of postpartum time still seem mysterious to me. Biochemistry may be able to explain them, or we may need to call on some other concepts as well -- like telepathic communion between parent and baby (shared sensations?), alterations in our energy fields, perhaps even the effects of "kundalini arousal."* Christina Grof* has written about the energy that she experienced during the births of her two children. After each birth, she was given medications that suppressed this power, so we'll never know how it would have manifested out in the postpartum time:
As the people around me encouraged me to "push... push... nice and hard, remember to breathe...", I felt an abrupt snap somewhere inside of me as powerful and unfamiliar energies were released unexpectedly and began streaming through my body. I started to shake uncontrollably. Enormous electrical tremors coursed from my toes up my legs and spine to the top of my head. Brilliant mosaics of white light exploded in my head, and instead of continuing the Lamaze panting, I felt strange, involuntary breathing rhythms taking over. It was as though I had just been hit by some miraculous but frightening force, and I was both excited and terrified... As soon as my son was delivered, I was given two shots of morphine, which stopped the whole process.
Perhaps the sensory changes and heightened energy of newborn time are part of a natural gift that we haven't yet learned to support and use very well. Simple ways to nurture ourselves or another person through this time might include:
Paying attention to the beauty and peacefulness of the visual surroundings
Providing delicious meals -- the sense of taste can be heightened too!
Limiting noise and keeping visits short and sweet -- we are easily overloaded.
Providing beautiful, relaxing music ("Lullaby From the Womb" was a recording designed to soothe the newborn, but it was heavenly for me!)
Having and giving the softest of clothes for both baby and mother.
And how can you really use the sensory changes that you may feel, beyond simply enjoying them? By paying attention to your experiences (and believing that they are important), you can discover what is nurturing and healing for you in newborn time. Some of your discoveries might be true just for you, but some could become part of our wider, shared awareness of how to cherish and enhance this special time.
*A good source of information about "kundalini" is Shared Transformation
*in "The Stormy Search for the Self" by Christina and Stanislav Grof
If you would like more detailed information about the changes of the bonding time, you may want to read Elisabeth's book, In The Newborn Year: Our Changing Awareness After Childbirth
Please share your insights, experiences, or responses to this section of Postpartum Rainbow. The next section is a fearless look at the ways our minds just might seem to work differently in newborn time.
Postpartum Rainbow Introduction
Part 1 "Connectedness"
Part 3 "Changing Mind"
Part 4 "The Sea of Emotion"
Part 5 "New Spaces In Our Psyches"