The Sea of Emotion
When you consider how many of us have children, it's surprising that we really don't know much about the emotions of newborn time. Except, of course, for depression. Ask someone to use "postpartum" in a phrase, and I don't think you're going to hear "postpartum elation." Imagine my surprise to read in a biography of Queen Victoria that after her ninth delivery she experienced "postpartum elation"!
It's natural that there should be a good deal of public awareness about postpartum depression. Many women and their families are affected by it in varying degrees, and its most severe forms are devastating. Yet there is so much else to know about emotional changes in the bonding time. Sharing our experiences, we can see these other possibilities.
What I can tell you about postpartum emotions comes from the stories shared with me by many parents -- mostly mothers -- while I was researching my first book. The subject is so vast that I will focus on just a few patterns that are usually overlooked, yet important.
Long before the birth, the transitions of pregnancy to parenthood make changes in our self-image. Old boundaries shift and dissolve, creating many kinds of openness. In newborn time, we experience ourselves in new roles and relationships. We may discover feelings that we haven't known before -- from a range that can include blissful happiness, gray misery, and many shades in between.
What we meet is often related to what is hidden within ourselves. We'll tend to come in contact with buried emotions and memories, and sides of our nature that we haven't expressed until now. Midwife and mother Colleen Waddell sums up the elements that make this time unique:
The many, many changes following childbirth, requiring so much integration and reintegration. Blood loss, fluid balance changes with compensatory electrolyte and circulatory changes themselves are a lot to deal with. Recovery from exhausting labors, the stress of the whole world shifting to make a place for this new being. The growth of a family, at the same time the separation of the mother-baby unit is stressful. Also pre-birth memories of mine, my husband's, and other children. And early life memories of all of us. Things we have suppressed on this level for a long time come seeping into our consciousness with the stress and joy of this occasion.
Intense and Fluid Feelings
Unexpected new emotions can be upsetting, making us feel as though we are "lost at sea." Or they may bring a sense of being alive as never before. As one mother put it, "I was truly a feeling person for the first time." The words that people use to describe their feelings in newborn time are often water-words: "great sentimental gushes took me over" -- "a flood of emotions" -- "swimming in bliss" -- "a wave of euphoria flowed over me." These feelings can be engulfing and irresistible, with great power like the ocean itself.
Nancy met such intensity when she held her third baby and felt a deep and unexpected connection with him. Comparing any previous experience to this, she said, would be "like comparing the fall of a drop of water to the crash of a wave." She adds, "This was also a pure experience. By 'pure' I mean it was untouched by human hands, if you will. No one 'made' this experience happen. There were no words or ideas involved, it was just its own wondrous happening."
Emotions tend to be fluid and changeable in the days after childbirth. Not only do we shift easily from one mood to another, but we can feel simultaneous joy and sadness. I remember smiling and crying at the same time on the fifth postpartum day -- an experience I described in my diary this way:
It has been a day of such intense emotion for me. Talking with Nick about Devin's birth, I was able at last to cry about it -- the sadness that I gave him such a hard and violent start in life. It was a great relief to cry that one out of the deep place where I'd hidden it these past five days. With Nick's love to comfort me and Devin in my arms it was simultaneously bliss and sadness.
The easy tears of new mothers are a well-known phenomenon. But I've also seen an emotionally reserved man burst into tears as he struggled to write a letter about his week-old baby. The only explanation he could give was, "It's all too much!" Intense feelings in newborn time can be overwhelming, and the stamina required to absorb them all can sometimes run low. And so the resulting moments of anxiety, fatigue, and depression are easy to understand -- but there is a very different postpartum mood that takes some parents by surprise. A mother of twins recalls:
I am convinced that I experienced some kind of "altered state of consciousness" during the first two months after the birth of my sons almost two years ago -- a euphoria that enabled me to sail through caring for (including nursing) twins without ever feeling overwhelmed, depressed, anxious. I look back on those as the two best months in my life.
This steady emotional high is one of the unexpected gifts that the bonding time sometimes bestows.
Open and Vulnerable
As we meet unfamiliar emotions, there can be a sense of losing control. Over and over, people use the word "vulnerability" to describe their experience after childbirth. Before becoming a mother, Kelly always saw herself as being "in control." In the emotional changes of newborn time, she discovered another side of her nature:
Several days after Molly was born I went into states of extreme sadness. They seemed to be triggered by sunset, and would turn to dread by dark. Some of these emotions centered on Molly but mostly they were nonspecific. As soon as day returned my emotions would shift to extreme joy and feelings of protectiveness for my new baby. I also found that I had a tendency to whisper and simply couldn't speak loud. Overall there was a strong sense of vulnerability, lost at sea, I used to think of it.
The emotions and sensations tapered off slowly. Now two and a half years later I could almost say I am approaching my former self, though I will never be the "same." I think the awareness of vulnerability will always be there. I definitely worried about the periods of sadness and dread after the birth, but they seemed balanced by the intense sensations of joy and love. I was glad to have a chance to experience this emotion side of my nature, as I had always been so rational.
Unfortunately, the pressure to get back to "normal" (and back to work) as quickly as possible robs many parents of the chance to explore these unfamiliar realms of feeling.
The openness of the bonding time means that we may be strongly affected by the environment and people around us. We may be more sensitive to tensions and undercurrents that we tend to ignore in ordinary times. One mother advises, "Do as much as you can to clarify the relationship between the parents before the baby arrives. There was far too much unsaid between my partner and me, which added tremendously to my stress level." Even "simple" visits from friends and relatives can be a perplexing emotional strain for a woman in this unguarded state. Ruth recalls:
After the birth for approximately a month (gradually lessening) I felt an intense openness. On the physical level it seemed as vulnerability; the boundaries of my body seemed undefined. On the emotional level I felt an "open book." In going to town I felt as though anyone could poke right through me, as if my body wasn't there. This was not uncomfortable, but I felt I had to be very consciously aware. The openness made it hard to see people; television, radio, being in the car -- all seemed grating to my being.
This feeling of openness leads us to protect ourselves and our baby from everyday harsh conditions. It helps us be more present with the newborn in her own wide-open state. As Ruth explains, "My experience increased my inner tranquility, my nurturing and bonding. My then three-year-old daughter had a great many needs for me after the birthing, and the openness I felt directly effected my ability to give from a seemingly endless source."
Heightened sensitivity in the bonding time helps us to become truly nurturing parents. But its effects go way beyond our own family, for our hearts may suddenly open to the world. One woman recalls, "I felt a compassion toward everyone -- though, at the same time, a strong desire to 'protect' my son. I did not want indifferent hospital personnel even touching him. I was enormously sensitive -- seeing the news or reading the newspaper could have me crying for several hours."
This empathy can last a long time and change us in various ways. Kate, for example, found that she could no longer listen to music expressing pain and anger. "I hurt for people suffering so," she says. Another woman writes, "I felt other people's emotions as if they were my own." Upon hearing of the death of some children, she says, "I felt grief as if these children had been my own."
During the year after my child's birth, my eyes would fill with tears at the slightest hint of anything touching. The impact of sad stories was so heavy and long-lasting that I had to avoid reading newspapers. Jette writes that since having a child, "I am deeply agonized every time I see a parent yell at or spank a young child in a store. I could cry. I feel from the child's point of view. Children love their parents so much. How can they take the hurt?"
Empathy makes us vulnerable to other people's sorrows, and as painful as this may be, it is the glue that holds communities together. Imagine for a moment that we all could feel such empathy, all the time. What would the world be like if it were so?
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Would you like to comment on the articles in Postpartum Rainbow, or share your own experiences? Please do! Click here to send e-mail to Elisabeth Hallett.
Postpartum Rainbow Introduction
Part 1 "Connectedness"
Part 2 "All My Senses Were Heightened"
Part 3 "Changing Mind"
Part 5 "New Spaces In Our Psyches"