Posted: Aug 07, 2014 11:00 AM
A recent sleep study found that women had "dangerous" levels of exhaustion for at least 18 weeks postpartum. So what are we doing to help each other?
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I had a baby nine weeks ago. My fourth child, to be exact, and sometimes, I can't think of simple words. Not fancy words, simple words. The other day I couldn't think of the word "company." No joke. I said "organization" instead and the guy I was talking to was like, "Um, you mean 'company?'" Well yes, that's what I meant.

I'm too tired to be embarrassed. I just thought, Oh right! That's that pesky word.

I am so irritable sometimes I feel like I may blow up at the sound of my kid chewing.

I am so irritable sometimes I feel like I may blow up at the sound of my kid chewing.

And in the morning, when I open my eyes, I'm often greeted with a pounding headache or eyelids that weight about 2,000 pounds each. It's like they will not stay open. It's as if they refuse.

The tired of new motherhood is not a normal tired. It's not a rational, contained tired. It's a tired that punches you in the face and leaves you writhing on the ground. (Does it also increase hyperbole and drama?) It's a tired that makes you anxious about silly things and desperately sad about even sillier things, replaces your once logical, thoughtful, engaged brain with some weird variation of newborn-care-machine and haze.

Or at least that's my experience.

Writing this one article each week is almost more than I can do. Sometimes it takes me an entire day, or two. I'm grateful for the income. I'm doing this by choice because I enjoy it (usually), we need the money and it's good to keep my writing practice up, but on Tuesdays (the day my articles are due) I wake up and think, "How the hell am I going to pull this off?" I mean there's like nothing going on upstairs. I want to sit in a chair, nurse my baby and watch 30 Rock reruns. If I can't do that (which I can't), I want to do house stuff and simple kid stuff (swim, go to the library, etc.), things that don't require excessive analysis or intellectual inquiry (not that kid-raising isn't equally complex and difficult, in its own way). But I certainly, certainly don't want to work.

A new peer-reviewed sleep study by Queensland University supports my experience, concluding that mothers show "excessive levels of sleepiness even after 18 weeks” (source). My first reaction is, "Duh. That goes on for like four years." But seriously, this matters. As the study states, this data has implications for policy makers and our understanding of maternity leave lengths (which suck in the U.S., by the way, bad.).

"Policy makers developing regulations for parental leave entitlements should take into consideration the high prevalence of excessive daytime sleepiness experienced by new mothers, ensuring enough opportunity for daytime sleepiness to diminish to a manageable level prior to reengagement in the workforce" (source).

Here in the U.S., we look at these women and say, 'Congrats. Now get to work.'

Some women go back to work at six weeks, most at 12 weeks. At that age, babies are still nursing or taking the bottle every few hours (and even more frequently for breastfed babies), and most are not sleeping through the night. And yet, here in the U.S., we look at these women and say, "Congrats. Now get to work."

And we expect them to function.

But that topic deserves a whole column of its own, or five.

Alone in the home

I want to talk about how we support each other, or don't, as a community of mothers. I remember one of the strangest things about living in the suburbs was the way we all lived so close to one another and yet had virtually no contact. Our houses were like 20 inches apart from neighbors on either side, but I didn't know them. I could hear their arguments and babies crying but didn't know their names. It was so weird.

We left for work in the morning through our garages, and when we came home we opened the garage door, drove in and closed it behind us, shutting them off literally and figuratively. Kids can't play in the streets because stranger danger. (That was sarcasm. I wrote about that here.) I don't know exactly why or how or what's happened in some areas, but it seems we've just become cut off from one another, like we live in these private little silos as if we don't need each other.

But we do.

The mom gives birth in the hospital, spends two or three days, comes home and maybe has a mom or in-law or sister there to help for a week or so but then, she's often alone. She's in that house all wedged in with 200 other women who have faced that precarious exhaustion and transformative period, but nobody's talking to each other so who cares. What good is the village if the village isn't communicating?

The mom gives birth in the hospital, spends two or three days, comes home and maybe has a mom or in-law or sister there to help for a week or so but then, she's often alone.

She's alone.

Maybe a friend sets up a meal train for a week. Maybe some house cleaning. But the fact is that women are truly, truly in need the first couple of months after childbirth, and we often leave them too soon, to fend for themselves, to nurse, clean, recover, rest and tread this new road alone.

I never knew...

I never knew how much help I needed until I got that help. You see, my third and fourth children were born at home, with midwives, and it's standard midwifery practice to visit the mom at 24 and 48 hours, then five days, and a week after that, and a week after that, and two weeks after that, and one more time.

And it isn't a "let's look at your vagina and ask three questions" visit. It's a whole-body-mind-heart visit. I realize that sounds like a bunch of kumbaya hippie crap, but don't knock it 'til you've tried it. On some level, I lived for those visits.

I knew, no matter how hard it got, in a few days there would be two women in my home supporting me, listening to me, with ideas for how to handle problems I was having, sleep deprivation, emotional turmoil, clogged ducts and all the other fun that comes. They would alleviate my irrational worries about this or that and let me be broken, or zombie-like or whatever. They were there. When they left, I felt like I could do it. I knew I would make it. I knew I was OK.

This is not some passive-aggressive push for homebirth. I don't care where you have your babies, and I know homebirth is relatively rare. I think women should give birth how and where they feel the most comfortable and safe.

This is a push to all of us to recognize the fragility of new motherhood and step up for one another, stop acting like adding a baby to the family is like getting a puppy or something — some cute, fun thing we celebrate for a minute and then move on. Puppies are hard, but they don't redefine your life, body and mind. And you can't put babies in crates. And you can't put them in the yard to pee and poop. And you can't train them with treats. So please. It's not the same.

You see? Can't stay on topic.

Be the mom who shows up for the other mom. Make sure she's not left alone. Go to her house and clean it and let her talk and talk and talk. Or sleep. Or whatever. Share what you know, or don't know.

We don't need a study to tell us those first few months are equally gorgeous and unbearable. We don't need a study to tell us we should support one another. But maybe we need a study to remind us that the struggle is real, as real as it gets, and it's probably being fought within a few feet of your front door, whether you know it or not.

More on postpartum

America: The only country in the developed world without paid parental leave
Placenta encapsulation, say what?
Mothers trapped in and out of the home