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My fantasy: I’m a workaholic power babe and sexy sylph/wife hurtling ahead at the speed of light. Except that, OK, I’m a mommy, too. That makes me, of course, a Total Woman, who looks fabulous with an infant riding my well-toned hip.
The reality: Baby arrives. Postpartum meltdown turns thoughts of work into bouts of anxiety. My eyelids snag on my contacts from sleep deprivation. Late-night soirees sound just about as enticing as rounds of electroshock therapy. The word sex leads me and my husband to cock our heads like dogs to a strange noise: What’s that? In the meantime, my flesh has elephantine qualities, sagging where it once was pneumatic with pregnancy—except, of course, for my football-shaped breasts.
Be forewarned. Whatever your preconceptions of life after Baby, they’re sure to be dashed. Just as a hurricane deconstructs the landscape into its component parts, a baby splinters your lifestyle into fundamental elements of survival: eating, sleeping, diapering and maybe showering, if you’re lucky.
“When I was pregnant I kept saying, ‘I can’t wait to go on maternity leave, work out every day and get into gourmet cooking,’” recalls San Diego social worker Kirsten Larson, mother of 21-month-old Connor, “but the reality was nothing like that. Connor wouldn’t nap, and then he’d be up every three hours at night. I thought I was going to lose it.”
“The first six weeks are like a fire drill,” says Betsy Hamilton Schwartz, a Santa Monica, California, copywriter and mother of 9-month-old Caroline. “Before Caroline, I used to make a huge list and accomplish everything in a day. Now I just make a list. If I do one chore from it, I think, ‘Oh! I did something!’”
It can also be a shock to find yourself suddenly cast as Mother, the physical umbilical cord replaced by an emotional one linking Baby to your every move. “The birth of a baby throws you off balance. Your identity is challenged,” notes Sheila Kitzinger, a British social anthropologist and author of The Year After Childbirth: Surviving and Enjoying the First Year of Motherhood (Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1994). According to Kitzinger, psychologically it can take a new mother as long as a year to adjust to the role.
Ch-, Ch-, Ch-, Ch- Changes
Physically you may be annoyed by a panoply of ailments, from hemorrhoids to breast pain, as your body begins downsizing. “The whole body from the waist down feels like a disaster zone,” says Janet Orsi of West Hollywood, California, owner of a public relations firm and mother of a 9-month-old. “Someone should design a pin that says ‘Give me a break. I just had a baby!’”
The physical shifts only exacerbate the psychological ones. Raging hormones whipsaw you between baby-inspired ecstasy and feelings of maternal incompetence. According to Postpartum Support International, a clearing-house on research related to postpartum life, located in Santa Barbara, California, during the months following childbirth at least 10 percent of women endure postpartum depression, a severe mood disorder linked to changing hormones, stress and fatigue. Luckily, though, some of those surging hormones work in your favor. One of the upsides to breastfeeding every two to three hours, says Valerie Jespersen-Wheat, a Los Angeles–based certified lactation consultant, is that prolactin is released, which reportedly relaxes you (God is a woman!).
Another adjustment must be made by women who return to work. Sure, you may have intended to start back in eight weeks (studies indicate this is the average leave taken by working women), but your anxiety at leaving your child conspires to make this grueling.