8 things I wish I knew before giving birth.
“You’re about to have a baby.” I’ll never forget that moment. Those words the nurse spoke suddenly made it very real. It was my first baby, and although I had been laboring for several hours in the hospital, I couldn’t believe it was time. I thought to myself, “Wait, am I ready for this? But there was no time to think. Suddenly, my baby’s heart rate started to plummet. The nurses struggled to find a position that made my daughter more comfortable in her journey out into the world. I was on my side, my knees, again on my back. It was nothing like I pictured this experience to be, which was a page out of a storybook. This was not that. At a large hospital in downtown Chicago, dozens of people were in the room — advising, learning, observing. It was like a spectator sport. The doctor, however, was nowhere to be found and my daughter decided that she was ready to make her debut. After a few pushes, there she was. Sweet little Ella, delivered at the hands of a very capable nurse. Now four kids later, I see that experience as an analogy for parenting (and giving birth).
Every baby and every situation is different. The more I’ve accepted that truth, the easier it’s been to embrace all the twists and turns of motherhood. Let’s start in the delivery room where the journey begins.
Here are eight things I wish I knew before giving birth.
1.Download a contractions timer app. You won’t be able to focus on recording and crunching the numbers. With a contractions app, you simply tap a button at the start and end of each contraction. Most apps also give you your average duration, total duration and intervals between each contraction. That way, you’ll really know when it’s go time, based on your doctor’s recommendations.
2. Stay in tune with your body. It’s tough when the contractions get really intense. For new moms, you’re not really sure what feels “normal” or what to expect. My son Clark, baby number two, came dangerously fast. I had experienced intense contractions with my first baby, but they didn’t seem to escalate as quickly as these did. Plus, I received an epidural early on with my first birth experience, so I had never felt these late-stage contractions naturally.
With Clark, I had just been wheeled up to labor and delivery from triage. My pain level was off the charts and I begged for an epidural. The anesthesiologist rushed in and hastily tried to prep me for the procedure. As I sat as still as a statue in the required hunched over position, gripping onto the nurse with desperation, I felt a pop, a splash and looked down. His head was out and the medical team looked at each other in disbelief. Clark was in danger because he had only passed through to his neck, so he was not breathing yet. Quickly the nurse pulled him out the rest of the way, and what seemed like an eternity later, we heard him cry. It was the most beautiful sound I’d ever heard.
Clark’s face was badly bruised from the experience, but thankfully, he recovered. The lesson I learned? Try your best to stay in tune with your body. And before you receive an epidural, ask to be checked for dilation. This did not happen for me since it was such a rush. But I voiced this request to the delivery team with my next two babies and everything went smooth as can be.
3. Pack comfy extras. Bring along a robe, your favorite slippers and toiletries to make you feel more comfortable and at home. Nursing sleep bras also give you a little modesty when you’re learning to nurse because the gowns can tricky to re-snap or tie one-handed. Look for a crossover style for easier nursing access. For my robe, I went for solid neutrals, like black, grey or smoky purple to make a nice background for holding baby in pictures. Often times, the hospital also contracts with a baby photography service to take professional pictures right in your room. Ours turned out great with every baby, so we used them for the birth announcements to get them out right away. For this reason, I always brought a black empire waist jersey black dress and flats (and my makeup!).
The hospital will provide all the essentials, but if you prefer certain diapers or wipes, bring those, too. Before I had my fourth baby, I took a pack of Medline baby wipes with me, along with my favorite diapers. Definitely pack some cute newborn sets for your photos, but be sure to get that classic pic of your baby swaddled in the hospital-issued blanket and hat. It makes such a great memento that you can frame with their hand and footprints. For their going home outfit, opt for something cute but cozy, like footies, over a fussy, fancy outfit. They’ll be more comfortable and you’ll be less intimidated to get them dressed for home.
4. Going home can feel overwhelming. Suddenly, you’ve got this precious little life you’re wholly responsible for...forever. And now you have to take your newborn in the car — yikes. But remember that you’ve got what it takes, and you can do it. Getting dressed on going home day can be tough, for you and them. You won’t recognize you body for awhile, especially after you’ve had a few kids. It takes time, so you probably won’t be able to zip up a pre-baby pair of jeans and walk out of the hospital. Plan to wear maternity pants for a little while. They’re comfy! My go-to postpartum uniform was leggings, a cute, loose-fitting top and a long cardigan. Bring some comfy shoes, like flats, in case your feet get super swollen. That’s another thing nobody tells you. My feet and ankles swelled like crazy after I delivered, not so much when I was pregnant.
Ask the nurse for some extra cold packs and disposable underwear to take home. Also, the perineal water bottles and cold spray bring so much relief. Stock up ahead of time on heavy-duty overnight pads. I also bought comfy undies with more coverage, specifically for those first few postpartum weeks, knowing I might pitch them afterward.
5. Expect the unexpected. Every labor and every birth is different. And those surprises don’t end after delivery. In the delivery room, and in life, things don’t always go according to plan, and that’s ok. In my years as a mom, I’ve learned to let it go. It’s great to have rules, structure and expectations, but even more important is flexibility and improvisation. Embrace it and you’ll enjoy the craziness of every day — and night. When baby number four would wake in the night, instead of simply rubbing her back or letting her “cry it out,” I did what I thought was best. I would pick her up to nurse, comfort and soothe her for as long as she needed to get back to sleep. I really cherish that special bonding time. Our motto is: anything for sleep. If you get hung up on rules, you’ll miss the moments that matter.
6. It’s okay to just do your best. Especially after having my fourth baby, people always ask if it’s a lot crazier than two or three, and I joke that the main difference is the pile of laundry just grows faster. It’s still the same juggling game. And that’s a big lesson I’ve learned over time, that some things just have to be good enough. Our floors might have a stray puff or pea lingering at any given time, but that’s okay. I focus all of my energy on caring for my kids. Before you know it, your newborn is crawling, then walking, then going to school. And when did those rolly thighs and chubby cheeks disappear? As clich as it sounds, it really does go by so fast.
7. No judgment. Go easy on yourself. You’re your toughest critic. On the flip side, don’t let others’ (often unintentional) judgment get you down or compromise the way you care for your kids. There will always be somebody who “knows better,” or somebody giving you the side eye when your toddler throws an epic tantrum in the grocery store. Trust your instincts as a mom, do the best you can and lead with love. That way, no matter how messy things can get, you’ve done your job and you’ve done it well. Your opinion and the happiness of your baby are the only things that matter.
8. Don’t forget to look out for number one. That would be you, mama. You’re going to be tired. Very tired. And some days, you’ll wonder how you’ll make it through. That’s why it’s so important to remember that you’re a person, too — not just a mom. Lean on your partner to allow you to do the things that make you feel happy and more like yourself. I find that when I’m able to workout and feel good about myself, I’m a much happier and more patient mom.