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The concept of the fourth trimester is something I had never heard of until I was already pregnant. There are the traditional three—the first, full of morning sickness and tighter and tighter pants; the second, a return to energy and a growing belly and the most exciting, persistent kicking; the third, full of discomfort and stretch marks and waiting and surrealness and thrill. My sister-in-law once told me that she would rather go through all of the drama and aches and irritations of the third trimester twice, than have to go through the fourth trimester—a term that was new to me at the time. Those first three months with a new baby have been dear ones (as I expressed in this previous article) and I wouldn’t trade them for anything, but they have also been some of the hardest of my whole life.

Now that I’m seeing the light on the other side–and have the most adorable picture of my three-month-old to prove it—I’m feeling reflective about the ways that going through childbirth and embarking upon life as a new mama, changes you.

It Changes How You See Your Body

Somehow, I had the misguided notion that because, in the U.S., you have a six-week follow up after giving birth and few other medical check-ins, that must mean that your body would be basically healed up (if a little extra curvy still) by the time of that appointment. How wrong I was. So sure was I that there would be nothing but good and normal news at that appointment, that I scheduled it on the morning of the same day that I was scheduled to fly to Alaska for the summer with only my new baby as a travel companion for the flight. I assumed this doctor’s visit would be an “everything looks good, good to see you”, 15-minute affair so I wasn’t even packed for my trip as I donned the necessary sheet and waited for the news.

Turns out there were rashes and popped stitches and bumps so mysterious, I was sent off to the hospital the very same day to get some extra testing that I absolutely did not have time for. This was all before I even got a chance to get an opinion on the sporadic episodes of intense abdominal and chest pain that I’d been having. Episodes that would continue for weeks after the day that I thought was the demarcation of being healed and off the hook. Though I’ve since learned from other women just how many forms the “going haywire” stage of your body’s journey back to normalcy comes in, and how long it can take, it still almost felt like my body was betraying me.

In the same breath, knowing that this perfect little person grew inside of me and continues to grow because of food my body makes for him is an astonishing and mesmerizing miracle. The word “gobsmacked” comes to mind. In fact, when they weighed him at his two-month appointment and I learned that he had gained an additional 6 lbs on top of the 9 that he started with, I finally understood the pride my host mother in Thailand felt when someone commented that a summer of her cooking had made me fat. I did that. He’s growing and filling in and thriving and contented because my body is figuring everything out despite any erroneous accusations of betrayal on my part.

It Changes How You See Your Mind

I’ve never been in a demographic where depression was almost an expectation. It was strange to see the soft eyes and hear the careful explanations of the discharge nurse at the hospital. Strange to get a call from a midwife a week after birth to ask how I’m feeling. Strange to have to fill out the forms to find out where I am on the Edinburgh Postnatal Depression Scale every time I go anywhere near a medical facility. Interesting to consider again and again whether I’m enjoying the things I used to enjoy more than, the same as, or less than I used to. Postpartum Depression can be a very serious condition and I haven’t experienced it to the degree or on the scale that many do. I hope all these measures and questions create a safety net for someone else, but for me, I felt like the constant reminders just kept me wondering, “is this depression?” “is that depression?” and unable to quite know how to feel about my feelings.

I certainly recognized a mood swing or seven—something I really didn’t experience during pregnancy. Perhaps the circumstances were exacerbated by suddenly living in Alaska during a record-breaking heatwave that turned my new RV home into an easy bake oven making me and my baby into a burnt cookie and a cute mini muffin respectively. I found myself crying for an hour one day and then moved by a beautiful view the next. I’d feel excited and grateful for a dinner with friends one evening and then feel dead inside by the following afternoon. The hormones working their way out of your body make for a bit of an emotional rollercoaster the likes of which I don’t think I’ve ever experienced. And all the time that question, “Is this depression?”

One of the fundamental struggles of fourth trimester living is that the exhaustion of so little sleep means your bandwidth to do anything is the lowest it’s ever been and yet your need for things like fresh air and sunshine and things that can take a little doing when you have a baby, has never been higher. I won’t say how many weeks old my baby boy was when something made me laugh out loud and his eyes went wide with shock and then he broke into a giant grin and I realized that might be the first time he had ever heard me belly laugh—I’d grinned and cooed and hum-laughed through my nose plenty, but the uninhibited letting loose of a laugh that could be properly referred to as “loud, and long, and clear” had become a rarity and it was sad to realize it.

The days are getting brighter and brighter now and I am reconnecting with the girl for whom belly laughing happens on the daily, but I have such greater compassion now for those who struggle with chemistry that steals their mentality.

It Changes How You See Others

And speaking of compassion, my respect and love for other mamas is growing daily. Not only because I know better what they are going through, but because they have reached out so kindly to me. When I flew alone with this cute six-week old after a day of disappointing doctor visits and long hospital waits, I was on my last leg before I started my first one. Baby boy was patient and calm and full of conspiratorial, best friend grins, but he couldn’t help that I was loaded down with luggage and schlepping more than could fit into bathroom stalls or down airplane aisles. But so many strangers came out of the woodwork to help me.

And most of them were women who knew what it was like.

I sat in the Seattle airport with my happy baby and decided this would finally be the layover where I got to try the famous Beecher’s mac and cheese. I timed it out so that I would have just enough time to load up my little guy and my things and go to the bathroom then grab the food on my way to the gate. I’ve since learned that baby time is kind of like dog years—you have to account for more of it. But the second I stood up to go, my tiny friend, that had been quiet and patient for almost two hours began to scream and scream as if he’d been pinched. He was strapped to my chest and both of my hands were more than full as he turned every head in the terminal and I tried to find the nearest bathroom.

When I found it, I couldn’t fit into It, even though a line of “ladies-in-waiting” had happily let me skip in front of them. I had to find a family bathroom and the boy had not stopped screaming yet. As I walked the next bit of terminal, suddenly someone appeared next to me and lightened my load. She was a petite Indian woman and she walked around carrying half of my luggage while we searched for a family bathroom and she told me that she had kids too and knew just how I felt.

Needless to say, I still have yet to try that famous mac and cheese. But she was one of several women I met that day who stepped in without being asked. They all knew just how I felt because they too were mamas.

I want to be the kind of mama who sees to the needs of other mamas.

It Changes How You See Yourself

I personally don’t struggle with perfectionism, but I’ve realized during this fourth trimester that what I do grapple with is my own personal version of exceptionalism. I want to be the exception. I want to transcend the mundane and live a kind of extraordinary (if inevitably imperfect life). As such, there are a lot of situations that I know others struggle with and I often assume that I will be the exception. I understand why that would be hard for them and I think no less of them for it, but I’ll be fine. I’ll be fine because I’m the exception to the rule. But new motherhood has taught me that some rules have no exceptions. This new baby/tired body stuff is just no joke, no matter who you are.

Having such an abrupt change of lifestyle has not only brought to light and then immediately challenged my exceptionalism, but it’s also left me wondering who I am and who I want to be in life in general. When I got married, I suddenly had to take my pursuits more seriously because another person’s life would be affected by them and there was no room for just bouncing around and testing the waters as I have done for most of my 20s. If I thought having a husband made my life choices more weighty, I could not have known how much weightier having a baby would make them.

I’ve spent most of the last three months feeling pretty lost and I’m slowly seeing snippets of my vibrant and ambitious self again, but I don’t know how she fits in to the new life that I’ve created—and with the actual new life that I created, whose name is Benjamin. I’m starting to think motherhood might just always be an ongoing identity crisis where you’re constantly contending with how to do it all and what to let go of and who you are in the midst of it.

But then I look down at the little guy in my lap and he looks back at me like I’m the best thing that’s ever happened to this world. I don’t know who this girl is anymore, but based on the twinkly smile that overtakes this boy completely, whenever I come into view; she must be pretty alright and she’ll probably figure it out.