It doesn’t really make sense that I subtitled this blog post with R. Kelly lyrics (bun in the oven reference, I guess). But not much about the ‘fourth trimester’ makes sense.
When I use the term ‘fourth trimester,’ I’m referring to those first newborn weeks. You have one (maybe two, even three -bless you) newborn baby, but you also have newborn parents. And what helped me as a new mother was to understand that Estella, even though out of the womb, was going to take some time to adapt. She was used to those in-womb rhythms: constant warmth; the comfort of a small, tight, safe place; darkness; noise; and perpetual feeding. That was her world, her life, and who could blame a new tiny person when their needs/demands are the same after birth?
Understanding the newborn phase as the ‘fourth trimester’ helped me to empathise with my new daughter, to imagine what she was experiencing. Without that empathy, sleep deprivation and physical demands would have given me more and more irrational thoughts like, “Who is this tiny, selfish creature that’s demanding all of my time and energy!” It’s true, but when you’re sleep deprived, you tend to take things more personally. “Doesn’t she want her mother to get any sleep? What about my needs, huh?!” And then because you can’t take your anger and frustration out on your new, tiny, helpless little human, you take it out on your spouse. Sorry, Frans. Glad we’re over that hurdle (fist pump).
And it also helps you understand how to care for your new, tiny, helpless little human. It’s a little bit like taking in a refugee. They didn’t ask to be here, but here they are. Their world was very different. It was safe, protected, free from startling light or cold drafts. You’ve taken someone who’s enjoyed constant all-you-can-eat buffets on a warm, tropical island (naked and everything), and asked them to come to (well for me, in Amsterdam) a place that probably feels like Siberia. They’re wearing clothes for the first time. For the first time, their walnut-sized stomach is empty again, and again. It scares them because they’ve never known hunger, but can’t keep more than three or four hours of milk in their belly because their belly is literally walnut-sized. They’re used to sleeping nestled in their island hammock, but you’re asking them to sleep on a flat mattress for the first time. And they don’t speak the language. No wonder newborns either sleep so much (lucky you!) or cry so much (our experience).
In the Netherlands, every woman has the care first of the verloskundige, midwife, and then after the baby is born, a kraamzorg. The ‘maternity caregiver’ is a woman less trained or educated than the verloskundige, but she specializes in the first week of a newborn’s life. She’s also responsible for the mother. Depending on your insurance plan, she comes for approximately one week, and spends half a day. She takes your temperature and the baby’s, checks your blood loss, helps you shower if necessary. She takes the baby’s temperature, weighs her, shows you how to bathe her, maybe even fixes you a sandwich and does the dishes. She’s a professional replacement of what in our family experience, was the maternal mother’s business. Our grandmas did that stuff. Here, you get a trained professional. Although I am super impressed by the high-quality kraamzorg experience (our kraamzorg Kirsten was great), I had mixed feelings about this practice. I didn’t want a stranger in my house, professional or no. I wanted my mother. In the end, we were spoiled to have both.
(My sweet mama with her third granddaughter (named after her mother)
After Kirsten’s time was up and my mother went home, I felt the absence of an older woman keenly. I mourned the ‘good old days’ of a more generationally mixed society. I wished that I lived in a ‘it takes a village’ culture. So much of the fourth trimester I spent trying to figure out what I was doing wrong. My baby cried all the time, breastfeeding hurt like hell, and I was exhausted. It simply wasn’t supposed to be this hard. What was I doing wrong? What was Frans doing wrong? Why were we just all wrong (cue bursting into tears)?
The good news is if you’re going through this right now, you’re not doing anything wrong. The first weeks are just hard. Period. Unless you have a very sleepy baby. Then high five each other for your good fortune, and don’t look surprised when friends or family walk into a family dinner bleary eyed and grumpy, staring off into space. And don’t say, really, you’re tired? Little Jack just sleeps all the time! I’m starting to wonder what all the fuss is about. Really. Just keep your mouth closed and bring the new parent some caffeine. Or a pillow.
Because these new parents are newborns themselves, and also need care. They’re in love, committed, all-in. They would give their lives for this new little person. They’re giving what feels like 150% but often feeling like failures. They’re just so tired. So they’re sensitive. Advice feels like criticism. What they need most is encouragement, a listening ear. Practical help. Let them hold the baby; you make dinner, clean up, do the dishes, fold some laundry. Never will such small acts of kindness go so far.
In my own experience, I was putting too much pressure on myself. I thought I saw other moms able to do this or that, so I tried to rise to the occasion, giving pep talks to myself. C’mon, Erin. This can’t be that hard. Every mother in the world has done this. Pull yourself up by your bootstraps and just do it. I should have shushed that voice, left the guests to their coffee, and napped while the baby did.
Comparison is the thief of joy, new parents. If you’re comparing yourself to what you think other new parents are thinking, doing, or saying, you’re stealing the joy and triumph from the honest hard labor of your first days as parents. And as new parents we need to be more honest with each other.
No one tells you it will be this hard. But trust me, there is something about the boot camp moments of the fourth trimester that make you into a Real Parent. Those sleepless nights and days that blur together, that constant care for your THH who can’t even thank you for your sacrifice to their existence and well-being. It MAKES you. You learn way more about love this way.
You’ll experience the highest highs and the lowest lows. You’ll feel like quitting and find the strength again. And you’ll never experience so much joy.
And…I’ll chime in with the chorus of voices that will tell you, “It only gets better.”