In February 2015 I became pregnant for the first time. My husband and I, both freelance designers, were about to open our first shop in Zurich when our baby was born by C-section at 29 weeks weighing 840 grams due to pre-eclampsia, a condition whose causes are unknown and whose symptoms are high blood pressure, excess protein in the urine, oedema and excessive weight gain caused by fluid retention, and which can be dangerous if left untreated.
I had spent my entire pregnancy worrying about my baby’s health (as I was no longer in my twenties) and fearing how my lifestyle, my relationship and my body would be forever transformed. Part of me was struggling to let go of my old self and to welcome this new stage in my life.
I was in the intensive care unit for three days, as the situation had become life-threatening. I was in shock, completely taken by surprise, overwhelmed and terrified to meet my baby after birth. I had not read a single book on pregnancy and had no birth or postpartum plan. I was unprepared and inadequately informed.
I felt sad, angry, guilty and ashamed, and I was unable to accept how things had unfolded.
Our son spent the following 10 weeks in the neonatology ward of the University Hospital Zurich. Communication with the hospital staff was not always easy (German is my fourth language) and I had a hard time expressing what I needed.
I had enormous pressure to resume my normal activities, as I had no maternity leave and had to return to work only a couple of weeks after leaving the hospital because we had no other income.
The first few months after the birth, away from my family and friends, I felt totally isolated and without any confidence as a new mother. I had no one to turn to: my husband was dealing with his own feelings as a new father and worrying about getting us through. We were constantly stressed and my work-life balance was precarious. I began to suffer from frequent migraines. Lack of sleep, an endless state of tension, anxiety and a poor diet did not contribute to my overall health. And although I was never diagnosed, I am sure I suffered from postpartum depression.
The first year and a half after giving birth was brutal, but it is these kinds of life events that reveal who we are and what we are made of. Now I also see it as an experience that showed me my path. Our son is a healthy, happy child for whom I am incredibly grateful.
Yoga was a crucial tool in healing the trauma of my birthing experience and coping with how things turned out.
Later on, helping other pregnant women and new mothers – especially those who are far from home and don’t have a support system to rely on – became my mission.
What are the lessons I learned from my birth experience?
1. Do some research and have a positive mindset
The way we think plays an important role in how things develop during and after pregnancy. Read a couple of books to learn about the changes, risks and possible complications during pregnancy. Be well informed about your options as well and keep a positive attitude.
2. Promote calm and relaxation throughout pregnancy
Reducing stress as much as possible is key: making pregnancy, childbirth and the baby a priority, everything else can wait. Stress has been linked to pre-term birth, gestational diabetes, low birth weight and serious medical conditions such as pre-eclampsia.
3. Select professionals that you feel comfortable with
Choosing the professionals with whom you feel comfortable and safe to keep calm when necessary in advance can bring peace of mind.
Although childbirth itself is unpredictable and the feeling of things getting out of control is common, you can be better prepared for some of the circumstances in which new parents may find themselves involved soon after. Having trusted specialists will help you reduce anxiety and will give you a sense of reassurance.
4. Discuss roles and divide tasks with your partner
Ask your partner how he/she pictures the first few weeks after birth, you might be surprised to find out he/she has a completely different idea than you. Verbalising each other’s needs and setting a few basic rules and boundaries in order to successfully cope with the transition into parenthood will strengthen the bond between partners and reduce the likelihood of friction in the future.
5. Have a post-partum plan
Having a supportive environment will speed up physical, mental and spiritual recovery and contribute to a smooth transition into motherhood. Planning ahead can ease any difficult start. Collecting a wide range of professionals to call on in case of need can be reassuring. Devising a birth and postpartum plan between partners is a wise decision.
6. Ask for help – clearly
Ask your family, friends and neighbours to bring you healthy meals or, do groceries or laundry for you, or to hire someone (a postpartum doula is a great idea) to relieve you of daily tasks as you adjust to life with a newborn.
In Western cultures, after the birth of a baby, the mother is often relegated to the background. A well-rested, nourished and supported woman will do a better job as a mother than an exhausted one.
If you feel depressed and/or anxious consult your health care provider.
7. Attend to your needs and listen to your body
It is important for new mothers to learn to listen to their bodies and pay attention to their own needs in order to take care of the baby in a full and responsible way. Caring for the mother is as important as caring for the baby.
8. Trust the process
The bond between mother and baby is indestructible and, however hard the beginning may be, it can be strengthened with love and patience.
9. Build a support network
Establishing links with the community, creating a circle of support, especially with other mothers (prenatal and postnatal classes are ideal for this) will help you to cope with the natural mixed feelings that arise after the arrival of a baby, build friendships, and help to create a sense of belonging.