How Long does ‘Postpartum’ Last?

Pregnant women in the US are exposed to many widely held beliefs about birth and the postpartum time that — they discover with shock and possibly pain, guilt, and sadness — are so very false. I believe we need to talk about these beliefs to prevent the shock and ease the other painful emotions that result.

One of these beliefs is that the postpartum time is short; it is finite; and when it’s over, you’ll be just fine. You’ll be ‘normal’ again, just like you were before.

Wise women have pointed out that, literally, postpartum is the rest of your life after you give birth. Once you have experienced childbirth and motherhood, you are changed.

But this intense period of emotion, growth, and babyhood doesn’t last forever. How long is it? Is it the same for every woman?

We give birth in an environment that tells us postpartum is scientifically defined, and it is finite. Here are a few of the milestones that are defined for us by authorities, giving us parameters for our postpartum expectations:*

  • Two to five days: end of typical hospital stay for moms birthing in hospitals;
  • Four weeks: mom’s final medical check up with her care provider, for hospital births;
  • Six weeks: medical texts define mom’s body as having physically returned to pre-pregnant state;
  • Twelve weeks: end of unpaid, job-protected leave defined by US’s Family and Medical Leave Act and, therefore, a common length of maternity leave;
  • Also twelve weeks: baby reaches a developmental milestone, the end of the ‘fourth trimester,’ and begins to settle into a more predictable routine.

All of this sets up the profound expectation that after four, or six, or at most twelve weeks postpartum, women will feel that they have returned to normal.

This is so unfair! What does it say about you if you don’t feel ‘normal’ at that point? Are you weak or self-indulgent? Is there something wrong with you? Or are you somehow bad at being a mother? Because you can’t do it all, manage it all, like women are supposed to do? Moms I know have expressed all those worries as a result. This unrealistic expectation can cause so much self-doubt and pain at a time when women are so vulnerable.

So many women have told me that at six weeks, six months, twelve months postpartum, or more, they were still in the process of adjusting. Still recovering physically and emotionally. Still missing a kind of comfort and ease, a sense of control, and connection to the ‘regular’ world.

I was completely in it, in the raw and vulnerable place that is an extension of labor itself, for weeks. After five weeks, I felt a distinct lightening. The daily darkness of the postpartum moods began to clear, and the fog lifted significantly. But certainly not completely. That was when I left my zip code for the first time. After six months, I felt another level of clearing and lifting. I felt more myself. But I still could not communicate properly with anyone else who was not a new mom. After one year, I felt a little less sleep-deprived and began to claim time for myself. But I still only felt completely at ease, that I could absolutely be myself, around other moms and dads experiencing the same thing. Or people close enough to the experience that they had empathy. At two years, another milestone in reconnecting to the regular world. I could finally think about other projects beyond motherhood without feeling overwhelmed with stress.

I love this quote from Sally Placksin’s Mothering the New Mother:

Raven Lang [a mid-wife of 30+ years] recalled that . . . ‘some of us considered postpartum two years, and some of us considered postpartum even a little longer. As long as the baby’s in diapers, and you’re up in the night, and your breast is being called upon by that person, you’re postpartum.’

All of this means that we as a society need to acknowledge this reality and to give new moms the space and the nurturing they need to recover fully. What if the ‘regular world’ respected and empathized with us and what we are going through? That would ease the journey immensely.

Societies around the world have set six weeks or 40 days as the period in which a new mom is incubated, protected, doted upon, cared for, and relieved of all other duties aside from caring for her new baby. Perhaps it is the lack of this care that makes our postpartum experience longer and often difficult. Plus, women often lack support and feel isolated throughout the intense years of baby and toddlerhood.

During pregnancy it is so hard to think ahead and to plan for the postpartum period. It is so hard to ask for help, for this protective and nurturing care that we need. So let’s help our friends and peers at the very least to gain the support of a postpartum doula! Doula support during the early postpartum period can have a huge impact on a woman’s physical and emotional recovery.

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* This list is based on information from Sally Placksin’s Mothering the New Mother, with some modifications.

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