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My idyllic picture of the postpartum period being nothing but newborn bliss and bonding with my new babe was fractured (if not shattered) immediately after my first child was born. Yes, there were skin-to-skin cuddles, happy tears, and endless photos of that perfect little face, but the reality is, I could never have imagined how hard this period would be. While every woman’s postpartum experience is unique and vastly different, my own experience—like that of many mothers— was far from easy. In a nutshell: lots of tears, lots of physical pain, and way too much Gilmore Girls.

People told me motherhood was going to be hard, but I had no idea it would be this hard. I was experiencing some serious mood swings (and, in retrospect, probably some postpartum depression). After post-birth complications, I was in serious pain for many weeks, and I had many follow-up appointments to which I couldn’t even drive myself. Breastfeeding was difficult and painful, and it took the help of several lactation consultants to get my baby to latch on properly.

I didn’t have the energy to make myself any food that was remotely healthy. I didn’t know how to ask for help. I didn’t recognize the woman I saw in the mirror. And I didn’t know how to sleep at night without anxiously checking the vital signs of my precious newborn in the bassinet every ten minutes.

After this less-than-ideal postpartum experience, I knew that I wanted it to be different the next time around. Thus, during my second pregnancy, I decided to take a more intentional approach to my recovery and wellbeing after giving birth. And at three months postpartum right now, I can honestly say that I feel better than I ever imagined possible. Here’s what I did (and am doing) this time around.

01. I prepped for post-pregnancy during pregnancy.

Especially with a two-year-old already under tow, I knew that I needed to be more proactive when it came to thinking about life after the new baby arrived. I knew from the first time around that it would likely be many weeks before I was feeling up to cooking (and grocery shopping) again. Therefore, I made a bunch of freezer meals in bulk on a Saturday during my third trimester. My husband took our daughter out of the house for the afternoon, and I was able to prep about 10 meals (each with enough for leftovers) to stick in the freezer in giant bags that would require minimum prep and cooking when I took them out for dinners. (They were delicious and well worth the initial effort!)

Perhaps the most helpful thing that I did this time around for my physical recovery, however, was to make a bunch of “padsicles” to stock up in my freezer. Although my recovery has gone much better this time around, I was still immensely happy I had taken the time to make these individually wrapped pads soaked in witch hazel and aloe vera, in order to help soothe and heal soreness and discomfort after delivery. They were ready to use straight out of the freezer! (You can also buy these pads pre-made, or as part of an amazing postpartum recovery kit for moms. I used several items from this kit.)

02. I prioritized my health.

Almost everything about my pregnancy and labor and delivery experience was different the second time around. Pregnancy (particularly the third trimester) was much harder due to a condition I developed called symphysis pubis dysfunction (or SPD), which made everyday actions, such as walking upstairs or rolling over in bed, extremely painful. While my initial concerns to my doctor were dismissed as being “normal pregnancy symptoms,” I knew that what I was experiencing was not normal. I was very proactive about my SPD towards the end of my pregnancy (once I knew what it was) in order to make sure it went away postpartum, and it paid off. I sought professional help from both a physical therapist and a chiropractor specializing in postpartum women and pelvic floor care, and I continued to see them after delivery to make sure I was on track to recovery.

Mentally and emotionally, I better knew what to expect this time, and my husband and I were both on the lookout for any signs of postpartum depression. Many women do not understand the dramatic shift in hormones that occurs directly after giving birth. A woman’s body produces the hormones estrogen and progesterone in drastically increased amounts during pregnancy. Then, in the first 24 hours following birth, these hormone levels drop dramatically back to their pre-pregnancy levels. Unsurprisingly, these postpartum hormonal changes can cause varying degrees of the “baby blues” or postpartum depression. This generally goes away on its own after a few days or weeks. However, it’s important to seek professional and medical help if you are concerned that you are suffering from more lasting postpartum depression.

03. I asked for help.

Why is it that asking for help is often the hardest thing for women to do? We’ve talked about it before, but we should never let embarrassment, shame, or feeling like we should be able to do it all on our own prevent us from receiving the help we desperately need. With baby number two, I’ve found that humbling myself to ask for help has gotten infinitely easier.

When a friend asked if she could create a meal train for me, I answered in the affirmative almost before she could get the question out of her mouth. When people I didn’t even know well texted me and asked if they could help in some way, I sent them the link to the meal train without hesitation. I love when someone gives me an opportunity to help them, and so I tried to keep that in mind whenever I presented someone else with this opportunity, rather than feeling guilty or anxious.

Besides food, the other area where I knew that I needed help postpartum was with child care, especially because my husband did not get any paternity leave. Having a baby during a global pandemic made it a bit difficult to ask for help in this department, but when my mom and sister asked if they could drive 15 hours to come help me for five days the week after I gave birth, I did not dissuade them.

04. I fed my body well, and I moved it.

I know, I know. Everyone is aware that eating balanced meals and exercising is the best thing you can do for your health anytime, postpartum or otherwise. However, there are many reasons why a balanced postpartum diet is especially important, especially for fueling your body with the nutrients needed for recovery and breastfeeding.

While I still ate more than a few celebratory cookies, muffins, and chocolate bars, I have made a conscientious effort to feed my body well this postpartum period. I’ve paid attention to how much water I’m drinking, I’ve taken the time to cook vegetables, I’ve made sure that I’m eating enough protein-rich foods, I’ve continued taking my prenatal vitamins, and I’ve consumed lots of healthy fats (nuts and homemade granola bars are always within reach while I’m breastfeeding).

As soon as I was cleared by my doctor, I also started appropriate stretches and exercises. I knew that this time around I wanted to focus in particular on strengthening my pelvic floor, in order to heal any damage done during pregnancy and birth and to prevent a recurrence of the SPD I experienced in any potential future pregnancies. It took some trial and error, but I eventually discovered that a combination of walking several days a week and using an exercise regimen from an app geared specifically for postpartum women worked best for me.

A healthy balance of nutrition and exercise has given me much-needed energy to power through my days with two small children. Creating a health goal chart with personal incentives and goals has helped keep that enthusiasm alive. Rather than focusing on “getting my body back,” I’ve created goals for my whole-body health, and I’m already seeing the benefits. And to that end, this postpartum period I gave myself permission to buy clothes that actually fit me right now, rather than living in a sweats-only, “one day I’ll fit into my clothes again” limbo like I did after my first baby.

After a difficult postpartum with my first baby, I knew that things had to change with my second baby. This period is still hard, and I’m still in the thick of it, but I am endlessly grateful that, this time, I’ve given myself grace. I’ve allowed myself to ask for help and to prioritize my health and overall wellbeing, and the result is that I’m thriving in, not just surviving, postpartum life.