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Childbirth Cubby

Right-Away Emotions
by Lucy J. Puryear, M.D.

The act of giving birth is one of the most creative and demanding things a person can do. Sometimes endorphins that were released during the work of labor leave mothers with a feeling of exaltation -- a high that some women liken to a drug high. Feeling on top of the world, gathering congratulations from everybody, checking with your partner for the color of her eyes or whose mother she looks like, and joining the great chain of human life -- all these can be thrilling. Other women are tired and ready to turn over and take a nap. That's great, too. Some women want to hold the baby until they are checked out of the hospital. Others want to leave the baby in the nursery until the car arrives in the hospital parking lot to take them home. Both reactions are fine.

After delivery, a radical shift in a woman's hormones begins, as the body begins to shrink the uterus and prepare for lactation. Estrogen and progesterone levels fall and oxytocin and prolactin are released to promote breastfeeding. Equally profound emotional changes can occur as well. Some women who were delighted with the prospect of impending parenthood, had perfectly acceptable labor, and delivered healthy babies find themselves unable to stop crying a few hours after delivery. A woman I know recounts the birth of her first child this way: "It all went fine. And let me tell you, we wanted this baby more than anything in the world. But when I finally got into my room after the baby was born, I started to cry as if my best friend had just died. I cried for hours. At one point, a pediatric resident walked into the room to check on the baby. When he saw me, he literally backed out of the room!"

The tears were gone after a few hours of sleep and a good breakfast. Although it wasn't funny at the time, we were able to laugh later at the thought of the young doctor actually being afraid of the crying new mother. She and I have six kids between us, and we both know that tears after childbirth are just part of the process.

The Circle of Life

The human world is made up of an amazing variety of people, and every parent has her or his own way of loving a child. Just as every parent is different, every baby is different -- it's not just the fingerprints and footprints that vary. Some are alert from the beginning; others are too alert and seem to startle at the slightest noise. Some babies are placid and easy to calm; others seem almost too placid, and the new parents worry because of that. Most newborns look funny, especially if labor has been long and hard. They may have cone-shaped heads or swollen, lopsided features. That's the way it is. Cone-shaped heads round out, and swollen features diminish in size. Red skin turns pink, and skinny, scrawny babies become plump angels. First impressions and early moments are just that. There's no way of telling what kind of person your baby will grow up to be based on those first impressions. And there is no way to evaluate the kind of mother you are going to be from the experience of labor and childbirth.

Each of us has strengths and weaknesses. I'm really great with babies and teenagers. Go figure. But with kids between the ages of three and twelve, I lose my patience and equanimity. There's something about the endless, repetitive questions and desire to play games that doesn't lean into my strengths. Give me a crying baby or a petulant teenager, and I'm good to go. But playing even five minutes of Candy Land or speculating for the nineteenth time about why the grass is green makes me want to shut myself in my room for the next five or six years.

During those middle years, though, I'm still a good mother. Not the most pleasurable ages for me, but I can put my own needs on hold for a while and make it halfway through a game of cards. And I can manage to answer the green grass question one or two times. I'm able to give my kids love and consistency, and they know that I will be available to them when they need me. You will discover your own strengths and weaknesses as a parent -- but not all at once; it will take time.

Giving birth is a miracle. The very act of giving birth makes you a hero. It doesn't matter if you hissed obscenities at your husband or the doctor; it doesn't matter if you asked for anesthesia when you promised not to; it doesn't matter if you had a C-section; it doesn't matter if you didn't fall immediately in love with your baby. If you are fortunate enough to get through the process of delivery and bring a new life into the world, you have succeeded.

The above is an excerpt from the book Understanding Your Moods When You're Expecting by Lucy J. Puryear, M.D.
Published by Houghton Mifflin; June 2008;$24.00US/$32.95CAN; 978-0-618-34107-8
Copyright 2008 Lucy J. Puryear, M.D.

About the Author:
Lucy Puryear, author of Understanding Your Moods When You're Expecting, is a practicing psychiatrist specializing in women's reproductive mental health. She has been director of the Baylor Psychiatry Clinic, Baylor College of Medicine, and was an expert witness for the defense in the trial of Andrea Yates. She is the mother of four and lives in Houston, Texas. For more information, please visit: www.LucyPuryear.com.

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