Liz Narins month 9 of pregnancy

Why It's Important To Talk About What to Expect After Childbirth

Although I've always wanted to be a mother, I've feared the pain of childbirth for as long as I can remember. When I was little, I'd often ask my own mom how much it hurt: After delivering three children with no pain medication, she always answered that it couldn’t have been that bad—otherwise, why would she have done it more than once?

Her reasoning stuck with me when I got pregnant with my son. But as my baby belly got bigger and bigger and my due day closer and closer, friends and coworkers who’d had kids more recently began to come out of the woodwork with horror stories about birth and recovery. There was talk about pooping on the delivery table, perineum tears, and epidurals that didn’t work.

It was only after I delivered my son that I understood why: Getting through childbirth initiates you into an exclusive club of people who’ve all undergone a unique, life-changing, and yes, sometimes traumatic experience that’s rarely talked about in enough detail to prepare the next generation of moms. In my experience, it's less about the circumstances of your birth than being privy to a phenomenon that seems to defy all laws of physics. Whether your birth is amazing or terrible, you're induced or you undergo a C-section, you go into delivery as an independent individual and come out a superhero who's somehow created another human. You release a part of yourself into the world. It's an experience that's cathartic to talk about.

While I now know that sharing your birth story can feel like a service to those who've yet to experience childbirth themselves, no matter how much unsolicited advice and information I received throughout my pregnancy, I didn’t feel remotely prepared for the days and weeks that followed my delivery.

Many of us found it therapeutic to share our birth stories as a way of coming to terms with what we’d gone through and confirming what I now know to be true for those who are expecting: You’re not alone in anything you’re about to experience.

After joining a new moms group, I heard the sentiment I was feeling echoed again and again: No one told us it would be like this. As such, many of us found it therapeutic to share our birth stories as a way of coming to terms with what we’d gone through and confirming what I now know to be true for those who are expecting: You’re not alone in anything you’re about to experience.

So here I am to tell you—for my own good and for yours—what to expect based solely on my first and only childbirth. Your birth could be similar, wildly different, or somewhere in between. But at least you’ll have a frame of reference, which means less anxiety over the unknown and more mental space to get excited for the wild adventure to come.

My First Childbirth

Because I’d always planned on getting an epidural, the pain I felt during my 31 hours of labor wasn’t actually that bad. For the first 15 hours or so, I labored at home with what felt like irksome period cramps—I’d call them a three on a pain scale of 10. 

As my labor progressed into the evening and I went to the hospital, my nerves were worse than any actual physical discomfort. The epidural only hurt for a second, not unlike getting a routine vaccine shot.

After that, I got a full night’s worth of sleep and woke up dilated enough to start pushing. Because at that point, everything below my waist felt numb, my fear of pain evolved into generalized anxiety about embarrassing myself while I pushed.

About 15 minutes later, I felt just a little bit of pressure and zero pain as my baby entered the world. Without exaggeration, meeting my son was the absolute happiest moment of my life. (Sure, he was cute. But I also think hormones were at play here.)

Pain After Childbirth

Here’s the real deal: As your epidural wears off, you may be in a fair amount of pain, particularly if you tore and needed stitches. (That’s what prophylactic oral anti-inflammatories and ice packs are for.) But because you’ll be entirely consumed by the tiny human that just came out of you, your discomfort probably won’t be top of mind.

Your nurses will pack your pants with ice packs, sanitary pads, witch hazel pads, and numbing cream. There’s a method to the madness; they've done this many times before, so just trust the process.

One ache that crept up on me was well above the waist: For days after giving birth, my neck killed from looking down at the baby on my chest all day every day. Stretching and massage can work wonders for relief, as can a warm bath or sitz bath. (Some midwives recommend adding Epsom salt to promote healing by reducing swelling and your risk of infection.)

Bodily Changes After Childbirth

Although you might feel like you lost a fair amount of belly weight almost immediately, you’ll probably still look at least several months pregnant for a while (read: weeks or months). And while you’ll feel like you just did something incredible—you produced a human!—you might not feel as physically empowered, particularly since your abs won’t do their job when you try to sit up in bed. It’s one reason why electric hospital beds are amazing. Keep the controller handy to raise and lower yourself, and remember the side rails can be really helpful. 

While you’ll feel like you just did something incredible—you produced a human!—you might not feel as physically empowered, particularly since your abs won’t do their job when you try to sit up in bed.

In days after giving birth, your boobs will swell more than you could have ever thought; and if you’re nursing, your nipples may feel rubbed raw like when your hands crack in the winter. You’ll probably leak milk through several layers of bra and shirt on more than one occasion—an accident that might make you laugh one day and cry the next. (Nursing pads can help here!) 

You won’t know what bra or clothing to wear, especially after your maternity wardrobe feels too big and your regular clothes feel too small, so just put comfort first and rely on clothes that give (and offer easy access to your chest if you are breastfeeding). No matter what you wear, you might have phantom baby belly feels only to look down and realize your baby is beside you. While I didn't feel phantom fetal kicks after birth, an estimated 40 percent of women do for an average of nearly 7 years postpartum.

At night, you may sweat so much you need to squeegee your pajamas—a result of hormonal adjustments. And you might wake up feeling like you’re in labor all over again, a symptom of your uterus contracting. While it’s strange to feel your body acting out unexpectedly, these are signs that your body is returning to its former state and "normalcy" is on its way. 

But truth be told, you might never feel exactly the same as you did before you were pregnant. It might be hard to look at your body in the mirror for weeks or months. At the same time, you might catch a glance of yourself cuddling your baby or changing a diaper and wonder, who’s that parent staring back at you? (Hint: It's you!)

But truth be told, you might never feel exactly the same as you did before you were pregnant.

Between your fluctuating hormones and lack of sleep, you probably won’t feel like yourself for a while. To that end, you might not want to be touched in ways you liked before pregnancy for a long, long time. It’s okay to communicate this to your partner. Just be patient with yourself—particularly if you’re breastfeeding, which is still a transitional phrase for your body.

Emotions After Childbirth

You might feel like crying when you’re sad, when you’re happy, and when you experience every emotion in between. Chances are, you’ll feel emotions you didn’t know you had, like anxiety and an inexplicable, magnetic pull to be near your child. Research suggests that symptoms of postpartum anxiety, which can include feelings ranging from loss to frustration and guilt crop up in as many as 28 percent of women after childbirth. Some parents don’t feel this bond right away, which can be related to postpartum depression—but know that whatever you’re feeling is normal and okay. (If you feel emotionally off for more than two weeks, it is best to seek treatment.)

For the most part, all of the uncomfortable, weird postpartum feelings come and go: The fourth trimester, as it's called, is a temporary phase that passes. And when it does? You’ll look back on all that your body accomplished—and the fact that you not just grew and birthed a human, but also managed to keep them alive—and feel like an actual warrior.

Support After Childbirth

If you had a C-section, multiples, or any complications, your birth postpartum experience might be completely different from mine. But whether your labor and recovery are worse than I've described or even more transcendent, know that no matter what you’re going through, someone has been there before and would take great relief and joy in both sharing their story and hearing yours. 

If you don’t have a friend or family member who’s recently had a baby, comb Facebook (or any other corner of the internet) to find a new parents support group. After all, one of the best ways to bond with a new friend is to share a laugh and the secret that you both just peed yourselves a little. (Did I mention that it can be hard to control your bladder for a while after childbirth?)

At the end of the day, giving yourself permission to put yourself first—at least sometimes!—will be the very best medicine. So take the bath, the nap, or the walk (by yourself). Or take a few minutes to write a couple of lines about everything you're experiencing, a practice that can help you rest and emotionally digest until this super special but tumultuous time is in the rear mirror.

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5 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Midwives Collective of Toronto. Care for Clients After Birth.

  2. Sasan, D., Ward, P. G., Nash, M., Orchard, E. R., Farrell, M. J., Hohwy, J., & Jamadar, S. ‘Phantom Kicks’: Women’s Subjective Experience of Foetal Kicks after the Postpartum Period. doi:10.31234/osf.io/6qad9

  3. Thurston RC, Luther JF, Wisniewski SR, Eng H, Wisner KL. Prospective evaluation of nighttime hot flashes during pregnancy and postpartumFertility and Sterility. 2013;100(6):1667-1672. doi:10.1016/j.fertnstert.2013.08.020.

  4. Ali E. Women's experiences with postpartum anxiety disorders: a narrative literature reviewIJWH. 2018;10:237-249. doi:10.2147/IJWH.S158621.

  5. National Institute of Mental Health. Perinatal Depression.

By Elizabeth Narins
Elizabeth Narins is a Brooklyn-based freelance writer, editor, and social media strategist whose favorite workout is chasing her toddler. Her work has been published by Cosmopolitan, Women’s Health, Men’s Health, Parents, Health, Bustle, and more.