Staying Active Post Baby Part 3 (part 2) : Outsmart Evolutionary Biology
Four months after having our first child, I was sitting on the couch, exhausted from another sleepless night, nursing the baby after she refused to drink expressed milk from a bottle for the 80th time, when I got smacked by a rogue wave of self-pity. “Is this all I’m ever going to do now?” my inner monologue cried, “Just sit here and be tired and nurse the baby?” Leaving the baby to go skiing or for a long bike ride seemed a distant, nearly impossible task. I felt selfish for wanting to even go in the first place and I didn’t want to leave my baby if she needed me. I wanted to be with her and take care of her. But I also wanted to be able to still be myself and work and do what I love. And for crying out loud, why haven’t I learned yet that I need to get a glass of water BEFORE sitting down to nurse?! So. Thirsty.
I tried to explain what I was feeling to my husband. He got me a glass of water, listened, and then said, “Just go. The baby will be fine.” Which was reassuring, but I could tell he didn’t quite understand how I could be so conflicted. To him, it was clear. You go skiing, the baby will be fine. To me, this was not clear at all. To me, it was something like, “Let’s say I go skiing. Then the baby doesn’t have its food source or its main source of comfort—nursing. I’m away from the baby and any number of real and imagined scenarios could keep me from getting back (traffic! road closures! earthquakes! hyenas!). What if the baby cries the whole time? What if she feels abandoned? What will I do with all of this milk? I might get mastitis. It’s not like I’m even going out to save lives or anything—I’m just going skiing! How ridiculous! You know what, I’ll just stay home with the baby. You should go skiing.”
At this point, he was usually staring at me like I was crazy, and sometimes he would just go skiing in order to get away from the crazy person. To his credit, though, most of the time he insisted that I go, and pretty much every single time, he was totally right. The baby was fine. He was fine. They were, in fact, happy and thriving. So what was the issue?
The issue was me. Well, not me, exactly, but the parts of my brain that I have the human species to thank—a species that has evolved rapidly and successfully by taking good care of their young.
Every time I was choosing to leave my baby or young child to do something that didn’t feel necessary to the human species, I felt like I had to override all of the hormones and all of the evolutionary biology built up inside me from thousands of years of human women before me whispering that I should stay home with the baby. Not to mention the societal messages I’ve absorbed over my lifetime that reinforce our concept of a “good” mom—and a good mom puts her kids before everything else, especially herself. But as we’ve evolved we’ve also learned a lot, and I think we can all safely agree at this point that within reason, a mom getting out and taking care of her brain and body and doing work and having purpose and a life—all these things are good for the baby. And another thing that is good for the baby is letting the other partner and other responsible care-givers spending time with the kids too.
So, the most difficult thing for me in getting physical again postpartum has actually been mental. Every time an opportunity arises for me to go skiing, biking, running, hiking, surfing, or anything without the kids, I have some version of this little (or big) mental wrestling match with myself. My lizard brain hisses a reason why I shouldn’t go, such as, “the baby was fussy last night, it might want to nurse more today. You should stay home.” The tiny part of my brain that still remains rational after pregnancy and childbirth offers a weak, unspecific counter argument like “you should go, you’ll be a better mom because of it.” My husband might chime in very reasonably, “Please go. You’re always happier when you come back.” And I generally wail something back like. “This isn’t about me being happy! This is about taking care of the baby! And anyways I’m happy when the baby is taken care of!”
In these moments, it helps me to have some persuasive counter-excuses of my own. It’s like a muscle, this practice of deflecting the excuses and going anyways. The more I use it, the better I am at knowing when, how and how hard to flex it. (I always reserve the right to just stay home with the kids and be totally ok with that too, because every once in a while I know deep down I just want to be with the baby and that’s great, as long as I know I will actually be ok with it. Saying “I’ll be fine” and then being grumpy and not fine about it later is sort of like my opinion about fabric softener—it’s lame and pointless. End rant.)
My repertoire of counter-excuses has been developed mainly by realizing the benefits I feel after I’ve gotten back, feeling the joy of my outdoor excursion mixed with the joy of returning home to a thriving family. I pay attention to how I feel and how the baby is doing over time and notice the what, when, how, and why that is working for us. (For example, at five months I notice that I had good luck feeding the baby at 6am, pumping at 7:30am, and then giving her a quick little nurse before leaving at 8. Then I could ski until noon, be back by 12:45 and she would have taken only a little bit of the milk but was happy and had a good nap and met me ready to nurse. But the following week I got overexcited, did an extra run and stayed until 1:30, got a plugged duct and got back to a cranky baby. Whoops! Easy tiger.)
My first basic counter-excuse involves recognizing that I’m not wrong or weak for wanting to stay, or for wanting to go for that matter (I have lots of friends who are more enlightened than me and are great at taking their own time and feeling good about it; if this is you I bow down to you! Teach me your ways!). Just knowing that the impulse to put the kid first by staying with said kid is A) coming from a deep biological place (no big deal, you just have to talk yourself out of thousands of years of evolution!) and B) isn’t even necessarily what’s probably best for the kid in the long-term helps me be more rational about decision-making, balancing family needs with my own.
So, after much overthinking, over-analyzing, and mental wrangling and much clarity from getting out in the snow or on a trail, my counter-excuse rule number one is this: Just because 30,000-plus years of evolution plus all those milk hormones are trying to pull me to stay doesn’t mean that’s what’s best. It takes a village, and babies thrive when they are secure with multiple adults. Don’t hog the baby! Also, just go. The baby will be fine.