The Fifth Trimester

by Danielle Veith

After three exhausting, emotional trimesters of pregnancy, comes the widely-discussed Fourth Trimester (there’s a book! and another book! and a guy who has all the answers!), where babies still seem like they could live inside your still-too-roomy tummy, except they’re noisier and you get to see their amazing faces.

 Pretty please (with baby on top), just a little   more sleep?

Pretty please (with baby on top), just a little

more sleep?

It’s hard. But the Fourth Trimester has a lot going for it… Everyone is excited and in awe and it’s all new and it’s all precious. Most new parents spend these months feeling, among the millions of other bouncing emotions, like they have no idea what they’re doing. And the babies—well, there’s the smile and maybe the laugh, but mostly… they don’t really do anything.

And then comes the stage no one tells you about, the one that even other moms who talk about everything don’t talk about. I’ve started to think of is as the Fifth Trimester. Somewhere around the fourth, fifth or even seventh month, everything just… Seems. So. Hard.

Five reasons why the Fifth Trimester exists and is the hardest one of all:

1. EXHAUSTION IS CUMULATIVE. The baby hasn’t figured out how to sleep like a baby! Even some babies who had been champion sleepers are suddenly waking at night (and now you know what "sleep regression" means). Even for those whose babies are still sleeping well, moms often aren't. Worry, hormones, habit--there's a lot going on in your mind and your body. And now you've been not sleeping well for months. And it’s adding up.

Sleep deprivation is cumulative. The list could end here. This makes everything harder. So many moms who talk about struggling at this phase mention not sleeping as an afterthought. It could be the entire reason why things feel hard. Not sleeping changes everything—your mood, your appetite, your patience, your perspective. Try to get more sleep—in any way you can! It’s the most important thing you can do to take care of yourself.

2. WHERE DID EVERYONE GO? The early days and months with a new baby, especially a first baby, are busy. People want to see the baby. They bring gifts, they bring food, they may even do your dishes. Every outing is an occasion or at least it takes a whole day to get out the door and back in, so it feels like one. 

Time is fast and time is slow, but it’s not what it was before, and just that feeling makes the days go by before you have time to think. When the excitement winds down, you might be feeling alone, and if you haven’t made efforts to find some good mom friends, do it now! Being a mom can be very lonely. Your mother can’t be the only person you go to for parenting advice. You will need mom friends and you will need them more and more every day.

3. I FIGURED IT OUT! … AND THEN… Your confidence was finally on the rise and then everything changed. Finally, you can change a diaper in less than thirty minutes! The baby’s feedings seem to be on some kind of schedule, at least sometimes! You know what goes in the diaper bag! (Even if you sometimes forget to put it there.) Then, all of a sudden... the baby doesn’t just fall asleep for naptime? You have to figure out if they’re ready for solid foods? And how does that fit into the whole diaper bag situation? And wait… the baby’s moving now?

This is a time of rapid development for babies, and for parents, it's really the first time you realize that you're never going to have this parenting thing figured out. If you think you know what you’re doing as a parent, give it a few weeks (it will change). On the other hand, if you’re in an unbearable stage, give it a few weeks (it will change).

 Baby, on the move. Already.

Baby, on the move. Already.

4. FMLA SETS THE STANDARD. Aka, expectations. The Family and Medical Leave Act was no doubt a compromise between those who believe parents need more than 12 weeks to adjust to parenthood and those who think women should be back at work in a week (or not at all). For some women, one of the challenges after the first three months are up is that time at home is up too. Going back to work, leaving a three-month-old baby for most of the day and then coming home to a second shift is no joke. For others, the challenge is that friends with similar age babies are going back to work, which can shift your perspective on what you’re doing at home.

I would also argue that the FMLA is so deeply engrained in our culture that even when we’re not confronted with it’s impact directly, we feel something in the air that brings up questions: Shouldn’t I be…by now? Shouldn’t the baby be…by now? Fill in the blank, it’s different for everyone, but we can start to feel inadequate now matter how happy we may be with our choices.

In my experience, it helps to realize that’s what’s happening and let it go. It’s still hard—your baby is still brand new! Most women do not fit back into their pre-pregnancy clothes, and eventually give in and get some new things so they can get out of yoga pants 24-7 mode. Accept that it will take time to get your body back. And ask questions about what to except from this stage from sources that won’t lie. Ask another mom how she’s feeling and tell her the truth about how you’re feeling.

5. NO EXIT. It’s not getting easier (it will) and they’re no way out (which is also what makes parenting as amazing as it is). This is the time when you realize it’s always gonna be hard and you’re gonna do it, with any luck, until the day you die. It’s also the time when you start to figure out how to make it easier—there are shortcuts, ways to cheat, times you need a break—because the only way to stop it from being so hard is to learn how to be easier about everything.

Parents of older kids need to stop telling new parents that it never gets any easier. The first year is intense and the kind of hard it is will change you, but it will also prepare you for the next year and the next. Your old life is gone and it’s okay to miss it. It takes time to adjust to your new life. As parents have told non-parents forever, “It changes everything.” Now you know. You really, really know.

More hard times will come, but you're stronger than you think and you're not alone.