Ask for Help Before You Need It.
I remember being up at 3am with my first son: he was crying, I was crying, and my husband was sleeping. I felt so utterly alone. After a week of these nights, I confessed to my husband that I needed help in those wee hours. He was glad to get up and had no idea that I was struggling because he (somehow) slept right through it. If I had not asked, he never would have known.
Do not hesitate to communicate your needs. Get creative if you don't have family or friends nearby: ask a neighbor or church group, find a support group through your local hospital or even a local Facebook group. If you have the money, hire a post-partum doula. Those who have been down this road know just how hard it is to ask for help, and also how necessary that help is. No one will be shocked or surprised that you need help because every new mom does. Before you find yourself really in dire need or at the end of a very frayed rope, ask someone for help.
Listen to Your Doctor, But Also to Yourself.
There is usually a reason that your doctor or midwife will recommend a course of action for recovery. Years of research or experience inform their words, whether it's waiting six weeks for sex or how often you should take pain medication. The caveat to this is that you should also to listen to your body. Maybe you need more than six weeks to be ready for sex. Maybe you are ready to exercise before the six-week mark. Maybe you can wean yourself off the pain medication or take half the dosage after a few days. Do take the professional recommendations seriously, but also realize recovery looks different for everyone.
Don't Leave the House (Unless You Want To).
You've seen them: the moms who show up at church or drive the carpool lane three days after birth, looking rested and totally back to normal. I am glad that some women recover so quickly (I really am!) but if you do not feel great, don't pretend to! There is no award given out for the mom who can snap back to normal activities after having a baby.
I spend the first month or so almost exclusively at home. In pajamas. That's what works for me. When you feel up to getting out and going places, do it. But do it slowly, realizing that everyday activities might take more out of you than they do when you are at 100%. Recovery is not a competition or an Olympic event. Let that Mom who feels great go to play group the first week after baby. Do what feels right to you.
Do What Works.
Solicited or no, you will be the recipient of advice. Consider it when it is helpful. Ignore it when it is not. Politely tell people when you need them to back off with their die-hard opinions. I thought I knew how I would handle a baby--until I actually had one. And then with each child, I found that something different worked. Become your own expert and allow room for growth and change. Find what works for your family and confidently stick to it no matter what a book or another mom says you should do.
Forget about Your Body (at Least for a Little While).
No one warned me how terrible my stomach would look immediately after having a baby. Within moments, you go from having a tummy hard and smooth from hosting a baby to a flabby sack of mush. I remember touching my stomach that first 24-hours and weeping. Resist the urge to immediately start dieting or to obsess over the way you look. If looking in the mirror upsets you, don't do it for a few weeks. (I made the mistake of looking at my vagina with a mirror days after having a baby and an episiotomy. There are some things you cannot un-see.)
This does not mean you shouldn't try to get in shape post-baby--just don't worry about it right away. I found that for the first month, a lot of weight dropped off on its own, even if I ate ice cream and drank beer. This natural weight loss stopped just about the time doctors recommend getting back to real exercise. Based on that, I like to give myself about six weeks when I don't worry about what size I am or what my stomach looks like. You will feel better about yourself if you can lose the baby weight, but give yourself time.
Treasure the Quiet Moments.
They won't last long. Both in the short term--any minute you might have a crying baby--and the long term--suddenly your baby will be starting Kindergarten. Depending on how hard those first six or so weeks are, this may take some reminding. Stare at your sweet baby. Smell that sweet baby smell. Even if it is 3am and you would rather be sleeping, do your best to imprint that memory in your mind. Before you know it, that moment will be gone.
Don't Give in to Guilt.
You should be spending more time with your other kids. You should be breast-feeding, not formula feeding. You should be using cloth diapers to save the environment. You should have lost all the baby weight. You should be cooking dinner. Your laundry has been on the couch for days. These and other accusing whispers may assault you in those first weeks. Couple these with post-partum hormones and you might succumb to a crushing guilt.
When I had my second son via emergency C-section, I felt horrible in every sense of the word. My two-year-old wanted nothing more than to be with me, but even five minutes with him left me exhausted. I felt like the worst mother on the planet. A short six weeks later I was feeling close to normal and my two-year-old hardly remembered that I passed him off to my husband or friends every chance I got. Whatever is threatening to load guilt on your back, just say NO.
Rest--Whatever That Means to You.
The most common phrase you will hear after having a baby: Sleep when the baby sleeps. I hated that advice. For me, the rest I needed more than sleep was emotional. As an extreme introvert, I feel stressed and exhausted when I do not get enough alone time. Blogging, spending time with the Bible, or reading a book helped recharge me more than any nap could have. Sleep deprivation is a real issue, but I would argue that you can suffer as much from not having emotional or spiritual rest. I would like to propose a makeover to that common phrase: Recharge when the baby sleeps.
Give Yourself Grace.
However birth went for you and no matter what number child you are on, having a baby is an enormous event that impacts every area of your life. You might feed your family boxed mac and cheese or (better yet) order pizza three nights a week. Maybe you stop doing laundry for a while. Your television might become your older children's new best friend.
Whatever those first few weeks look like with a new baby at home, give yourself grace. It might not look like what you had hoped, or what you would like daily life to be like in the long run. It probably won't look like your neighbor or that celebrity mom. It may be really difficult and simply about surviving. Or maybe you will be blessed with an easy transition and joyous first weeks.
You and your family will adjust to this new addition, but it takes time. Do not hold up unrealistic expectations or compare yourself to someone else. As you move through this transition period, even in the hard moments, remember and cling to the joy of that precious new life.