Making peace with my post-baby body

It happened on a Tuesday morning. I stepped on the scale and it there it was, the number I’d been longing for—my pre-baby weight. Seven months had passed and finally all 50 (yes, 50…) pounds I’d gained via pregnancy were gone.

This moment I’d built up in my head, this goal achieved felt strangely anticlimactic.

Despite all my work to “bounce back,” deep down I knew the truth, and the truth is this: my body will never be the same again. Since giving birth the skin on my stomach is a little stretchier, my butt’s a little saggier, my laugh lines are a little deeper. My hair is perpetually shedding. My hands are starting to look like the way I remember my mother’s hands looked when I was a child, etched with extra lines and wrinkles.

My body will never be the same again.

As a new mama I’ve made peace with this fact, though it’s taken me some time. When I first got pregnant, I didn’t fully comprehend the physical and mental transformation I was about to undergo. There’s a lot that has been said about how becoming a mother changes your sense of identity, but I think that the natural, slow progression of women’s bodies postpartum is not talked about enough.

What the media tells us about mothers’ bodies

In the U.S., the media and our culture celebrate the beauty of the glowing, expectant mother. There is nothing inherently wrong about this.

Here’s the rub: The messages a mother hears change quickly after she has given birth. She is exhausted, hormonal and experiencing a seismic life transition and what does the media say a new mother should focus on?

Well, for starters, her baby, but also her “post-baby body.”

Really?

Yes, really. Women—especially celebrities—are expected to drop all the healthy weight they gained as part of pregnancy ever-so-quickly, practically the moment their baby’s out of the womb.

Almost as soon as Beyoncé had her twins, entertainment sites were covering her weight and shape. (See: this, this and this.)

All women face this obstacle

We ordinary women feel the pressure, too. After I had my son, I felt unnecessarily anxious about dropping the extra padding I still carried, even though I knew holding onto this weight was completely natural. This certainly wasn’t in the forefront of my mind what with so much else to worry about, namely, figuring out how to care for my infant son, but it was still there, lurking in the background. As I recovered from my C-section and struggled to make sense of the trauma of Jack’s birth, I was troubled by the worry that my body would stay “big.”

I know I’m not alone in this.

Mamas, I wish we could give ourselves some grace about our postpartum bodies, but popular culture is working against us. Whether we believe them or not, we internalize messages we receive from the media we consume that promote the archaic lie that a woman’s worth is measured by how small she is. (Being pregnant is the one time this “rule” is suspended but even pregnant women have body image issues and wish their pregnant bodies looked a certain way. I’m working on a future post on this too–stay tuned.)

As media companies embrace more body-positive messaging, I see the tide turning, but overall we in the U.S. continue to be obsessed with judging women for their bodies. The thinner, the smaller, the better.

Health and fitness companies prey on postpartum women’s insecurities, encouraging new moms to buy their [protein shake/workout program/coaching service] NOW to get their pre-baby body back.

What the media and health/fitness industry fail to mention is that this set of expectations is not healthy or normal. This pressure to get back to normal (whatever that is) is harmful and quite frankly, offensive.

The early days and weeks post-birth are an incredibly tender and trying time physically and emotionally. Your body is healing and yet it’s also being tested with the demands of caring for an infant. That’s enough in and of itself. If you haven’t lived it, it might be hard to understand but trust me: that’s enough. Just live and let your body heal.

Yes, I know this is easier said than done. A wise friend once told me that it takes a woman’s body 40 weeks (give or take a few) to transform and bring life into the world, so she should allow herself that time or more to recover. This advice was a great comfort to me as I struggled with my postpartum body.

My journey

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I titled this article “Making peace with my post-baby body” — how did I do that?

First, I managed my expectations from the start of my pregnancy. I knew from the mamas in my tribe and from books and articles that pregnancy and birth would change my body–for good. I also knew that breastfeeding would help me lose some weight naturally, over time.

It’s one thing to know this, but it’s another to live it.

Early on after I gave birth to my son I hit a weight loss plateau for a few weeks. The number on the scale wasn’t dropping the way I thought it should. During this time I worried I had some sort of thyroid issue, that my body would stay this way forever. I realized in my worrying I was being ridiculous and I had other, more important things to worry about (i.e., taking care of our son), but I still worried.

I kept breastfeeding, drinking water and eating healthy meals when I could.

At six weeks postpartum, I was cleared by my doctor to start working out again. I joined my local yoga studio and started going to classes here and there while my son was napping.

I remember the first time I got on my mat after having Jack. I barely recognized my body in the mirror. My body was lumpy and weak. I felt a bit like I didn’t belong.

But by the end of class, I felt transformed.

I felt calm, powerful and refreshed.  My body remembered yoga and it craved more of it.

Going forward, whenever I could find a free hour away from baby, usually 2 to 3 times a week, I’d go to my studio. Practicing yoga made me feel more confident and grounded.

Early on one of my instructors began class by talking about intention on and off the mat. “What is your intention for this class, this season of life?” she asked. 

In that moment I realized that my intention would need to be patience. I would need to trust that my body would heal the way it was meant to, slowly and over time. I needed to stop stressing that my body even defined me–what defined me was my character, my roles as a mother, wife, daughter, sister and child of God.

Buoyed by my intention of patience and the truth that our bodies do not determine our self-worth, I began my journey toward body peace and acceptance.

And wouldn’t you know, slowly the weight began to come off. However there are ways my body has changed that are permanent, and I know once I stop breastfeeding I’ll go through another whole set of changes. I have simply acknowledged these changes, then acknowledged that they have nothing to do with WHO I am as a person.

Maybe that’s why the number I recently reached on the scale isn’t so important anymore.

I’m making healthy choices, but I also have a healthier mindset towards my body. It was my journey over the last 6-7 months toward self-acceptance during which I cultivated a deep peace and comfort with change. 

Now that’s something worth celebrating.

Have you ever felt insecure in your own skin? What helped you cope?

Motherhood is messy

black and white splattersIt is 11 a.m. and I am laying on the floor of my newborn’s room, covered in a cold sweat. My teeth chatter as I wrap my oversized bathrobe tight around my body and watch my baby play. He is well but I am not. I am overtired and running a fever and the only thing keeping me awake in this particular moment is adrenaline. My lips move but my voice fails me as I let out a silent one-word prayer: “Help.”

That morning, on the floor of my son’s room, I experience my first panic attack. I am so sick I can barely care for myself and I am scared sick that I don’t  have the stamina to continue caring for my three-month-old son. To top it off my husband is out of town for a week-long work trip and it is only Wednesday.

Sick. Scared. Alone.

This is not how I pictured my first week of solo-parenting to go.

I am in the middle of my maternity leave but my husband is back at work and on the road. He is a consultant, so travel is a regular part of the gig. After Jack was born we’d spent six stressful/blissful weeks together learning how to care for an infant. Now I’m on my own and feeling terrible and I am terrified. I fight back tears as I call my husband and he immediately insists I call my mother and ask for help.

“Mom,” I croak when she answers the phone, “I need you right now. I’m sick and can’t take care of Jack. Can you come help me?”

“Of course,” she says, “I’ll come as soon as I can tonight.”

A fresh crop of tears spill from my eyes as I hang up the phone. My mom is coming to help. I am relieved. I just have to hang on until she can finish up at work and make the drive from Chicago suburbs to the city proper where we live.

Jack’s starting to get hungry so I pick him up and take him to the rocking chair. My head pounds as I hold him in my arms and feed him. His 11-pound body feels surprisingly heavy in my arms but I will myself to stay awake. In my head, I count the hours until my mother will arrive. Then I try to channel positive thoughts: I am strong. I can do hard things. I can do this.

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There is something about motherhood that is incredibly physical, but we often fail to acknowledge it after our babies are born. Labor is taxing, yes, but long after children leave the safety of the womb, we continue to mother them with our bodies: our breasts a source of nourishment, arms a sanctuary place, sheer physical presence a comfort.

So what happens when mom gets sick? On this day when I feel like the walking dead, I draw a deep strength from within me and become a warrior. I get up, and I keep moving. I have to do this for my son.

Every day we sleep-deprived, exhausted mothers summon the power inside to persist, to endure hard things we’d never faced before we had children. We do it for them. We become stronger for our children.

Hours pass. When the doorbell finally rings, I rush to let my mom inside, holding Jack in my arms. When I open it I see my mom, arms full of a handful of bags and smiling at us and immediately I feel self conscious. My hair is dirty, my bathrobe sticky with sweat and I can’t remember if I’ve brushed my teeth. I am a mess, the house is a mess.

“Mom, you’re here!” I almost shout as I hand her the baby and take the bags she’s set gingerly on the ground. She’s brought Lipton soup and throat lozenges and ginger ale–all the things that she used to give me when I was sick as a child–and my heart just melts.

“I am so sorry but I just need to lie down right now…” I say, trailing off. “Are you OK watching Jack for a bit?”

“Of course.”

I retreat back to my room and flop down on the bed. My mom is here and I am safe and loved and so is Jack.

She rocks the baby, cleans the dishes and folds the laundry–she helps clean up my mess. She mothers me and my infant child.

I now understand what people meant when they told me becoming a parent is a lifetime commitment, because now that I’m a mom, I need my mom more than ever before and I’m so grateful to her for the ways she’s kept showing up in my life and mothering me, long after I left the nest.

Before becoming a mother, I had this idealized version of motherhood stuck in my head. I loved following The Bump’s instagram account and looking at perfectly stylized family portraits paired with witty captions. Motherhood seemed so fun and easy! And, certainly it is fun, especially seeing baby develop over time. Easy? Not so much.

What I’ve come to realize is that most days motherhood doesn’t look anything like the photos The Bump highlights.

Most days, motherhood is MESSY. And motherhood is about showing up amid the mess.

Motherhood on the internet is so often a performance, it’s putting our best foot forward for our friends and family and other strangers online. The images we love to share so often capture our parenting highs but don’t show the lows, the sick days, tears, tantrums or tremendous mounds of laundry and dishes waiting to be cleaned in the background.

Let me repeat: Motherhood is messy. In fact, as a default it’s messy and hard and infuriating at times, so why is everyone on the Internet so hellbent on making it seem otherwise?

Yes, motherhood is fun and rewarding and joyful, but it’s also: milk-stained shirts and dirty diapers and dishes piled up in the sink and three-day-old-hair and dark circles under your eyes and sometimes getting bailed out by your mom when you’re sick so you can just get some rest.

I have a request for all the mothers out there: Can we start talking more about this? About the messy stuff that happens in between our pretty family portraits? Can we honor mothers with more than words of gratitude in a card or Facebook post but with a heartfelt word of thanks for your incredible service, too?

Let’s stop pretending! Let’s embrace the joy and the beauty and the mess that comes with motherhood.

Maybe if we start talking more about how hard women work in the home, maybe our politicians will start working for women instead of against us (see: the war on women’s bodies, on women in the workplace, etc.).

Better yet, let’s just start electing more moms into office. Why? Because they understand what it takes to raise good citizens, they are experts at dealing with messes and also–they’re strong as hell.