Postpartum: The Gift of Starting Over
Like most new parents, after I had my first child I wondered when things would be back to normal. When would I feel and look like my old self? When would I have time to do the things I did before? When would I bounce back?
Three weeks ago, I had my fourth child, and I still find myself asking these questions. I can’t help but notice the extra baby weight that didn’t simply melt away after delivery. My maternity jeans are still the only pants that fit me. And of course, my workouts have evaporated into thin air.
But my response has changed now. The old me would have been frustrated. She would already be judging herself and wondering why she wasn’t feeling “normal” yet. She would be making a plan of attack for a postpartum comeback fit for a “What’s Your Excuse?” Facebook meme.
Today, I’m starting to take a step back from judgment and view this whole postpartum experience as an opportunity, not just a limitation. Instead of pushing my body to be back to normal too soon, I’m trying to see this chance to start over as a gift. But it’s not always easy.
You will probably have to revisit the basics after having a baby. And that's okay.
Things Are Not the Same
After you have a child you are a stranger in your own body. Everything feels different, and you feel incomplete. This isn’t poetic analogy - I mean it concretely. If you have a c-section (I’ve had two), you might feel like your core has suddenly gone on vacation. If you have a vaginal birth (I’ve had two of those) you will feel like your pelvic floor is MIA. And then there are all the new things your body has to do, like breastfeed and adapt to a new sleeping pattern.
All the while, you are still healing – or at least, you’re supposed to be. But healing can’t happen when you’re stretched thin. Bouncing back is the last thing women should feel pressured to do during the postpartum period. And yet, if you were active before and during your pregnancy, you probably want to get back to the gym. You read the stories about women who CrossFit three weeks after giving birth and dream of being “that mom.”
If those stories are your motivation for getting back to the gym, you need to crawl back in bed and eat a few more lactation cookies. Because the reality is, you don’t want to get back to the gym because you love it and feel healed and ready. You want to get back to the gym because you want to be “that mom.”
Instead of taking your inspiration from other women, take time to assess you. Start with your body and ask yourself some very intimate questions:
- How much am I bleeding?
- How do I feel “down there?” Do I feel up to double unders? Didn’t think so.
- How are my energy levels? Do I rely on caffeine or other things to keep me going during the day?
- How much sleep do I get per day? Do I take naps when I feel tired?
- How are feedings going? Is breastfeeding well established? Have I had clogged ducts, fever, or any signs of breast infection?
- Do I dread going to the bathroom due to painful urination or constipation?
- How is my appetite? Am I eating frequently throughout the day? Staying hydrated? (Coffee and tea don’t count.)
Then answer the following questions:
- Why do I want to work out?
- Do I feel guilty about not working out?
- Do I find myself comparing myself to others when I read/hear postpartum fitness stories?
- Do I feel close to my baby? Do I feel resentful towards him or her for the effects of pregnancy and childbirth? Do I feel resentment towards my spouse or caregivers?
- How do I feel when I look in the mirror?
Be brutally honest with yourself when you answer these questions. Then, be brutally honest while you read your answers and assess where you are. If you’re still bleeding, exhausted, struggling to breastfeed or use the toilet, and forgetting to eat and drink water, the gym is the last place you should probably be. Likewise, if your desire to get back to your workouts is accompanied by guilt, comparison, or resentment, you need more time.
Have grace with yourself. The long miles will come in time.
Give Yourself Time to Heal
After you’ve thought through those questions, take some time to consider what your body just did. Birth is a powerful, raw experience, and its effects reach far beyond the physical. But let’s just consider the bodily side of things for a moment:
You just had a baby. Your body just delivered a baby. After nine months of dramatic physiological changes, you gave birth to a human being. That’s pretty incredible.
You have an open wound inside you. Not only did you give birth to a baby, but you now have a giant wound inside of you. This is where your placenta was attached to your uterus. Did you hold your placenta after your baby was born? I did. It was large, dense, and heavier than I expected. The average placenta weighs 1.5 pounds. So that means not only did your body expel a new little being, probably somewhere between 5 and 10 pounds, but it also lost an organ. Your uterus has an open wound the size of your placenta. That postpartum bleeding? That’s your placenta wound, and it’s desperately trying to heal.
This lesson in postpartum physiology is pretty much what my midwife told me at my two-day postpartum checkup after my husband complained that I was doing too much, too soon. It hit home for me, and I hope it does for you, too. Postpartum isn’t about getting back to normal. Postpartum is about healing and entering into a new phase altogether, whether this is your first child or your seventh. It might take much longer than you expect. That’s okay.
Embrace Your New Self
Life has a way of throwing things in your path that you don’t expect. Or maybe you do expect them, but you don’t anticipate the effect they will have on your everyday life. Whether it’s the birth of a child, a big move, or an injury, these circumstances force you to reassess your priorities. Often fitness falls to the wayside as life takes over and you recalibrate your day-to-day.
These life events can cause you to feel victimized and enslaved to your circumstances. You might feel bitterness and self-criticism as you look back at your past and long for the way things used to be. But starting over is always a gift. If you can see past the illusion that it is a curse and a limitation, you’ll find yourself more capable than you were before.
Your workouts are a sign of respect for your body and what it can do. The postpartum period calls for a different sign of respect: time and patience. Respect your body and the healing process. You will find you don’t need to bounce back after all, because you like the new you even better.
More on Postpartum Health:
- You Don't Have to Be Normal: The Reality of Postpartum Fitness
- Battling the Baby Blues: How Exercise Can Help
- 5 Simple Tips for Postpartum Mental and Physical Health
- New on Breaking Muscle Today
Photo 1 courtesy of CrossFit Empirical.
Photo 2 courtesy of Don DeBold via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).