Looking after and focusing on our mental health has never been more important than it is right now during such uncertain and anxious times. Although there are so many more important things to worry about right now than our body image, a negative body image can have a huge impact on our mental health.
“We are not meant to bounce back after pregnancy, we are meant to grow forward”
Originally I wanted to wait until I’d got back to my ‘old body’ before I could finish writing this blog. As getting back to my previous weight, size and fitness level was always my goal. But I have yet to achieve any of those goals and I’ve definitely not bounced back quickly. Maintaining a positive post partum body image has been hard, especially as your body changes so much when you have a baby. There is enormous pressure put on mums to return to their pre-pregnancy shape quickly and often we compound that by becoming our own harshest critic and biggest competition. EveryBODY is different and it is unfair and unrealistic to expect us to all to bounce back at the same rate, we may still be working on it a year or two or more down the line. When I came across this quote it was like a light bulb moment for me – stop focusing on the past and start embracing the present. Women’s body’s are truly remarkable and it wasn’t until I had Evelyn that I could fully appreciate their power and capabilities. Throughout pregnancy, childbirth and motherhood, our bodies get pushed to their limit. They change forever and we need to give them the time needed to heal, repair and grow into the new body that they have become. Feeling comfortable in and accepting my post partum body is my main goal. Though it’s not always easy to be kind to yourself, to change your mindset and your goals, it’s important for us mums to remember that whatever your size or shape, your body is strong, resilient and has nurtured and birthed a tiny human!
I have always found that inspiring quotes can help me achieve more perspective on my feelings. I’ve come across several post partum quotes that I thought I’d share in this blog as I’ve been able to relate to them and they are helping me to achieve a more positive mindset. Also, as with all aspects of motherhood, other women opening up and being honest about their body image journeys has given me comfort. Two mums whom I’ve gained so much more admiration and respect for since they opened up about their post partum struggles are Kayla Itsines’ and Beyonce. Kayla in her Instagram TV Channel and Beyonce in her Homecoming Coachella film (not just for the music which is amazing by the way).
“My body is made for this”
I think that I was pretty average in gaining around 3 stone during my pregnancy with Evelyn – a stone in the first trimester and then a pound a week there after. When I was ‘piling on the pounds’ I was comforted by the advice that I would lose the baby weight quickly so I tried to embrace the fact that this is what my body was supposed do. I felt so fortunate to have gotten and stayed pregnant so quickly that I just felt lucky to just be in my pregnant body. The first trimester made my body constantly knackered, starving and bloated. Because of this and the fear of what exercise would be safe, I barely did any exercise at all during the first trimester, which was a big change from what I was doing previously. Before I became pregnant I was the fittest that I’d been in a long time – for me there was nothing more motivating than our wedding to help me focus and achieve my goals. I used to exercise 5 days a week – 3 circuit training exercises (Kayla Itsines SWEAT BBG) and 2 spin classes. When I moved into the second trimester I felt able to reintroduce exercise, which was max once a week as the exhaustion from growing another human definitely lasted for the whole of the pregnancy! I would either do light body-weight circuit exercises at home (I followed Lucy Meck’s pregnancy program for the workouts) or go to pregnancy yoga classes, which although not exactly strenuous, they were safe and a great way to meet other mums to be).
“She was brave, strong and broken all at once”
For the majority of my pregnancy I feel that I managed to maintain a positive body image towards my ever changing body. This was probably helped by the fact that I got away fairly mild in terms of pregnancy back pain, which was a particular concern for me as I have scoliosis and 2 slipped discs. However my body image changed drastically when I developed obstetric cholestasis at 34 weeks. All of a sudden my pregnancy body wasn’t working as it should, in fact it was actually putting my unborn baby in danger. I also started losing weight which wasn’t a good sign. Although I’d experienced fears and worries throughout the whole of my pregnancy with Evelyn, it wasn’t until I was diagnosed with obstetric cholestasis that my anxiety became debilitating. I felt frustrated, scared and out of control. The fear of still birth consumed me and as each day passed I would pray that my body wouldn’t let me down and that I’d have my baby safe breathing and healthy in my arms.
I couldn’t have been more relived having my labour induced early to reduce the risk to Evelyn. But although I expected my labour to progress slower than natural labours, I found it really hard to understand and accept why my body wouldn’t do what it was supposed to do. At the time my body appeared to be so out of sync – regular, intense and unbearable contractions with the syntocin drip for 8 hours before I started to dilate past 3 cm and enter ‘established labour’. As I couldn’t have an epidural because of my back I required a lot of morphine pain relief during this time. At the time and for a while afterwards, I felt embarrassed and ashamed of my body during labour, which is horrible and quite sad thinking back. Although there women who have a much worse experiences I did, I still found it extremely hard and I definitely didn’t find it a positive or empowering experience. But ultimately we cannot control how our body is going to respond and cope when it is pushed to the ultimate limit. But we can focus on our mindset, as “giving birth should be your greatest achievement not your biggest fear”. Next time I really aim to have a much more positive birthing experience, maybe with the help of taking up hypobirthing.
“Mothers need just as much attention as a newborn, because they too have just been born”
In those first few weeks after having Evelyn. I was so shocked at how childbirth had taken it out of me both physically and mentally. Labour was a marathon. Despite feeling as though I’d used up every ounce of energy that I had left, my mind somehow overpowered my body and got Evelyn out. Afterwards I felt broken, completely exhausted and very sore. This and the debilitating fear that I’d been experiencing for weeks of whether Evelyn was going to be safe, made me feel as though I couldn’t process anything that was going on around me. All I could think was how relieved I was to have Evelyn safe and in my arms. Between the immediate recovery, post natal complications and baby blues I was running on empty. The saying “you can’t pour from an empty cup” couldn’t be more true of the post natal period and the importance of taking care of yourself. Comfort, nutrition and taking it as easy as I could was the priority for me. Sitting was painful for a few weeks (I’d recommend using gel cooling maternity pads and lots of cushions and a feeding pillow) and my abdomen felt really weak. I remember feeling really worried to use my abdominal muscles to sit up in case I caused a hernia! So I can only imagine how women who have C-sections must feel. I monitored the gap between the 2 muscles running down the middle of my stomach to gage my recovery. These muscles separate during pregnancy but if the gap is still really obvious at 8 weeks after giving birth (called Diastasis recti) you need to wait until this recovers before doing abdominal exercises and physiotherapy may help improve it. The NHS website explains how you can check the size of the separation.
I took my first post partum body photo at 7 days after giving birth. I thought that it would be interesting to compare how much my womb/’bump’ had changed and to be honest it was the same size as my 5 months (22 week) pregnant bump! My womb took about a month to shrink back down to normal size, which was quite quick thanks to the breastfeeding (it usually takes 6-10 weeks).
“Listen to your body”
Goal: return to exercise. I took it easy for the first couple of months, only going for short walks, my first being at 7 days after Evelyn was born, and doing daily pelvic floor exercises, starting from day 1 post birth as advised by my physiotherapist to help with healing. I didn’t realise until afterwards but its really important to do pelvic floor exercises throughout the pregnancy! I’d hoped to have returned to exercising at 6 weeks, as this is when it is generally deemed ‘safe’ to do so (unless there are complications that make recovery longer) and as we had a friend’s wedding when Evelyn was 7 weeks old, I wanted to have started exercise to help boost my confidence in my post partum body. However I needed to just listen to my body as it seemed too soon to do anything more strenuous than I was already doing. The episiotomy infection and womb infection I developed had delayed my recovery, plus with the haze of newborn sleep deprivation and breastfeeding, exercise was the last thing on my mind. For the wedding I just got a spray tan, manicure and a new dress instead! I continued to regularly walk around the block, but now with Evelyn in the sling, and I started attending ‘Baby yoga’ classes with Evelyn. The classes weren’t much of a workout, and I found it all a bit stressful and it seemed like a waste of money as I’d spend the whole time breastfeeding or holding a crying Evelyn! Though it was a nice way to meet new mums. Nevertheless, with thanks to the breastfeeding I managed to lose quite a bit of my baby weight in the first month, just over half, however the remaining half has been another story!
“Don’t be afraid of being a beginner”
Goal: take it slow. I returned to more structured workouts at around 8 weeks after giving birth to Evelyn. I used the SWEAT PWR Post Pregnancy Programme for my workouts as they were realistic, achievable and safe exercises that you can do in the post natal period. I’d exercise at home in the evening after Rob got home from work so that he could take Evelyn. My workouts weren’t frequent nor consistent (max once a week) but it was something and this programme helped me have something to focus and follow, as well as giving me the boost of confidence to exercise that I needed. Nevertheless I still felt like a complete beginner returning to exercise – within 5 minuets I was breathless, exhausted and my muscles were burning! It was a knock to see how de-conditioned I’d become from the pregnancy. After having Evelyn, at times I felt as though I’d never be the same physically, with my old strength and endurance seeming impossible. But with time, taking it slow and doing what I could, I made progress. Note although returning to skiing was a lot further down the line, this was another time when I felt as though my ability was no where near where is was before – let’s just say I was knackered and out of breath after the first slope!
“Keep taking time for yourself until you’re you again”
Goal: feel more like me. I definitely experienced loss of identity in becoming a new mum. At first I felt as though I was just pretending to be one, but then I got so lost in being a mum that I forgot what it was like to be me. I know its an obvious statement, but everything changes when you become a mum. Your priorities, your relationships, your body. I gave my all to being a mum, which I don’t regret at all, but I needed more of a balance and I needed to look after my mental health. It was our first wedding anniversary at 12 weeks after having Evelyn, so this encouraged me to regain more of the old me. Exercising was the first step to doing so, however because of my post natal anxieties I found it really hard to be apart from Evelyn. I know it sounds silly now but even being in another room in the house was difficult for me. Rob helped me to prioritise exercise and stick to at least an hour a week in which I would be uninterrupted.
From 12 weeks I also started doing more strenuous exercise classes. I went to ‘Parent and pram’ classes and tried to squeeze circuit training and spin in between bouncing/rocking and breastfeeding Evelyn! If I went armed with a lot of toys and distraction I could manage to keep Evelyn in the pram for 20-30mins max to allow me to exercise! Its amazing how focused you can be when you have a ticking time bomb ready to go off! If I’d managed 30 minuets of exercise over the hour I could burn a decent amount of calories and make the trip feel like it was worth it. It also was nice to socialise and meet other mums there too. However frequently it was difficult mustering up the energy and motivation to go to these classes, getting out the door my 10am was still a mission and an achievement in itself. The multiple night wakes, having 4-5 hours sleep left me feeling constantly exhausted and frequently low in mood. Some times, I’d bail and stay at home in my pyjamas, and other times forcing myself to go would just result in me being even more exhausted and not feeling like it was worth it! It was a hard balance to strike.
“Your steps backwards power your leap forward”
Goal: feel strong. For me, regular exercise has always been the way to manage my chronic back pain as a result of my scoliosis. Importantly keeping my core/hips/legs strong in order to support my back and regularly foam rolling to ease muscular tension and scarring. As a result of the pregnancy on my body and the infrequent exercise during and after the pregnancy, my core and my back were weaker, more painful and less resilient. I am so fortunate that weight gain was never a worry with Evelyn, despite being born on the 25th centile by 4 months old she was on the 98th centile! Though by the time the 4 month sleep regression was in full swing, the constant putting her down and picking her back up from the cot, hours of rocking or using the sling wasn’t good for my back. Then when breastfeeding became the only way to get her to sleep and I needed to co-sleeping just to get through it, my back went into spasm and for weeks I was relying on strong painkillers to enable me to move and pick her up. I hated feeling so weak, restricted and reliant on painkillers. My mood plummeted and I knew I needed to do something different. Through the guidance of the amazing Little Ones sleep programme, Evelyn started to self settle. She then began going to sleep easily and importantly would stay asleep, therefore allowing my back chance to recover. Also once Evelyn began reliably napping for 2 hours at lunch I returned to exercising again. I started the ‘normal’ Kayla Itsines BBG programme with the goal of getting stronger. However I would still modify a few of the exercises if they were too hard or too difficult for my back. Also sometimes instead of working out when Evelyn was asleep I’d end up just napping myself!
“Be kind to yourself, you’re doing the best you can”
Goal: feel more confident. I think that one of the main reasons that its hard to feel confident in your post partum body, is that it can be hard to feel like yourself. For our first beach holiday after having Evelyn, Ibiza when she was 6 months old, I was feeling more nervous than usual about being in a bikini. I knew that I wasn’t going to look like I did on our honeymoon, and that was fine and normal, but I wanted to feel more confident in my post partum body. In the month leading up to the holiday I tried to eat a bit healthier (stopping those regular Viennese whirl and Bakewell tart treats that I’d made too many excuses for as I was breastfeeding) and exercise more regularly (basically just more than once a week). But ultimately I just tried to embrace the new woman that I was, focusing on the positives and enjoying myself. Plus some new holiday clothes definitely helped!
Although I didn’t lose much weight my body did continue to change slowly, it’s amazing how your rib cage and hips remain wider for quite some time after pregnancy.
“Don’t be ashamed of your story, it will inspire others”
Goal: get my ‘old body’ back. I wanted to do one of the ‘9 months in, 9 months out’ comparison photos. 9 months is usually the amount of time that it takes for your body to recover from having a baby. However losing all of your baby weight and regaining your previous fitness by 9 months isn’t that realistic. Losing 3 stone is a challenge for anyone, but its so much harder when you’re looking after a little one 24/7 and constantly sleep deprived. It always seemed that without fail, if I planned to exercise the next day, I’d end up having a bad night with Evelyn and be completely shattered in the morning. I really take my hat off to the women who manage to keep focused and motivated with exercise and achieve their goal by 9 months. So I decided that instead of stressing over my physical progress, I’d shifted my focus to my mental health progress. Instead of the ‘9 months in, 9 months out’ photo I decided to start writing this blog. Motherhood is such a busy and difficult time and we often don’t get the down time that we need to process the monumental life change. I have found it cathartic writing about my journey and experience, allowing me the chance to explore and improve my mental health.
“If you get tired, learn to rest not to quit”
Goal: put less pressure on myself. I found the juggling act of returning to work both physically and mentally draining. The long days and the work itself were hard to adjust to, especially adding in revising for my final exam and completing GP training. Although exercise would help my stress, at that time it felt like there either wasn’t enough time in the day to fit it in (especially as I continued to breastfeed Evelyn morning and evenings) or that days off were too precious to not focus on just spending all my time with Evelyn. I adjusted my expectations, accepted my priority list and ultimately put less pressure on myself. Again some new work clothes, as some of my old clothes didn’t fit, helped make me feel better about my body!
“Put yourself at the top of your to-do list”
Goal: just be healthy. Although getting back to my pre-baby weight, shape and fitness may be unrealistic with how busy life is nowadays, being healthy and having a positive body image shouldn’t be unachievable. Although ideally I would still like to lose that final stone and fit back into all of my old clothes, I’m trying to focus less on the ‘numbers’ and more on just eating sensibly, trying to exercise regularly and looking after my mental health! In December I decided to stop breast-feeding Evelyn after 21 months of doing so. Although it was sad to see our breastfeeding relationship come to an end, I knew that it was the right time. It was the time to ‘have my body back’, even if just for a few months before trying for a second baby. I wanted to use the little extra time and energy that I had to really focus on exercise and healthy eating. However although this is what I’d set out to do, sadly we went through a miscarriage at this time. This was and still is something hard to deal with. Times like this have emphasised how vital it is/was to keep my mental health in check and allow myself time to recover rather than putting any extra pressure on my body. We can’t plan for what life throws our way but we can focus on keeping healthy, staying positive and being kind to ourselves.
“How you love yourself is how you teach others to love”
Goal: set the right example. As a final note I feel that its important, and especially as a mother to a daughter, to set the right example of positive body image. Being aware and sensitive to the message that I put across, both in what I say about my body and looking after it. I will continue to strive to demonstrate and encourage body acceptance, admiration, and respect so that Evelyn continues to be the happy, confident and beautiful toddler that she is!