The changes that your body goes through during pregnancy can be exciting – bigger boobs, gently swelling bump, but it’s also daunting in terms of what your shape will be once your baby’s born.¬† Expert midwife Zita West and independent health visitor Ann Girling talk to us not only about the physical changes of pregnancy¬†and birth, but also about the emotional¬†adjustments in accepting your postnatal body.
When I was pregnant I thought of it as a temporary state. Once the baby¬†was out, I would have my previous, toned body back again. My huge tummy¬†would shrink away to nothing and I would carry on teaching kickboxing¬†and writing like I used to. Admittedly, I would be more tired from night¬†feeds but life would pick up where I left it for nine months, with a few¬†adjustments to accommodate my baby.
By now you’re probably screaming “How na√Įve!” if you have children. If¬†you are pregnant for the first time, you might be saying “Well, dur, you’ve¬†only had a baby, not a life-bypass”. The truth is, you need to say the¬†innocent second sentence before you can laugh in incredulity as in the¬†first. First-time pregnancies are shrouded in myth and, in a way, that¬†is how it should be. As virgin mums-to-be (pardon any pun etc), we need¬†to believe anything is possible because it is ‚Ä¶ in theory. If my friends¬†had told me how much your life changes I would have nodded and thought¬†I would do things differently from them to make it easier. I would have¬†coped better, not become so anxious, been more easygoing‚Ä¶ whatever. First¬†pregnancies are special – they are undiscovered territory because pregnancy¬†is different for everyone.
Despite the fact that my body changed nearly out of recognition during¬†pregnancy, I couldn’t help but be amazed at what it could achieve on its¬†own without much input from me. I would give it fuel and rest and it grew¬†a baby. Amazing! But would it be so clever after the birth at returning¬†to normal ‚Ä¶ and what would normal be anyway?
Give yourself and your body time
One of the biggest worries for women is weight loss. Many of us swear¬†we will only eat for one during pregnancy but, 30-odd weeks down the line,¬†and unable to get out the tub, start raiding the biscuit barrel. This¬†is in direct rebellion against the pregnancy manuals, who lecture you¬†on the importance of not giving in to anything that gives you an artificial¬†sugar rush. Kaz Cooke summarised it brilliantly in her Rough Guide to¬†Pregnancy and Birth: “He [Eddy] wasn’t even a whopper: 7lbs 14oz (3.6¬†kilos). Damn. All the rest was Magnums.” Ignored are the warnings that¬†you’ll pay for it nine months later when you are still in maternity clothes¬†and live in fear of seeing your thighs, bum, tum and, well, everything¬†reflected in shop windows.
Even if you are moderately good, weight gain is inevitable for most of¬†us. Zita West urges women not to become too obsessed with shedding the¬†pounds too soon after birth. “Women nowadays try to get back into shape¬†far too early. Photos of celebrities who have returned to a size 6 after¬†having a baby don’t help but try to ignore these. More realistic is the¬†example set by Eastern countries, where mothers take six weeks off to¬†recover from the birth and let others take the strain while they concentrate¬†on eating well, resting as much as possible and caring for their baby.”
Giving birth is often equated to completing a gruelling marathon so¬†it is important to let your body recover at its own pace. “Your body needs¬†time to heal and rest and build up its reserves again,” says Zita. “Making¬†sure you’re eating well and getting enough sleep can be tricky when dealing¬†with the demands of a newborn, but it is essential for your, and ultimately¬†their, well-being. If you want to start losing weight do it in a sensible¬†manner. Avoid high protein, low carb and crash diets and see a nutritionist¬†instead. Balancing your blood sugar is a good way to lose some extra pounds¬†while still enjoying a balanced diet.”
You’re a woman ‚Ä¶ not Superwoman
Exercise is important, not only for losing pounds but also for making¬†you feel good. The sort of exercise you can do will vary from how active¬†you were before and during pregnancy and on the type of birth you had.¬†Obviously you must take it more gently after a Caesarean but stitches¬†can also impact on your ability to exercise comfortably. Particularly¬†important (and doable!) for everyone, though, are pelvic floor exercises!
“You can start gentle exercise, such as walking, as soon as you feel¬†able,” recommends Zita. “After your six-week check, you can become more¬†ambitious and try things like Pilates, yoga and swimming, which are all¬†excellent activities. Be careful with high-impact aerobics or using the¬†gym – make sure you tell the instructor beforehand that you have recently¬†had a baby so they can advise you on what to do and what to avoid.”
The most important thing to remember, advises Zita, is to take things¬†at a slower pace. “Recovery takes a while, so don’t feel you can be a¬†supermum. It takes a good 18 months for your body to settle back into¬†a pre-pregnancy state. Some things cannot change – stretchmarks and changes¬†to your breasts, for example. Instead of getting hung up on this, concentrate¬†on respecting yourself and your body. This will help you feel better about¬†yourself, both mentally and physically.”
Don’t try to be the best
Once you become totally responsible for another human being you may start¬†thinking differently about things. Many new mums say they cannot watch¬†the news in the same way – the images of suffering, particularly those¬†related to children, are too unbearable. Other mums suddenly find that¬†situations that have any potential for danger, eg flying, cause anxiety¬†and stress. It is a wonderful, yet frightening, thing to protect someone¬†so vulnerable and dependent on you.
It is perhaps because of this often overwhelming sense of responsibility¬†that new mums struggle with their own internal conflict: the need to be¬†the best but the discovery that we often feel far from it. We are constantly¬†battered with information on how to do everything the right way: from¬†giving birth to breastfeeding to sleep training. If any of these areas¬†do not go as planned or hoped, the result can be terrible feelings of¬†failing our children by not being the perfect mother.
The guilt factor
Fear of failing is often linked to postnatal depression (PND). This condition¬†is different form the few days of weepiness called the Baby Blues. Postnatal¬†depression can be a serious and debilitating illness if left undiagnosed¬†and untreated. Fortunately, health visitors and GPs do watch out for the¬†signals but, if you are the sort of woman who likes to show that you’re
on top of things, chances are you will mask the signs quite well. Symptoms¬†include panic attacks, insomnia, sleeping too much, change in eating habits¬†(consuming more or less than usual) and disinterest in your baby.
If you are afraid of failing you may be too scared to tell anyone, even¬†your partner or close family, how you are feeling. After all, having a¬†baby is supposed to be the happiest time of your life so why on earth¬†are you feeling down?
Health visitor Ann Girling says that guilt is one of the worst culprits¬†for causing depression amongst mums. “There is so much pressure from the¬†media to be perfect, from the government urging us to get back to work,¬†to financial pressures and, of course, mothering per se is not valued¬†by this society. A lot to deal with when women are already feeling pretty vulnerable. Women do experience a lot of guilt, particularly if they suffer¬†from PND. In my experience of talking to mums about their thoughts and¬†feelings, guilt is something that women are plagued with. And I know I¬†can also do it quite well!”
It’s OK to mess up
The truth is, being a parent is one of the most, if not the most, important¬†things you will do – and there’s no training for it! Is it any wonder¬†that we get stressed, upset, overtired and overwrought? The key message¬†is not to be afraid or proud. PND is more common than you think (around¬†ten per cent of new mums are diagnosed with it, but how many more have¬†it and do not see their GP?) and is nothing to be ashamed about.
Ironically, as a new mum, one of the most repeated gems of advice from¬†friends and family will be to not try to be perfect. Yet because many¬†of us strive for perfection in other areas of our lives it is natural¬†to bring it into child-rearing. How do we deal with it? “I think we have¬†to realise that we own our own guilt, ie we give it to ourselves,” says¬†Ann. “There are those around us who don’t always help but we could say,¬†‘No, I don’t want that’ and throw it back.”
As someone who has, and still does, berate herself for not living up¬†to impossible standards I would like to reiterate the message that mothers¬†do not have to be perfect. In fact, being imperfect teaches us and our¬†children an important message – that it’s OK to mess up occasionally.¬†That to err is human. That through our mistakes we learn and grow – if¬†we allow ourselves to. Don’t give your child a model parent who they always¬†have to struggle to impress. Give them a real role model, where mistakes¬†are part and parcel of everyday life and, in the grand scheme of things,¬†don’t really matter.