Olivia's Story: This is what appreciating your new postpartum body looks like
Seven weeks ago, on a wintery Melbourne afternoon, I gave birth for the second time. Just like before, I’m overwhelmed by the love I’m capable of having for someone I’m only just beginning to know and just like before, I’m struggling to get enough sleep. Each day I feel caught between enjoying the warmth of her body on my chest, and the grating sound of a baby who has found her lungs and isn’t afraid to use them.
The first seven weeks with my firstborn went by like a freight train. I felt like I had experienced a full body assault; I could barely sit down without wincing, my breasts felt like leaking taps, made worse when infected - cue: Mastitis - and I was just... so... exhausted. I could appreciate what my body had done but, because my body hurt, I wanted to mask the pain and just get on with it - wasn’t that what mums were supposed to do?
This time around, I feel completely and wholly in awe of my body. I’ve stopped and taken the time to appreciate it for what it’s done, what it’s given me, and what it continues to do. I adhered to my doula's advice of “one week in bed, one week around bed”, which meant I had little to do but rest and nurse while I recovered. And I worked on shrinking my expectations of myself down to not much other than eating well, sleeping when I could, and enjoying quiet time with both my children. It’s felt so good to treat myself with kindness and patience, that I’ve made a pact with myself to continue to prioritise treating my body like the queen it is.
I don’t feel completely comfortable in my body every minute of every day and I’m still not sure I ever will be, but I’m trying to be forgiving now. The first step has been learning to be comfortable with this body being perfectly imperfect. I know life has more changes in store, but I think I’m learning to love each phase for what it brings. When I catch myself being negative, looking at my stomach and being embarrassed by the crepe-y folds of skin, I try associating the folds with my pregnancies, with my daughters and our family. I would take the skin folds any day of the week!
Fuelling My Body For the Marathon of Each Day
I stumbled a little with feeding myself enough during the postpartum period last time. I ate more than I would usually eat but was constantly hungry. When I ate more to satisfy what felt like an insatiable appetite, it was often joined by feelings of guilt. My history with eating disorders and disordered eating most likely played a part - after years of restricting and binging, it was like I’d lost the ability to eat intuitively. And food was so tied up with my emotions - I struggled mentally with the concept of eating more just because I needed more - I felt it was ‘too much’. It was funny, as my daughter began to eat, I realised that she could actually be my role model. Kids are the best intuitive eaters - without words they are able to show you when they have had enough… no chance for us to push another mouthful in, they will simply close their mouth and turn away. This time, I am taking pleasure in eating what I want, when I want it without any of the guilt - fed is best for baby but also for mama.
Moving It Daily
I’m the kind of person that needs to get my body moving most days.. I don’t usually battle with motivating myself but as a mum, it can be hard to find the time - especially with a newborn - and it can be easy to find a reason not to. ‘I need to feed the baby’, ‘I’m tired’, or ‘I’ll do it after I have put the kids to bed’. In my pregnancy I was focussed on building my strength and endurance to support me through labour. In these early stages postpartum I’ve shifted my focus to restoring my core and pelvic floor. (The goal is to laugh, run, or sneeze without peeing myself). I’ve committed to an online program and give myself 15 minutes each day to do my exercises, even when I don’t feel like it. I make this a non-negotiable daily task as I always feel better afterwards, I know my body will thank me, and it gives me fifteen minutes to myself. I’m also walking every day, usually with a friend and the movement plus company combination is giving me life during this sometimes lonely period, made worse by the current restrictions. It’s a bonus that my baby is happiest when strapped onto my chest and moving.
Working My Brain
My brain may be foggy but it’s still my brain. And I’m committed to using it for tasks other than working out whether the baby is hungry or tired (or both), and remembering the ever-growing shopping list. As much as I love being a mother, I feel like I am a better mother if my brain has ‘adult’ stimulation. I might not have a lot of free time, but I’m making time to read a little (the plus is I’ll be able to contribute at my book club) and continue to chip away at some study. I feel like both things keep me connected with life outside dirty nappies and sleep schedules and remind me that my identity isn’t just as a mum. It’s so much more than that.
While I’ve been thinking about my body and my relationship to it, I’ve also been thinking about women elsewhere. My friends, my mother, my daughters. The expectations we have as individuals and the pressure we feel to look a certain way. For the better part of my late teens and 20s, I was at odds with my body – uncomfortable in it and ashamed of it, I treated it with much less respect than it deserved. I valued my body by the way it looked and I thought that everyone else was using that same criteria to judge me. I was constantly striving to lose weight, change my shape and then maintain it. I restricted, binged and purged. I missed out on so many things, like travelling with others and going swimming on a whim, and my eating disorders held me back from becoming the woman I was on the way to becoming.
These past seven weeks in the apartment, I’ve been thinking about what needs to happen to change the appearance pressures placed on women and how we can break the cycle so our own children don’t feel the same way many of us have felt. It’s a big task but an important one, and one I’m glad to see Body Confident Mums tackling.
Entering into motherhood, I knew it would drastically change me, but I didn’t think it would take my world and tip it over on its side like a toy box. Motherhood is two births; the birth of your newborn and the birth of yourself. My rebirth has taught me that love has no bounds and has shown me what selflessness looks like, but it’s also taught me to love my body for so much more than the vessel it might sometimes feel like.
Now, I am no longer willing to sacrifice my wellbeing to look a certain way, to feel like enough. I am making a commitment to love and respect myself (in all my humanity) and show my children how amazing our bodies are by being confident in my own. When my children come to me in a couple of years with curly questions about their bodies or feel bad about the way they look, I hope I will have at least some of the answers.
From Body Confident Mums: What the research says...
I love the unlearning, and new learning that Olivia takes us through in this story. The research shows that often, mothers do have new levels of appreciation for their bodies after birth, but it takes commitment, and reinforcement through intuitive eating, self compassion, mindful physical activity, to keep this up.
* Pregnancy, birth, and the post-partum period are times of significant body, and identity changes for women. For most women, pregnancy results in an improved body image- potentially because we are temporarily excused from societal expectations of thinness. However, the post-birth period brings unexpected changes to body size, shape, and functionality - and it can be difficult to adjust to these.
* On movement: Women who appreciate their body, and focus on the benefits of exercise for the functionality of the body (i.e., fitness, strength, confidence) rather than on appearance are more likely to engage in physical activity, and stick to it.
* On intuitive eating: Women who eat more intuitively, as opposed to dieting, are more likely to have a better body image, self esteem, and psychological wellbeing than those who don't.
* On role modelling positive body image- Women who are body confident themselves are better able to role model this to their children... If you're not feeling the love, head over to our resources and try starting by listening to the self compassion recordings by Kristen Neff.
*These are not pictures of Olivia or her kids. She gave us permission to use her first name, but didn't want images of herself to be used.
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