Face it: New motherhood is chock-full of surprises — from the awe-inspiring, to the … well … not so much. Unfortunately, sometimes a new mother’s postpartum body is one of those somewhat disappointing surprises. “Outside of weight gain, we don’t talk about body changes in our culture,” says Heidi Koss-Nobel, a Redmond psychotherapist and doula who specializes in pregnancy and postpartum mood disorders. “We don’t see much breastfeeding, so we don’t see what happens to postpartum breasts. We don’t see stretch marks or other more private parts of the body. Women rarely discuss things like bladder control or hemorrhoids, even with their doctors.”
But these unmentionables are part of the harsh reality of the transition from a pregnant to a postpartum body. With all of the focus on baby, there isn’t much attention paid to that post-birth bod — or how we feel about it. Bonnie Crowder, who created the Web site Shape of a Mother, felt terribly insecure about her body after the birth of her first child. “I was completely unprepared for how my body changed,” says Crowder. “I thought it was my fault.”
Then one day, Crowder saw a woman lift her arm and expose her belly, which was changed by motherhood. “This woman was fit and looked great,” says Crowder, “and it hit me for the first time that it’s not just me!” This glimpse at another woman’s belly inspired Crowder to start a discussion with her friends about their postpartum bodies, and she found that they shared many of her feelings of insecurity, failure, disappointment and surprise.
From these conversations three years ago, Shape of a Mother was born. The site features unflinching photos of the sagging skin, stretch marks and extra weight that naturally follow pregnancy. In addition to Crowder’s own content, women share photos and comments about their own postpartum bodies. With more than 1,200 posted submissions from women of all ages, shapes and sizes, and more than 3 million hits a month, it’s obvious that Crowder has hit upon a common experience among women.
This type of gathering and sharing can help women improve body image, says Koss-Nobel. “It’s normal to be disappointed about your postpartum body,” she says. It helps to realize that you are not alone — and that some change is inevitable. “Remember that expectations in America can be influenced by media and other sources,” Koss-Nobel says — sources that are notorious for inspiring unachievable expectations.
Gathering with other women can help — to a point. “Don’t compare yourself to anyone else,” she says. It doesn’t matter what happened to your sister-in-law, your best friend or even your mother. The reality is that your body is as unique as your new little baby.
Women’s bodies go through so much during pregnancy, it’s no wonder they’re left so changed. “At the end of a full-term pregnancy, the abdominal muscles will be double the length that they were to begin with,” says April Bolding, a Seattle physical therapist who specializes in perinatal issues (aprilbolding.com). “The abdominals lengthen to accommodate the growing baby. After the baby is born, it takes time for the body to adapt and respond.”
And Bolding says there are lots of other things that don’t immediately bounce back after birth: energy level, endurance and perhaps even motivation to exercise. “This is normal and fine,” she says. “The natural, most healthy priority is taking care of your baby and nurturing yourself with rest, support and compassion.” Bolding says new moms should start a gentle exercise routine when they feel ready — and with their doctor’s supervision.
Because each woman’s experience is unique, it’s impossible to say what’s “normal” in terms of postpartum recovery, according to Bolding. There is simply no hard and fast rule about when a woman can expect to regain her fitness. And some aspects of a woman’s body may remain forever changed by the experience of pregnancy and birth.
Melanie Burch, a slender North Seattle mom whose youngest is 8 months old, mourns the loss of her pre-pregnancy belly, which boasted a navel ring. Despite her small frame, she feels self-conscious about what she describes as loose, wrinkly skin on her abdomen. “I will never be able to wear a navel ring again!” she says. “It’s a small price to pay for having three beautiful boys, but a part of me mourns the loss of my smooth skin and the figure that I don’t think I’ll ever have again.”
A little perspective
The Shape of a Mother site features women only a few weeks postpartum to women several years postpartum, and allows them to share photos of — and their feelings about — their bodies. Some posts are glorious celebrations of pregnancy; others are agonizing reflections about what’s been lost along the way. It’s interesting to notice that sometimes, the photos don’t objectively match the woman’s own self-image.
Despite the commonality of the experience, postpartum women frequently experience body dysmorphic disorder, which is essentially an unrealistic and unhealthy body image. “Our body image is linked to our self-esteem and our sense of self-worth in attractiveness as a woman in our society,” says Koss-Nobel. “Societal pressures and media images include tiny, taut, unrealistic bodies. In reality, the average woman in American is 5 foot 4 inches tall and wears size 14.”
It’s this type of reality check that can help all mothers let go of negativity and learn to love their fabulous post-birth bods.
Tera Schreiber is a freelance writer who tries mightily to embrace her body’s pregnancy-related changes.
When to get help
While it’s totally normal to be disappointed in your postpartum body, if you are ruminating on your changed body every day for a significant portion of the day, it’s time to get help from your health-care provider. If feelings about your body are interfering with your happiness and daily functioning, or causing an impact on relationships with other people, seek some support. Postpartum Support International of Washington State provides a list of resources that can help.
The Children’s Trust Fund of Washington offers a free phone line (1-888-404-7763) and Web site for new moms, Speak Up When You’re Down.