Maternal Mental Health Research Collaborative
Maternal Mental Health Research Collaborative
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Body After Baby: How I Got a Life and Decided to Love Myself

Body After Baby_Learning to Love

Body after baby. We all worry, stress, obsess and fixate on what we look like after pregnancy, birth and mothering.

I have yet to meet a mom that’s not given some time and thought to how they look after having babies. Our favorite celebrities bounce back after six weeks of giving birth and Instagram is flooded with postpartum before and after fitness journeys. Well surprise! This isn’t one of those stories as you can clearly see from my before and after photos (but I’m still rocking the same hair cut!). Instead it’s a story of giving up the impossible task of returning to a time before I had my son and developing a chronic illness. Of learning to love my body despite its failings and limitations, and moving on with my life.

The Race to Get Back to “Normal”

Even before giving birth I figured that with enough exercise and calorie counting I’d be back into my old jeans in no time. I was a long distance runner for years before getting pregnant with my son. But I was also an obsessive dieter with a lengthy history of body dysmorphia and disordered eating. I lead what I then thought was a healthy, active lifestyle and assumed that I’d just pick up where I left off once finally giving birth. I’d even bought the $500 jogging stroller to bring baby with me as I’d planned to start training for another half marathon in order to “jump start” my postpartum fitness regime.

What I didn’t count on was my battle with maternal mental illness and post-traumatic stress disorder wrecking havoc on my body and leaving me with what is now lifelong chronic illness. We talk a lot about the mental and emotional toll that things like postpartum depression and anxiety can do to our mental health, but often forgotten are the physical consequences of constant stress that come along with poor mental health.

Read More: Broken By Birth Trauma

Chronic Stress Leads to Chronic Illness

I was losing my baby weight with relative ease, but that’s because I couldn’t eat. It would be a miracle if I could get through a piece of toast over an eight hour period. I also couldn’t sleep and without the restoration of proper sleep every day, my hormones never rebalanced and spun even more out of control. My body couldn’t regulate cortisol, sending my adrenals and thyroid into overdrive and leaving me feeling horrible, day in and day out.

Living in this state for months on end was a hell I’d never wish on anyone. While I was trying different medications and my mood and anxiety were improving during these first months of my son’s life, I still couldn’t get my sleep under control. It was my later diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder that helped me to understand why my nights were long, restless and exhausting. I compensated by eating Nutella by the spoonful and overexercising – developing an eating disorder to complicate things even further. In one month I gained 20 pounds despite exercising two or three hours a day, everyday.

Read more: Running from PPD: Trying to Heal While Battling an Eating Disorder

About a year postpartum I began to develop constant, burning pain all over my body. My sleep was still spotty and I was chronically exhausted. As these symptoms intensified, I was diagnosed with fibromyalgia, a chronic pain condition, that is managed through a variety of modalities, but a piece of the puzzle is medication. And these meds often involve weight gain – and gain weight I did.

My Body’s Betrayal

I was so angry with my body for what I felt was a betrayal. She wasn’t even 30 years old yet and she was completely broken. Some days I couldn’t walk up my stairs. Getting out of bed and walking to the bathroom involved intense pain and stiffness. I couldn’t keep up with my son. And I was always so damn tired from dealing with pain each and every day. Constant pain sucks the life out of you and to compensate I kept eating my Nutella. Or chocolate chips by the handful.

Of course the weight kept coming and I would try a new diet or exercise plan, and fail miserably because of medication, my fibromyalgia strictly limiting what kind of exercise I could do, and my hormones still running amuck. I was also seeing a nutritionist and therapist at the time to try and navigate through my eating disorder; I was told that I needed to work on why I was eating, not so much on what I was eating. So that’s what I tried to do. And I ate carbs, carbs and more carbs. And felt worse, and worse and worse. My weight was ballooning, my pain getting worse and I was more miserable than ever.

I carried around not only the physical weight of my postpartum journey, but the emotional baggage as well. My exterior was a reflection of the constant battle going on inside me. The battle with pain. The thoughts of inadequacy, or embarrassment over my size and how my body had failed. The never ending chatter about calories, eating or not eating, and the renewed commitments to trying again every morning to be “good” and find my way back to life and body before baby.

Time to Get a Life

That was the fall of 2016 and over the last year things have changed. I discovered that my nutritionist’s advice about eating whatever I wanted is actually the worst thing I could possibly do for fibromyalgia. The carbs I was eating to comfort and distract from my pain were actually making it much worse. Switching to a ketogenic diet made my pain manageable, and gave me the space to really think about all this body of mine has been through.

Rather than looking in the mirror and hating what I see, I decided to take the radical step of loving myself. It occurred to me one day that I owe that woman looking back at me a lot of respect for managing the chronic pain and exhaustion that have been a part of her life for so many years. I finally began to appreciate the heavy toll the constant chatter in my head about grams of fat and pant sizes was an absolute waste of the energy that I do have. Energy that could be better spent doing the things I love and spending time with my husband and son. In other words I decided it was finally time to get a life.

Practicing Acceptance

I made a conscious decision to accept my body, fat and all, because it’s not changing any time soon. I’ve also been working to change the narrative in my head that only thin bodies are good bodies. The pain that this lie has caused me throughout my entire lifetime is immense. And I’m done wasting time feeling like I’m not worthy of love and respect because of what I ate last night.

Having long periods of being pain free has taught me to appreciate what my body can do. Where I once thought only of its shortcomings, I’ve now decided I’ve got better things to do. While I can’t run for miles any more and my days of half marathons are long behind me, I celebrate the exercise that I can do. I look at my body and where I once only saw flaws and imperfections, I’m now starting to see a body that is strong, beautiful and to be celebrated for the many things it has accomplished. My body has been to hell and back and for that it deserves all the love and respect I can give it. My body after baby is nothing what I thought it would be and I’m now coming to the place where I think that might actually be okay with that.

Shannon Hennig is Program Director of the Maternal Mental Health Research Collaborative.

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