Be Kind To Yourself, New Mamas

When is it okay to ask a woman if she’s pregnant? The answer is never. Not even if she is wailing in labor pains on the way to the hospital. Which, I must add, is not a good time to ask a woman anything. Yet no fewer than fifteen people have commented on a perceived-yet-nonexistent second pregnancy since I gave birth to my daughter sixteen months ago.

A repeated hint to kick that baby weight? I suppose. But what each person who has either excitedly grabbed my empty belly, or denied me access to a carousel or airplane co-seatbelt because “pregnant women aren’t allowed” doesn’t realize is that I’m trying. Like so many new moms, we are trying.

Be kind to yourself,” my friend advised when I was six months pregnant. “You know, at the very end of your pregnancy, and once the baby is born, it’s easy to beat yourself up for how you look and feel. But don’t,” she continued, “just be kind to yourself.”

That stuck with me. In moments of despair as I stared at my unfamiliar new body in the mirror, I thought back on her words. But more often than not, it wasn’t me being unkind to myself. It was me defending myself from a seemingly constant barrage of external pressure to be skinny again.

At three months pregnant, my mother-in-law commented incessantly that I must be further along than I claimed, because I was ‘so big.’ Then at thirteen months postpartum, she arrived with an outfit sized XL, ‘so I could wear something nice.’

In the middle of a huge workshop room at a festival, an acquaintance ran up to place her hands on my stomach and exclaimed, “is there something you forgot to tell me?” Swallowing a huge bite of embarrassment mixed with hurt and frustration, I forced a smile and the words out of my mouth. “Nope!” I told her. “Nothing in there. Still trying to lose that baby weight.”

I’ve been trying since I was two months postpartum. I’ve restarted a workout regimen more times than I can count. I’ve done cleanses and I’ve restricted my diet to nearly nothing. But each of those times, I clearly wasn’t ready. Each phase was short-lived and very little changed.

I can’t imagine why. After all, I was only learning how to keep a gorgeous little human alive, happy and thriving. And I was in mourning despite my intense and calming joy. Not only was I was mourning the loss of my body as I knew it, but also my entire sense of self. Privileged to make staying at home with my daughter work, I was simultaneously devastated to abandon a career that was so important to me and so central to my sense of identity.

I had to figure out who I am now. What I want now. What I need now, and what my family needs now as three people, not just two. It was a mental mess, which in addition to raising a child and running a home sure does keep a lady busy. The drive to look like a porn star seemed to fall to the bottom of my never-ending list of to-do’s.

Did I wish the baby weight to be gone? Obviously. Did I despise every instance that I stood by my partner’s side at an event a physically different person than one I had ever known; conscious of his awareness of the very same fact? Yes. But my friend’s words always rang in my ears and grounded me. Be kind to yourself. It was true; I had enough on my plate. Adding self-loathing to the load would accomplish nothing but a spiral of self-hatred that I was already too exhausted to maintain.

At fourteen months postpartum, some fog finally seemed to clear around my bombarded brain. I stopped (okay, seriously curbed) looking back on what was, with enough time to grow into and love what is: my new and most challenging role ever, mommyhood.

Today in a yoga class, suspended upside down mid-flow in a downward dog, I noted proudly that I feel strong. Truly strong and fully inhabiting my body again. That’s a far cry from the first yoga class I attempted postpartum where I felt as though I was operating a completely foreign machine with all-broken pieces.

In some senses, I was. That body grew, sustained and birthed a new life, and fed that new life every day since. What a tremendous accomplishment, greater than anything else I can imagine.

My daughter has no sense of what mommy looked like before, nor if it is different from how I look now. I wish I could protect her from the inevitable moment that she, too, will feel her young womanly body physically judged. For now, she knows only that I am there for her to snuggle up to, squishy stomach and all, when she is sad or sleepy, happy or excited. She knows my smile, my voice, my laugh and my embrace, and cares neither how long I can hold a plank nor if my bikini looks banging on the beach.

My body, in time, will resemble the frame it was before. Eventually better. Until then, I will remember to be kind to myself and new moms, I urge you to be kind to yourself as well.