There is such a duality to life in a postpartum body: while recognizing the amazing things that it did and was still doing (growing a person, making milk, etc), I harbored a new hatred for how I looked. What once were abs, followed by a beautiful baby bump, had become a deflated sack of elephant skin. I wanted to love my body, to be a champion of normalizing the postpartum physique. Instead I set out on a quest to get fit as fast as possible. I was ashamed of both: “I should bounce back!” “I should be focusing on my baby, not workouts!”
When a childcare provider at the gym commented that I’m looking fit five months postpartum, I thought, you haven’t seen what’s under my workout clothes and you’re paid to say things like that. But I said “Thanks, I’ve been working really hard.” Later, I reflected: our bodies are miraculous, to so transform and bear the scars, lumps, bumps, squish, swelling, and shedding to prove it. The postpartum body is as permanent a state as parenthood itself.
There are as many realities of living in postpartum bodies as there are postpartum bodies—yet our stories share common threads (this time is undeniably hard!). From athletic setbacks to medical aftermath, women from all over gave us their honest take on their post-baby bodies. The ultimate takeaway? During this time of transition and struggle, more than just our bigger breasts need support. Hitting the gym may help, but story-sharing emphasizes how, as with everything postpartum, no one should go it alone. Gathering these women’s perspectives on post-baby bodies helped alter mine. The same could be true for the childbearing women in your life, so spread them far and wide, and encourage mothers to share their own so everyone can better understand what we go through.
Discomfort in Your Own Skin
The postpartum body is such an intense thing. You’re stuck in this place between what you used to look like and what you want to look like, neither of which will actually be achievable. You just grew a freaking human inside your body! Everything moved, shifted, stretched to accommodate these tiny beings. No one talks about how your stomach may be numb for years or how your ass literally deflates. I had two c-sections and have breastfed for five out of the past five-and-a-half years. Breastfeeding boobs are not to be confused with the large, perky ones you see on these breastfeeding celebrities in magazines. No, these are mounds of milk-filled flapjacks, and you can’t wear underwire to keep them up because it could cause a blocked milk duct. The no-wire bras provide zero support, and my husband can’t understand why I don’t want to dance around in lingerie to entertain him.
While I love the man with my whole being, if he tries to even touch me with his pinky after I have had a five- and two-year-old attached to my body all day, I’ll scream. Being touched-out is an all-too-real thing. Navigating my postpartum body after two major abdominal surgeries has been one of the most difficult seasons of my life. I just want to feel comfortable in my own skin again. –Lindsey, 33, Florida
It’s Stronger Than I Thought
Before pregnancy, I’d been an athlete. But before I was an athlete I’d been a sedentary fat kid. Then a sedentary fat teen. Then a sedentary fat young adult. In my mid-20s I found sports and my main squeeze, powerlifting. Pubic symphysis kept me from lifting beyond the fifth month of pregnancy. While I missed it, I marveled at my body’s strength and its ability to grow a human.
But my return to lifting four months after birth was a struggle-fest. I was 35 pounds heavier. None of my gym clothes fit. My boobs were huge, sore, and leaky. My hips were much wider than they had been, which dramatically impacted my set-up for certain lifts. I had to start from scratch in my new body, rebuilding lifts that I’d spent years perfecting. I hated it. I’d watch videos of myself lifting before pregnancy and force myself to accept the fact that I’d never lift that much again, probably never compete again.
After a few months of wallowing, my coach encouraged me to register for a low-key powerlifting meet. I joked that I couldn’t even fit into my singlet anymore. He looked at me with disappointment. I was guilted into registering. I competed in my first post-preggo powerlifting competition before my daughter’s first birthday and was floored by what my mom-body was able to pull off. I worked really hard and qualified for World Powerlifting Championships, where I placed second in my weight class just a few weeks before her second birthday.
I still struggle with my body. I know that I will always have to work to love my body for what it is and what it can do. My boobs haven’t shrunk back to their pre-pregnancy size. I’ve given up hope that they will. I’m five-to-ten pounds heavier than I was before pregnancy. My stomach is striped with stretch marks and the scar from my daughter’s birth. My hips are permanently wider. But I can say that my postpartum body is strong and I’m pretty sure it can do anything. –Cassie, 35, Pennsylvania
I felt strong, capable, and powerful going into birth. Now, 19 days postpartum, everything has turned to jelly. Recovery has made it hard for me to walk, let alone exercise. I feel defeated and eager to return to feeling like myself, but how I look doesn’t faze me. I described the physical recovery to a male friend as like being in a ski accident, with multiple internal injuries to heal simultaneously. The demands of caring for a newborn would be relatively easy if I had the same sense of physical capability and power as just a few weeks ago. –Suzzanne, 29, California
Separation and emptiness
Days after giving birth, still drunk on the newness of looking at my new human, I told my husband, “I can understand why women get depressed after birth, because for so long there was this intimate fullness, this intimate carrying, that was ever present.” He looked at me strangely and I said, “I was full of baby and anticipation and wonder. It was all mine and now I’m physically empty and it’s more…ours.” He felt wounded briefly but then he got it. It took a while not to feel empty. Feeling sore, bleeding, and being exhausted didn’t help. But I worked hard at cocooning with Isabel in the bed. Nursing started to take pregnancy’s place in some ways — my body had purpose and connection again. –Susanna, 38, North Carolina
Diastasis [Recti, aka abdominal separation] is a big deal and pilates doesn’t always fix it. I lived with it for six years and did rehab and pilates the entire time. My skin was so thin from the diastasis. To fix diastasis and do it well, you need a plastic surgeon. Insurance won’t cover it. It costs $25,000.
When I finally got the surgery, it was like I got my life back. I wanted to have sex and let my husband see me. I didn’t look five months pregnant all the time and didn’t have to endure people asking me when I was due. My back stopped going out every couple of months. I wish I’d known that plastic surgery is nothing to be ashamed of. My body is totally worth it. I also wish I’d known how misogynistic the medical world was; I’m still dealing with the financial consequences of that decision four years later. The burden of society’s pressure on our bodies is so intense, and the financial aspect of it is little spoken of. – Andrea, 39, California
Fallen Hair, Bigger Feet
My hair fell out. I don’t mean a few extra strands. My home was covered. It looked like a barber shop floor. I would sweep twice a day. My poor baby was covered while napping on me, to the point it was almost a choking hazard. I thought I was going bald! Not knowing this was a post-birth norm, it totally threw me for a loop. The good news is that after a few months it started to grow back. Now I know where the “mom haircut” comes from. Another thing: my feet are bigger! During pregnancy, my feet swelled. Excess water from the pregnancy makes sense, but now my daughter is three and my shoe size is still a half-size bigger than before I got pregnant. It’s a good excuse to buy new shoes, but how did that happen? –Michelle, 40, Puerto Rico
A Rare Condition
I have a rare condition called D-MER [Dysphoric milk ejection reflex] where women experience dysphoria when they produce milk. It has the symptoms of anxiety—loss of appetite, nervous feelings. I get anxious every time I breastfeed so I don’t look forward to that relaxing feeling everyone refers to. I had it with my first, too. For me it lasts while my breasts are filling up with milk and feeding. But for some, it lasts for months while breastfeeding in general. I still do it because I love my baby and want the best for her. And although this whole process is tough, it’s all worth it. –Amy, 33, California
After I began showing signs of preeclampsia, I spent the remainder of my pregnancy on partial bed-rest with terrible swelling and high blood pressure. I had a c-section because the swelling of my internal organs was so great that the cervix was blocked. At my first post-partum appointment, my doctor informed me that in addition to the swelling I had developed growths along the vaginal wall and wrapped around my urethra.
When my baby was six months old, I had a risky seven-hour surgery to remove these growths. Luckily, I had no injuries to my urethra and breathed a sigh of relief that I would not need a colostomy bag for the rest of my life. The next two years brought unexplained inflammation, intense pain, and fatigue. After consulting multiple doctors came a non-diagnosis: unknown autoimmune disease most likely triggered by pregnancy hormones. I love my child but I acquired a lifelong medical condition as a result of pregnancy. I have found no true answers or medications that work for my pain and inflammation.
The most effective medication that I have used to date is not legal in the state in which I reside. Medical marijuana can reduce my inflammation and pain by a good fifty percent. However, as I am currently job hunting I am unable to take it. –Kelly, 42, Wisconsin
A Tough Battle
In my mid-twenties, I lost about 50 pounds and abandoned my career to take care of my sick dad. What I now recognize as a full-blown eating disorder and exercise compulsion had already taken hold. My entire self-worth and identity became wrapped up in being skinny and fit. During pregnancy, I struggled not to feel fat even though my then-husband reassured me I was having a baby, not fat.
I exercised compulsively all the way through two pregnancies. I only recognized my body and self-worth when I was skinny; I didn’t accept postpartum weight as a necessary part of creating and feeding a living being. I only wanted to return to skinny quickly losing all the weight before my babies were six months old. Five years and a lot of therapy later, I mourn for the self-negation that went into that, and for the fact that I couldn’t see my body as beautiful or as part of who I was as a mother. Living with an eating disorder is difficult. Having a baby while living with an ED, even more so. But I survived and am healthier now, as a mother to two wonderful kids. –Zoe, 39, London
Never the Same
After two pregnancies my body has never been the same. It doesn’t need to be. Twice, it completely transformed over the course of nine months to carry the two great loves of my life. There is such pressure for us mothers to get back into shape in record time. I’m not going to say I didn’t want to be in better shape. I did, but I accept myself as I am because my priorities today are different. Being with my daughters is more important than spending hours at the gym. It’s not that I’ve let myself go. I work out at home, try to eat well… but, everything in its own time time—and without guilt. -Marcela, 36, Brasília, Brazil
It’s been over a decade since I gave birth to my last child, but there are a few things about my postpartum body that are here to stay. Like belly skin that only looks good with standing. My breasts are ever migrating south in anticipation of their retirement. Oddly enough, my deepest postpartum secret is that this body does not lift heavy objects anymore. Maybe I got spoiled during pregnancy when people would rush to help me carry a scrap of paper. Postpartum, I lugged a toddler, a car seat, and an enormous diaper bag, but big boxes, heavy couches? Nope! No longer. I remember my mom and her friends asking their hubbies to lift heavy objects and I scoffed at their weakness. Now I suspect they just didn’t want to do yet one more thing. –Mel, 44, California