Last week I discussed nourishment for postpartum bodies, and the week before the crucial need for sleep in the first six weeks postpartum. Finding a way to honor our bodies themselves in the postpartum is as important, since the body we’re nourishing has created and is nourishing others, both physically through breastmilk and emotionally through the love and care a mother provides her family. In the U.S., our culture focuses a lot on bouncing “back” from having had a baby. I’d like to raise the question – “back” to what? “Back” from what? The phrase we use, bouncing “back,” suggests that there is some way that we can return to the way our life was before. It suggests that the current state of our body, which has just created a new life, is somehow undesirable. I’d like to change the narrative, at least for myself, to honoring the postpartum body. Sleep and nourishment, my first two pillars of postpartum self-care, are excellent ways to start. The third is body care. Taking care of our body includes physical movement, meditation, and supportive body care practices borrowed from other cultures.
The Role of Exercise
If you’ve ever suffered from depression, or even been down in the dumps, one piece of advice you’ll hear everywhere is to “just get out and exercise.” The suggestion is not without evidence. Study after study after study point to the benefits of exercise to treat all kinds of depressive episodes. Even for postpartum depression, many found the benefits of exercise to be significant. Additionally, the chance to avoid taking medication by joining a stroller walking program or the like appeals to many mothers.
Exercise can be a double-edged sword, however. If you’re pursuing exercise for better health, both mental and physical, it’s a healthy pursuit. If you’re attempting to lose weight, it may not be as effective as a diet program. And if you’re trying to reach some sort of “ideal” body weight or type, it may actually be counterproductive to your well being.
Focusing on Body Image Damaged my Postpartum Recovery
There’s no one incident that tipped me over into postpartum depression after the birth of my second son, but a frustrating brush with the scale at about eight weeks postpartum was one “tipping point” I remember clearly. Late pregnancy for me and many mothers is an antsy time. I get restless legs syndrome, get tired of lying down on my side all the time, and frustrated at the need for so much sleep. For me, due to my cardiac history, running and even getting my heart rate up is best avoided per the advice of my high-risk obstetricians and my cardiologist. So I do a lot of sitting. This time around, with twins, the sitting… and sitting… and sitting… has gotten under my skin even earlier than with Gus. I’m so tired of sitting, of sleeping, of doing nothing, even though I know it’s the best thing for me and for the twins.
At the end of my pregnancy with Gus, I started looking into possible postpartum exercise programs. How soon could I begin? Did I really need to wait six weeks? I found some great resources on simple exercises you could do to get your body to heal, through supporting the pelvic floor. Exercises such as pelvic tilts and Kegels could provide healing movement to both your pelvis and abdominal muscles, which had been through a lot in pregnancy. After delivery, I started with the simple exercises, but then continued to feel antsy to do more. I got some postpartum workout videos and started them about 5-6 weeks postpartum. Gus would hang out with me or nap, and I would exercise. And I felt great! It felt wonderful to be able to move again after so much sitting and lying down.
Then I had a really terrible idea. I would weigh myself to make sure that I was making progress! After all, this is what I teach, right? Feedback loops provide motivation when you’re seeking to achieve a goal. I put on over forty pounds with each of my pregnancies, and although I lost it all after having Tony, I wanted to make sure that I would lose it all this time again.
So in addition to the exercise, I started weighing myself every day. I wasn’t going to diet because A. I’m terrible at dieting and B. dieting can hinder breastfeeding efforts if you are too restrictive. I figured between breastfeeding and working out, and eating my generally healthy diet, the pounds would just come off.
Well, they didn’t. I continued to exercise almost every day, which I really enjoyed. But the scale barely budged. I distinctly remember one day getting on the scale and seeing that I had gained weight again. The number was so high – way higher than what I considered to be “normal” or “desirable” for myself. Growing up I had learned the awful message that being fat was worse than being dead. Even though rationally I knew that not to be true, in a heightened hormonal state I felt like a failure.
And that was that. I stopped exercising completely. Soon thereafter, whether related to the weight gain issue or not, I fell into what I think of now as “the darkness.” There is a lot I don’t remember about that time, and perhaps it’s best if it remains forgotten.
Getting Our Pre-Pregnant Body “Back”?
We are bombarded with images of various celebrities “post-baby bodies.” After delivering, we see the message of “get back in shape” in so many forums. Even my dissertation advisor at the end of my pregnancy with Tony asked, “How are you going to bounce back?” Our physical return to a pre-baby body – which, by the way, is completely impossible – is highlighted as essential to us returning to society.
This narrative does a complete disservice to ourselves. It does not honor the profound transformation we’ve made, from one stage of life – maiden – to another – mother. It doesn’t honor the hard work our body has just performed in creating a new life (or you know, two). The postpartum period is a good time to honor and acknowledge our bodies and the incredible feat they’ve managed to achieve. For many of us, our bodies will continue to provide nourishment for our babies through breastfeeding. To switch the narrative from “bouncing back” to honoring the postpartum body, there are some great practices borrowed from other cultures to use. Some of these include:
Postpartum belly binding. OK, so this may be one of those not-supported-by-actual-science practices, but a short period of belly binding seems to provide some healing and supporting benefits. I’m going to try it with a pretty scarf (rather than those hideous ace-bandage-looking things) for the first few weeks after birth. In my last post, there’s a video that demonstrates how to do a simple belly bind.
Massage. While prenatal massage can really be a life-saver for all the aches and pains of pregnancy, postpartum massage has benefits as well. First, it can help postpartum moms get their muscles moving without actual exercise. It also can help with the swelling and discomfort that many moms continue to experience after birth. It can help you relax, especially since many new moms experience a significant amount of anxiety. Make sure that you talk to the massage therapist beforehand to make sure that postnatal massage is something they know how to provide – most massage therapists who do prenatal massage can do postnatal massage as well. The American Pregnancy Association has some information about postnatal massage as well. (http://americanpregnancy.org/first-year-of-life/postpartum-massage/)
In the Ayurvedic tradition, there’s also a practice of warm oil self-massage. Here’s a great post with a video (http://www.mamashine.net/postpartum-healing-with-ayurvedic-hot-oil-self-massage/) about how to perform “Abhyanga,” and the video below demonstrates the practice. Their recommendation is to do the self-massage every day, and to take a warm bath or shower afterwards.
Healing Movement. This is a struggle for me, because I have a tendency to get a little OCD about exercise and think that I need to be “all in” for it to count. That doesn’t have to be the case. Healing movement can be an essential part of postpartum recovery. One of my favorite mommy bloggers at AlphaMom, recommends this site, BeFit-Mom. It has exercises and recommendations about how to heal postpartum.
Keeping mom & baby warm. Many cultures focus on keeping mom warm during the postpartum period, and modern medicine even identifies the “cooling” of a woman’s body after birth because of the loss of fluid that occurs. I remember after Gus was born was one of the coldest winters we’ve had in DC, and he and I were always cold. Despite cosleeping, we were both frequently cold. I’m not sure if that contributed to my postpartum depression, but since I’m due around the same time of year, I’m going to make an extra effort to keep warm. Focusing on keeping the house warm is an easy step to take, as well as using hot water bottles and extra blankets. The hot oil massage discussed above also helps warm mom.
Rest, rest, rest. In addition to focusing on extra sleep, during the first 4-6 weeks, the same principles I have been following in my third trimester of my twin pregnancy will apply. Don’t stand when you can sit, and don’t sit when you can lie down. Although it’s been frustrating during this past month and a half, I know that what I’m doing now by remaining calm and resting is good for my babies. I’ll need to remind myself after they’re born that resting as much as possible will be essential for my own healing, which in the long run benefits the whole family.
The specific goal for this is to focus each day on practices that honor, heal, and warm the postpartum body. In fact, to keep track, I’ve made these part of my “checklist” that I posted in last week’s post.
Now that I’ve outlined each of the three pillars of postpartum self-care, I’m going to put the rest of the theories described in Goal Setting for Parents into practice. Next week, I’ll discuss how I plan to make a time frame for these goals and involve the whole family in making them happen. Have a great week!
 flickr photo by eismane http://flickr.com/photos/12346537@N08/19884970184 shared under a Creative Commons (BY-ND) license