It takes time. It takes a lot of time. Like a whole lot of time. I wish someone had said this to me in the months, and now years, since birthing my twins. Today, I say it to you. It takes a lot of time to heal your postpartum body. Be gentle on yourself. Be patient. Be persistent.
We all recover from childbearing differently. Some women bounce back days after birth. (Kudos to you. No, really). The majority of us don’t.
In a society where nearly every headline regarding the post-pregnancy body touts the secret for “getting your body back,” and praises celebrities for bouncing back just days after childbirth, women don’t have a true sense of what it is like to recover from this epic life event. You think you are a failure, or you’re doing something wrong, when you don’t fit in those skinny jeans weeks after birth. How I wish the beautiful body of a mother was celebrated for its triumphs instead of held to a standard of covergirl “beauty” that simply doesn’t exist. How I wish the headlines in the grocery checkout read: The secret to not peeing yourself after having babies. It can be done. But that isn’t the culture in which we live.
Here’s the thing, pregnancy alters a woman’s body, and sometimes those changes are forever. Stretch marks, saggy boobs, loose skin–embrace those with pride, but don’t walk around suffering. Approximately 1 in 2 women suffer from a long-term side-effect caused by pregnancy, such as stress incontinence, back pain, pain during sex, umbilical hernia, diastasis recti, and the list goes on. Our healthcare system certainly doesn’t excel at postnatal care, leaving women to wonder what is a normal result of childbirth and what goes beyond the call of duty.
Not once during my many doctor’s appointments at the high-risk obstetrician practice did anyone discuss the high possibility that I’d suffer from diastasis recti, a separation of the “six-pack” muscles that leaves your organs pushing against weakened connective tissue. This “mommy tummy” as it has been coined, can leave you with an unrelenting stomach pooch, pelvic floor issues, constipation, and back pain. I had all the risk factors for developing this abdominal separation—small-framed, pregnant with multiples, my second pregnancy—and yet, the only thing I was told at by my high-risk doctor at my postpartum check was that I could do any ab exercises I pleased. I felt weak, fat, and generally helpless for months after my twins arrived.
You know how I figured out I had the condition? I Googled: “I have a football popping out of my stomach when I do sit-ups.” As it turns out, Google is far more equipped to handle female postpartum care than the team of high-risk obstetricians I had been seeing for weeks postpartum. Search results quickly revealed that I had diastasis recti, and that I wasn’t alone, even though I felt it. One in three women has the condition, and yet it is seldom mentioned.
So there I was, months after my twins arrived, perched in my obstetrician’s office, indigent, but still polite (because that’s how I roll), as I asked for advice on how to remedy this condition. I lifted up my shirt to reveal my protruding intestines, bracing for the response I imagined would go something like, “Oh my! You poor dear.” Instead, I was met with a straight face and one curt question, “Are you planning on doing any figure competitions?” Confused, I told her I wasn’t, and questioned what that had to do with my innards popping out of my stomach. “It is just a vanity issue,” she scoffed, and sent me about my way.
Here is that delicate balance in which I was referring—that line we need to tow between embracing our bodies and not settling. As I got in my car to head home, with my bundles of joy in the backseat cooing (that’s what I called my son’s incessant car seat screaming), I firmly decided, “Fuck that!” It was more than a vanity issue. Sure, I didn’t want to go around looking five months pregnant for the rest of my life, but more importantly, I didn’t want to feel weak and out of shape. I didn’t want to deal with pelvic floor issues and back pain. And I certainly wasn’t going to sit back and watch my confidence dwindle each time I was asked, “When are you due, hun? And so soon after those twins.”
I decided I wouldn’t settle. I decided to take charge of my own health. I consulted a plastic surgeon, but it wasn’t for me. So, after hours of research and time spent scouring mommy chatrooms, I discovered that a pelvic floor physical therapist could possibly provide some help.
Not only did she tell me what not to do, namely avoiding anything with flexion of spine like sit-ups, crunches, v-ups, and the likes, but she showed me exercises to rehabilitate my core muscles. I’d like to say that I felt hopeful in those months of therapy. I did sometimes, but not always. It felt like starting over. I was an athlete before my boys–a competitive Crossfitter. That was much of my identity. And yet here I was learning how to breathe properly through everyday movements. Yes, breathe. From there, I had to relearn how to properly do a push-up, a pull-up, and the basic lifts I had been doing for years prior to my pregnancy. “You’ll be stronger than you even before,” the physical therapist would encourage me as I tried to do a pull-up in her doorway without losing my core control. Those months in therapy were frustrating, hopeful, scary, empowering, depressing, and trying—all muddled together. I kept those words of encouragement close though. I trusted her. I knew if I took the time to relearn how to move while using my transverse abdominis (those inner-most muscles that act as a corset to keep our insides in), I could be stronger. I could be healthier. I could move better and for longer.
I spent about six months in physical therapy, and it was life-changing. I didn’t even know I had a transverse abdominis prior to stepping foot in her office. That muscle gets no credit, always out-shined by the brazen rectus abdominis—the “six-pack” muscles closest to the surface. I learned that I didn’t need, and should never again do, any form of sit-ups. I learned how to improve my posture, and better move through daily activities of living like picking up my kids, moving laundry and scooping my kids off the ground. I slowly got back to some of my weightlifting activities and I made the decision to give up on some of the Crossfit movements that didn’t benefit my body.
Perhaps my greatest lesson in this journey has been patience. Armed with the knowledge of how to move my body, it still took me three years to feel as strong as I did before my boys…and dare I say it, maybe even stronger.
As we celebrated our twins’ third birthday last week, I sat with my husband and our other kids watching videos of the boys’ birth–my stomach literally busting at the seems, and my face writhed with exhaustion and excitement. As I watched, I couldn’t help but commend my body for its remarkable strength. I couldn’t help but feel proud that I carried those two boys, 7 and 6 pounds, to 38 weeks. I’m stronger mentally because of it. I’m stronger physically. And it took a LONG ASS time.
Here’s my advice, hang a picture of your biggest most beautiful pregnant belly on your bathroom mirror. As you stare at your reflection, look at that picture. Remember what your body did. Remember the life it gave. Keep working on the best version of you, but celebrate the shit out of that beautiful mom bod.