2020 brings a new adventure for me with an added focus on health fitness for mothers. I've been a mom for nine years, with my youngest now 7, and in some respects I feel like I'm slowly emerging from a fog. As I look back at this amazing time in my life - with a little 2020 hindsight (#momjokes) - I believe a change in mindset on some things may make life easier for moms. As a healthcare professional, I am not above the struggle and am going to share some of my own story in hopes that I can help others.
My goal for 2020 is to help moms, no matter how far they are postpartum, to feel good and do whatever they want to do - whether that is playing with their kids, getting through their day without pain, or running a marathon. With that being said, here are 5 things I believe I should have done better and am now working on for myself and my patients:
1. Get rid of the phrase "Get your body back"
I am not going to lie, I worried about my weight all through pregnancy and immediately after. It's not easy for me to talk about, but weight has always been a tough subject for me and postpartum was no different. But let's be real, my body didn't go anywhere, It did this amazing thing - it fed and nurtured and grew a baby for nine months! I wish I had given my body more credit, given it more time to heal. I wish I understood the changes better so I could respect the process more.
Let's compare it to an athlete who had an ACL repair. There are obvious changes after an injury but nobody is rushing that athlete to "Get their body back." They go through a systematic return to function until they are ready for sport. The process is respected and understood. Postpartum should be the same. We have to understand that our posture, our tissues and even our organs are changed and/or moved. That doesn't bounce back no matter how flat your tummy is. Many of us are breast feeding now too, which requires extra energy, while we are also supposed to be "getting our body back".
We need to respect the process and meet our body where it is at postpartum, and help it return to tolerating our goals for life and fitness on our own time. I hope the next celebrity I see on a magazine flaunting their postpartum body also discusses issues of diastisis, leakage and pain. They may look great, but do we know how they feel physically? It is not uncommon for the very "fit" woman who exercised through pregnancy and seemingly bounced right back afterwards to be dealing with some of the issues I mentioned above. Exercise and fitness are not just about weight loss, they are about so much more and when we embrace it as such, the outcomes are better. I would like to caveat that I am all for pregnancy and postpartum exercise, I just believe we need to be more realistic about the progression, exercise selection and time frames throughout the process and that goals should be more than just weight loss.
2. Ignore social pressures and the all-or-nothing mentality
I had always been an athletic person. Exercising, playing sport - it was just something I loved to do and it is why I chose to become a PT. I exercised throughout my first pregnancy and walked a lot after but, less than seven months postpartum, surprise number two was on her way. Having to manage work, a baby that didn't like to nap and morning sickness, pregnancy number two was just not as active. Thankfully we lived in an area of Baltimore where we could walk everywhere and that helped a ton. But four months after number two was born we made the move to Pittsburgh, to a not-quite-as walkable area with a double stroller and things just changed.
I struggled to find the time for formal exercise or even a walk. And when I did, it just felt so different. At the same time I was watching an explosion of health and fitness content on social media. Awesome, cool exercises that I couldn't wait to try with patients. The resurgence of women lifting and olympic lifts. Everyone running marathons. It was everywhere and so cool. And, for the first time in my life, I felt like I was on the outside looking in and, psychologically, it defeated me. I felt like I lost my identity and, in some respects, I gave up.
What I needed at that time was to know that I just had to move in a way that worked for me. Whether that was some simple movements in my day to help me get through, walking and playing more with the kids, or even starting with some body weight exercise until I was ready for more would have been enough. Or maybe I just needed some simple breathing strategies to help my body heal. I needed to know that there would be good days and days I just couldn't, and that was okay. That is what I want to teach women - there is no rule for fitness. You have to find your goal and your strategy to feel good that works in your life and there is no hard fast rule of how to do that, despite what we are seeing on Social Media. It took me almost 9 years to get there, but that is where I am. Working out to feel good. I'm not doing anything exciting or cool. Im just doing what feels good and moving everyday and that's ok. There are times as I'm putting myself out there on blogs doing simple things, I feel embarrassed that I'm not showing the really "sexy" exercises or that I don't look like most of the fitness bloggers out there. But, then I remember what my message is. I remember others have similar stories, or may have never exercised before and feel intimidated or, for whatever reason, are struggling and they need to know that it's ok to start small. Now I feel like I can cheer people on and feel happy that they are finding their way, but do not feel guilty if my path is different. A few years ago I was helping a friend who had picked up running after becoming a mom, but during a particularly stressful time in life she was training for a race that her heart just wasn't in. I told her not to run the race if she didn't want to do it. I told her to just to run for fun for now. She reminds me often how, at that time, she just needed someone to tell her that it was okay not to run the race, and that helped her tremendously. She didn't stop exercising, she just took the pressure out of it. It's ok to exercise just for you.
" I just needed someone to tell me it was okay to not run that race"
3. Take a realistic view on "Self Care"
We have all heard it - it's so important to take care of yourself after baby. But this well intentioned advice has almost become one more thing in a list of things that moms "should do." We are literally inundated with advice about things we need to do, and self care has become almost as much of a judgement topic as it is advice.
Now, I agree it is important to take care of yourself, but we need to be realistic about what that looks like. I recently was struggling with something with one of my kids and often felt that, when I reached out for help, I was met with self care advice - get a massage, have a girls night, get a pedicure, etc. Now I love those things and they are a great break, but they were not going to help me with my issue. What I needed were strategies to help in the moment, to make things easier while I was in the thick of it. Yes, when I was able to get a break and some exercise I was overall better at managing things, but it didn't fix everything. I still needed the in-the-moment strategies. It was the combination of the two that made things work for me.
I believe this is so true for physical conditions too. If you are having back pain when you lift your child, a trip to the gym might help but, if you can't get to the gym because you're watching your baby right now, you need other strategies to get through without pain. In the moment there are things that can help, and that's what I want my patients to learn and why I started my "Move Anywhere, Anytime" Exercise Series - to give people strategies for life.
Let's think about the mom who generally runs for her stress relief. But now after baby she leaks when she runs, so she stops running. She needs a strategy to help with both the stress and the running. Maybe she needs to start with breathing. Breathing can help with the stress and it's the first step to fixing the leaking. It's not glamorous, it's just breathing, but it might be what she needs and is a place to grow from. I want to help all moms find their strategies.
4. Let's talk about the embarrassing stuff
Pregnancy and postpartum are just weird. I don't know how else to explain it - sometimes I look at my kids and just think, "huh, they were inside me? so weird!" Let's embrace it and talk about it. Many of us struggle with leaking after pregnancy, some pee when they sneeze, step down from a curb, or lift a baby. Some of us are good until we do exercise. Some don't leak but have trouble emptying the bladder all the way (that was me), and some of us are fine. Then others of us struggle with diastasis.
Diastasis is a gap between the abdominal muscles. Every woman has a diastasis after pregnancy, some just heal better than others over time. Some have a bulging from this area that persists. Women also struggle with neck and shoulder pain from the changes of pregnancy and early child care. I struggled with carpal tunnel type symptoms from the day I delivered my second child, I couldn't feel anything in two of my fingers for several weeks after I delivered. There is weird back pain and hip pain and pelvic pain, pain with sex. Here is the thing - you are not alone. Most of us feel something after pregnancy, but there is help. When we talk about it we can find the strategies to help. Every single thing I mentioned can be managed when we just learn what to do. We just have to talk about it. I hope to be the one listening and helping in 2020.
5. Seek out more convenience
It's the little things that make life easier during this phase. I remember when I had two kids under the age of two and was struggling with two car seats. I would often throw my keys on the roof of the car to be able to get the kids out and not lose the keys or accidentally lock them in the car (both things that I had done before). I would often forget the keys on the roof and my husband would then drive the car with his set of keys and mine would fly off, followed by us having to search all over town to find them. Then I got a car that didn't require me to take my keys out of my pocket to operate. Such a little thing, such a huge difference in my life!
Whatever we can make easier, let's make easier. Hence why I started a telehealth practice. First of all, let me say the thought of making an appointment used to give me anxiety. Often you're spending ten minutes on the phone giving information before you can even schedule, and any mom knows the second you pick up the phone that's a cue for your kids to want you, so that in and of itself was stressful. Once I had given my life history, finding a time for the appointment that not only was when I wasn't working, but also when I had child care and not during one of the kids' activities felt like feat all of its own. I found that sometimes I dreaded the process so much that I put off making the appointments. I needed an easier way. I think for many moms telehealth can be the way. You can schedule online for a time that you know works for you. Your kids can be there or not. You don't have to deal with coats or carseats. Make it easy! I personally use telehealth visits when I can and I hope more people will give it a try with me.
So moms, I hope sharing some of my postpartum experiences will empower you to find your own way. I'm here to help anyway I can. Reach out for help if you need it.