Babies change everything. Your relationship with your career will look different. Your relationship with your husband will look real different. Your house will slowly get overtaken by baby gear. Your Instagram feed will be unrecognizable. The way you sleep, eat, and spend your free time will all be on the table for reconsideration.
And your body? Your body is ground zero.
It was your body, after all, that first signaled you to the fact that a baby was coming. It was your body that sustained that baby for nine long months. It was your body that literally brought your baby into the world. And now that your baby is here, it’s your arms that carry her, your legs that walk her, your chest that she wants to nuzzle. Your body is forever changed by motherhood.
Which is exactly why the oft-mentioned desire to “get your body back” can be such dangerous territory. A study published in the Journal of Magazine & News Media Research looked at the influence of tabloid magazines on how new moms feel about their postpartum bodies and found an "increased pressure on new mothers to regain their pre-pregnancy bodies, as well as [a] growing use of celebrities to perpetuate this difficult-to-emulate ideology." When we see Beyoncé strut on stage in a cut-out leotard just months after giving birth to Blue Ivy, or Heidi Klum walk the Victoria's Secret catwalk just five weeks postpartum, it's only natural to wonder why similar results are so elusive in the real world.
As registered dietitian and spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association Melinda Johnson, MS, RD, told WebMD, “All the magazines ask, ‘How did she do it?’ The more important question is, ‘Why did she do it?’
“They do this with very, very strict diets, and a lot of them do it by getting back into activity before their body is really ready for it.”
And she's right. You didn’t stash your old body away for safekeeping while you grew a tiny human inside of yourself and then brought her out into the world. Your old body is not available to be simply retrieved. Your body as you knew it is different now. Just like there is a new normal for your career and your marriage and your Instagram feed, there’s a new normal for your body, too.
Kristen Bell is one of few celebrity moms to have publicly embraced this idea. In a 2013 interview with Redbook Magazine, Bell stated, "“I refused to worry about something I could not change, and I still refuse. Look, I’m like any other woman. All this evolved ‘bs’ that I’m telling you is my mantra: It’s not something I practice naturally. I had to surrender to not worrying about the way I looked, how much I weighed, because that’s just part of the journey of having a baby. I am not a woman whose self-worth comes from her dress size.”
Like many parts of motherhood, accepting this can be hard. And, also like many parts of motherhood, it requires grace.
If pregnancy can teach us one thing, certainly it’s just how complex and capable our bodies are. We often lose sight of this in the months following pregnancy, focusing narrowly on appearance and a number on the scale. While there’s certainly nothing wrong with striving to fit into your pre-pregnancy clothes and reach a healthy weight, letting that desire dominate the relationship you have with your body is a missed opportunity.
Women generally gain 25-35 extra pounds during pregnancy. Johnson stresses that even healthy weight loss after birth should take place gradually. "The number one thing new mothers have to have is a certain amount of patience with their body," she says. "It took nine months to get there. It should take at least that long to get back to their fighting weight." Weight is only one aspect of your body, and while that can change, there are other things that are harder to change, like stretch marks, or a drastically different chest size.
Looking at your new body, it's natural to feel a bit of loss of what you had. But as you greet your new, post-baby body, there is an opportunity to feel awe. There is an opportunity to feel gratitude. There is an opportunity to feel pride. To feel connected to the mothers that have gone before you and those that will come after you. To feel capable. To feel whole. To feel, in the truest sense of the world, beautiful.
And when we let our relationship with our body come from that place, that place of gratitude and wonder, the desire to get our body “back” looks totally different. When we’re motivated by stewardship instead of shame, making healthy choices is a gift we give ourselves instead of an obligation. When we acknowledge that our body has already accomplished the ultimate feat of strength, we can move from discouragement to confidence. When we recognize the power that our body gives us, we can abandon the notion that we are at war with our body and instead acknowledge that our body is most definitely for us, not against us.
It’s okay if this feels foreign. Motherhood is an entirely new frontier to navigate, and the new relationship with your body is no exception. When old, familiar voices sound off in your head, trying to narrow your focus again, trying to make it about size and numbers alone, gently remind them that we are in new territory now, and those ideas are no longer the whole story. Work harder at that fighting the “pre-baby body” voices in your head than at counting calories or running miles or buying products with false promises. Work harder at finding the new normal—the one that appreciates your body as complicated and capable and beautiful—than at fitting into old jeans or old stereotypes.
And let us not forget about the grace. In the midst of the hard work—the physical work of caring for a baby as well as the intangible work of forging your new identity—there is hardship. There are unmet expectations and unappreciated efforts and unrealized goals. There are tears, both from your baby and likely from yourself, too. So match your effort with grace. Match your hardship with forgiveness. Match your doubt with hope. When it all feels impossible, remind yourself of exactly what you’ve accomplished to get here, to get to this challenging landscape of new normals: You have brought about a human life, and you are keeping her alive and loving her well. Think on that strength. Think on that power. Think on that grace.
In a way, we are reborn ourselves when we become mothers. From the moment that tiny heart starts beating inside us, we embark on a journey unlike any that we have ever travelled. We learn as we go. We lose focus and gain it again, we get lost and then found and then lost again. But we keep moving forward. We do better as we know better. We forge new thought patterns, new voices in our heads, new normals all around us. We understand our bodies in a brand new way, and with effort and grace we learn to love them for all that they have accomplished and all that they allow us to do. Babies change everything.
Photo Credit: Olivia Leigh Photography