I sat at my six week postpartum checkup and expression frustration to my midwife, “I’m upset by where my weight is right now. I want to be healthy. It’s so important to me to be healthy and strong. What can I do to help make that happen?”
The midwife looked at me kindly, and said, “Sweetheart, give yourself some grace. You just had a baby! It’s ok. Just stop thinking about it right now. Promise me you won’t worry about this until at least twelve weeks postpartum?” I promised her, and left. I left without any advice on small steps I could take, small changes that could help me be healthier.
I expressed the same frustration to a friend, and the response was similar, “Give yourself some grace! You just had a baby! Besides, our bodies are never the same after we have babies. “
In a culture that puts pressure on moms to “bounce back” after birth, we often go the opposite direction in our advice. We say things like: “Your body is beautiful right now; look it gave you these two beautiful babies,” “give yourself grace,” “your body will never be the same after babies.” All of these are true. But to the mom that doesn’t recognize herself in her own body, to the mom that desires strength but is struggling to fit in workouts, to the mom that just simply wants to be healthy, these platitudes miss the point.
I’ve been struggling with PPD and PPA while dealing with Rheumatoid Arthritis. Excess weight is not an option for me: it means greater weight on my joints, which means more pain, which means more days where I struggle to walk. Having the days where I have more pain leads to more depression…and so it spirals. When I was expressing frustration at not being able to workout due to pain and exhaustion, I was expressing a deeper need: a need for the basics like sleep, better meds for my RA, and time to take care of myself. But, instead of hearing that frustration, we tell new moms not to pressure themselves. It’s a needed message, absolutely, but it needs to come with an “and.”
“Your body is beautiful right now, and you can work towards health and strength when you are ready.”
“Your body will never be the same after babies, and you can still work towards being stronger than ever.”
“Give yourself some grace right now, and know when to challenge yourself.”
What if we used these messages to postpartum moms? And what if we followed up with, “it sounds like you have an unmet need for ______. How can I or someone else help you to meet that need so that you can be healthy and strong?”
Unmet needs are at the root of my anxiety and depression. When a mom is telling us that she desires to be strong and wants to work out and eat healthy and we respond with, “give yourself some grace, you just had a baby,” what we are actually saying at times is, “wait until your baby is older and then you can meet your needs.”
Wait to exercise until you can get more sleep. You don’t want to exhaust yourself. Wait to eat healthy until you’re not overwhelmed by anxiety and depression–you don’t want to put too much pressure on yourself.
Without even meaning to do so, we end up sending the message to new moms that their desire for health and fitness is something that can wait. We try to tell her to take care of herself, but fail to recognize that working out and eating healthy can be a vital part of self care. We don’t seek to reach out and ask, “is there anything I can do to help you meet some of your basic needs?”
A few weeks ago, my therapist suggested medication for my PPD and PPA. My response was simple: a pill isn’t going to give me more sleep, better food, and exercise. A pill isn’t going to give me friendships or a better prayer life. I have to do those things. I have to put in the work. And I need to reach out and get the support I need when I’m struggling to do the work. For some, medication may give the needed mental break to do these things without overwhelm! I did end up trying medication, and found that the side effects (for ME) were not worth the potential benefits.
I needed my healthcare professionals to not just give me a pill for my anxiety. I needed them to look at me holistically. I needed the encouragement that I could become stronger than ever and the guidance on how to do it. I needed to hear that wanting to be healthy and strong isn’t vanity.
When you know what it is to live in daily pain, to wake up unable to walk, to struggle with constant fatigue, you want to do anything you can to counteract that. And that isn’t vanity; that’s a desire to be strong so I can serve my family. So I can play with my daughters. So I can be ready for another pregnancy and minimize risk of injury and fatigue. So I can make the days where walking is difficult few and far between. So I can conquer my RA instead of letting it conquer me.
If you’re newly postpartum, know this: you are beautiful and your body is a gift. Your body speaks to the truth that we are meant to give new life. Your body will be forever changed, AND you can still become stronger than ever when you are ready. Give yourself some grace, AND know when you’re ready for the challenge. You are beautiful and worthy, AND you deserve the support you need to pursue a healthy and strong life when you feel you are ready. It is ok to take your time in your own wellness journey, AND it is ok to take small steps to wellness now and ask for the support you need to do that. You don’t need to get your old body back AND you can still desire to pursue strength, however that may look for you. Your needs are not invalid. Desiring health and strength is not vain.
For, “Do you not know that your body is a temple[a] of the holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God, and that you are not your own?For you have been purchased at a price. Therefore glorify God in your body.” 1 Corinthians 6:19
We glorify God with our bodies in so many ways. Through the act of giving birth. Through nursing and feeding our babies. Through offering our physical sufferings. Through choosing to live out St. Therese’s Little Way when it comes to health and wellness: focusing on choosing one thing at a time that will lead us to greater physical healing and strength.