Congratulations. You just did an incredible thing. You gave birth to a human. Well done you! Right now you might be a little caught up in healing and bonding with your new family member but there may be a point in the future when you need a head’s up: This next year is going to be quite a ride for you in terms of body and identity change. Here are some tips that I would have appreciated when I was in the trenches of new motherhood.
Ambivalence is Normal
If this is your first baby you may, like Alexandra Sacks think that
“motherhood would make me feel whole and happy. I thought my instincts would naturally tell me what to do. I thought I'd always want to put the baby first." And, if this isn’t what actually happens you might be feeling a bit like a rubbish parent. I did. Sacks uses the term matrescence to explain this phase in our life. It is a term coined in 1973 by Dana Raphael, and like adolescence, matrescence is a time when our body is morphing, our hormones are shifting and we are going through the emotional upheaval of figuring out how we fit into the world. Sacks explains that in this period we feel a constant "push and pull." Yes we are pulled by the love we have for our babies but at the same time, our minds push away, because we remember there are other parts to our identity. We were people in our own right before we became mothers. Sacks reassures us that ambivalence is normal and nothing to be ashamed of.
Remember who Benefits From your Body Dissatisfaction.
You may want to avoid Women’s magazines and any media that equates beauty with thinness in the year after you give birth. An analysis of women’s magazines in Australia found that “The social messages inherent in the magazine stories were that women need to strive towards regaining a pre-pregnant body shape with the same effort one would employ when recovering from an illness.” This is incredibly unhelpful especially in the light of a study that showed a year after birth the average weight retention for 540 women was 1.51 kg (Olson & Strawderman, 2003). Cycles of dieting and weight gain with ever-increasing dissatisfaction is related to depression experienced in the postpartum period. That first year is hard enough without having mental health difficulties on top of it all. Unfollow toxic social media accounts and instead follow body positive ones, I love Paula Kuka’s account common_wild and Kelsey Lorencz of graciously_nourished
Appreciate Your Body for What it Can Do
Jessica Alleva is a researcher who has designed a body image intervention called ‘Expand your Horizon’ that connects the ways that our body functions to our meaning and values. Our body functions can be viewed from many perspectives - physical capacity, internal processes, bodily sensations, creative endeavours, healthcare, and communication with others. Alleva discovered that when subjects focussed on their functionality their perspective shifted from dissatisfaction with body image to appreciation of all that we can do. Focusing on function fosters gratitude, acceptance and appreciation for our bodies.
Move Your Body
We know that exercise is good for our mental health and boosts our mood and energy levels. Exercise also improves our body image when we notice our improvements, when we are able to appreciate how strong or fit or flexible our body is, when we take time to connect with our body in our movement. Mothers don’t often prioritise their movement but it really is such an investment in mental well being. I took my first baby out for a pram push at 9am for the first six months of her life. She napped, I walked and listened to a podcast. I cannot even remember the first six months of my second child’s life. I do remember us walking to afternoon nursery so movement did happen. Life was a little less structured and I was so very tired but I my mental health required that we all went outside and we walked somewhere green most days.
Practice Self Compassion
Dr Kristen Neff teaches three elements of self compassion which help boost our self esteem by giving us perspective. They are self kindness which is understanding not punishment; a sense of common humanity which is the belief that everybody goes through this; and mindfulness which is noticing and listening to your feelings without judging. Essentially, treat yourself and speak to yourself as you would a friend. Be kind to yourself. You deserve it.
And for practical advice on post natal movement, nutrition and rehab I highly recommend the women’s wellness guru Jenny Burrell.
Congratulations on becoming a mother. Good luck with everything.