With everything I learned about health and wellness before I became pregnant, along with the strength and fitness I’d built up through boot-camp classes, I figured I coast through those nine months and bounce back easily postpartum. I had the perfect scenario built up in my mind, but then reality hit (more on that later), and the holidays. And then I broke my ankle (more on that later, too).
I imagined all this “free time” I’d have while I was on maternity leave — time I could use exercising or preparing healthy meals or catching up on sleep. Instead, when the baby took a nap, I spent that time running around the house cleaning, returning long-overdue phone calls to my friends, or just collapsed on the sofa, watching an episode of Downton Abbey or simply enjoying some moments of quiet to recharge my batteries. My girl also struggled at first to sleep longer than 20-minute stretches, so we spent most of those months attached at the hip or breast.
I read so many books and blogs about pregnancy, birth, and how to care for an infant, I neglected to consider how to really care for myself after baby arrived.
Sure, I knew what I “should” do, but motherhood is a whole new challenging world, and there have been so many times when I feel like I’m treading water. Even though some prep can help (prenatal yoga and visualization during pregnancy were key for me at her birth), how do you really prepare to be a mom? Books can guide you, but most of it is improv and experience — and each parent and child is so different.
If you found, like me, that your vision isn’t matching up with your reality, try these three adjustments that have been key for me:
- Let go of “getting your body back.” Those headlines on magazines and websites are alluring, but get real and free yourself: This is a whole new body, and it’s pretty awesome. It grew a human, birthed a human, and feeds a human. You’ll spend the next 18 years caring for that human, God willing, and the sooner you can release this concept from your mind, the more relieved you’ll be. Aim to make this body the best it can be. (Read more perspectives on the post-baby body from editor in chief Jamie Martin.)
- Celebrate the small victories. Made it to the gym once in five weeks? Hooray! Swung a kettlebell for 2 minutes during commercial breaks? Way to go! Baby stayed asleep for 40 minutes instead of 20, and you got a solid nap? Yesssss! I was used to working out for 45 minutes to an hour three to four days a week, so anything less felt like a huge downgrade for me. Once I came to understand I was building a new routine, not downshifting to a lesser plan, I knew I could feel more pride in the small steps I took to improve, whether that was for fitness, food, or keeping up with chores.
- Skip the calorie counting and focus on nourishing your body. Much like I did with my eating during weight loss and during my pregnancy, I aimed to eat the most colorful, nutrient-dense plant foods first, with a good serving of protein and healthy fats. It’s not always easy, and I’m definitely not always spot on (more on that below), but this still remains my guiding force in nutrition.
Keeping these three points in mind were great in improving my mindset, but in retrospect, as my daughter turns 18 months today, I’m reflective: What did I really need during this first year as a new mom? Here are five lessons I’ve learned (that I wish I knew 18 months ago):
1. Take time for self-care. No, seriously. It’s one of those “shoulds,” and for the first four to six weeks, I enjoyed hot baths, and occasionally spoke up and asked for help so I could sleep or go get a massage. As time went by, it became a lower priority as my little one was my sole focus. Just because you are a mom doesn’t mean you need to do it all. Time for you, and time with your partner, is important for your mental health. Plus, the grandparents love extra time with the new baby.
2. This brings me to my second point: Ask for help. You are a wonderful parent, and reaching out for childcare assistance, grocery runs, cleaning needs, and more doesn’t mean you are any less capable as a caregiver. Hold your head high, and speak up! Communities aren’t as tight-knit as they used to be, and people are busier than ever, so no one can read your mind. Bless those friends and family who brought us food when they visited, offered to pick up supplies at the store, or suggested date nights for me and the husband while they babysat. As a first-born child and a Virgo, I have a real (and often damaging) tendency to try to do everything “right” or be the perfect parent — a fictitious person created by celebrity culture and social media. We are all, in our own unique and beautiful way, the right parent for our children.
3. When it comes to social media and the Internet, proceed with caution. There are some great online blogs and mommy groups out there, but too much time on Facebook or Instagram left me bummed out. Sometimes I felt like I was missing out on some baby-mama bonding experience. Other times I’d scroll past another new mom who had already dropped the baby weight and feel crummy. Or I’d see a lovely nursery on Pinterest and cry at my sparse walls, feeling guilty that my daughter didn’t get those rustic shelves I searched for to no avail (why, oh, why didn’t I just go antique shopping?!?). There is indeed good information online, so if you find a helpful, positive site (like this one!), stick with it. But if you find yourself comparing to others too often, turn to a great book or friend or your mom for advice instead. And beware the comments sections when a site doesn’t have a policy in place! People can be really mean online (part of the reason it’s taken me so long to write about parenthood — had to build up my courage first).
4. Embrace your inner planner, and make an agreement on how and when you’ll accomplish the three pillars of good self-care: movement, nourishment, and rest. Again, as a first-born and a Virgo, I love planning! It’s part of the reason I enjoy my role as managing editor. I get a little geeky over calendars, scheduling, and time management. One of my favorite books is The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey.
For those of you who are not into planning ahead, think of how you can shift your mindset to seeing the benefits of setting a few regular practices. Not every bit of your life has to be nailed down, but if you can set aside time each day for these three pieces, everything will feel better. Setting up some routines for yourself will help set the tone for your kids to develop healthy habits, too. There has been several unexpected challenges this past year, but I feel a bit more sane when I have some semblance to my schedule. I’m a fairly cool cucumber when it comes to obstacles, but prioritizing movement, in particular, would have aided in improved energy. But that’s the chicken and the egg, isn’t it — without better energy, I wasn’t up for exercise; yet more exercise would have boosted by energy. Rats! (I love Dallas Hartwig’s take on where to shift your focus when aiming to get healthier, in order: nutrition, sleep, and activity.)
And while I didn’t fully return to my pre-weight-loss eating patterns, I did allow for more takeout than I used to. That’s been improving this spring, as I’ve shifted to cooking more at home, and focusing on recipes from Whole30 and Dr. David Ludwig’s Always Hungry? book. The warmer-season shift is also encouraging as the farmers’ markets open and my body naturally craves crispier, lighter, fresher fare.
5. Give yourself — and other parents — a break. Shortly after Sylvia was born, one of my friends half-jokingly said, “Welcome to motherhood, and the world of guilt!” We’re so hard on ourselves, and with the advent of social media, hard on others as well — not just on Facebook but also, strangely, in person. Maybe that digital world where everyone shares their opinions has somehow leaked to IRL where its somehow seen as permissible to shame others.
Around the time that I hit my personal record of 165 pounds in the deadlift, a huge goal of mine to be able to lift more than my body weight, when I was in my second trimester, I saw others shame a CrossFitter for lifting weights at 8-months pregnant. It was suggested that I not help with a friends’ move because I shouldn’t be lifting anything heavy. When I ate a meal, I was questioned if it was safe for me to eat certain foods. Just recently, a simple photo of new parents Chrissy Teigen and John Legend stepping out for dinner a week after baby arrived caused such an unfortunate uproar (on her, mind you, not Dad, which he countered).
Let’s do a better job of supporting and encouraging one another. There’s enough hate in the world. Be loving to yourself and others.
Photo by Kelsey Doherty; courtesy of the author.