Prenatal & postpartum weight: giving up and giving in

“All new moms worry about losing the baby weight.”

How’s that for a major generalization? 

True, many new moms worry about this, maybe even most.  But all is a troubling superlative, not only because it’s almost guaranteed to be untrue (find one exception, and the hypothesis crumbles) but more importantly because it reinforces the cultural imperatives for women to be thin no matter what, and to put weight at the top of their list of concerns at all times. Statement:  All new moms worry about losing the baby weight.  Subtext:  If you aren’t worried about this, you should be because everyone else is.

Note that the article linked above, about so-called “mommyrexia” (could there be a more infuriating term?) invites women to share their methods for “stay[ing] slim in pregnancy or los[ing] weight after giving birth.”  I’m all for women sharing their experiences, but I find this formulation troubling. Surely there are better and less sensationalist ways of acknowledging women’s fears about the changes to their bodies during pregnancy.

As a pre and postnatal fitness instructor, obviously I have a vested interest in helping women maintain their health during and after pregnancy. This includes promoting healthy weight gain while growing a baby, and appropriate weight loss in the months following.  But I won’t do it in a way that upholds the paradigm in which weight plays a disproportionate role in determining a woman’s worth or which shames women whose bodies don’t conform to current weight and shape ideals.  Yes, exercise burns calories and can reduce body fat; no, we won’t talk about that in my classes.

I work to support prenatal and postpartum women’s health, not to help them police the size of their bodies.  Body size and weight are only two variables among many that indicate a person’s level of fitness and capacity for activity, and the jury is still very much out when it comes to conclusions about the relationship between weight gain, weight loss, health and pregnancy. Science and Sensibility’s recent series on maternal obesity demonstrates this beautifully.

Different women gain different amounts of weight during pregnancy for reasons that often have less to do with food intake or exercise than you might think. This can be scary for a lot of women. Larger women have reason to fear being treated as if they’ve done something wrong if their weight continues to increase during pregnancy, and they are likely to be categorized automatically as high risk and subjected to a variety of  prenatal and birth interventions as a result. Smaller women may have their own set of fears, especially if they usually go to herculean efforts to keep their weight at a certain level or maintain a particular shape. It’s hard to drop that mentality and to weather the pressure not to ‘let yourself go’ just because the stick has turned blue. 

But what does ‘letting go’ really mean?  There is some implication that it means giving up, giving in, and that these are inherently bad things to do.  But we could re-frame the concept as giving up our culturally-determined beliefs about how our bodies should look. And rather than giving in to the TV-land stereotype of gluttonous-pregnant-woman-eating-for-two, how about giving in to pregnancy, which is designed to ensure that women gain the fat and fluid they need to carry a baby to term, and have the energy necessary to labour and birth a healthy baby.

In this framework, giving up and giving in are important steps toward good mental and physical health, and they are perfectly congruent with staying active and eating a diet of nutrient-rich foods in amounts that satisfy hunger and thirst.  This framework promotes health for all women, all of the time, without prejudice or judgment about size and shape.

The more we learn to listen to our bodies during pregnancy, to explore how they grow and change and to support their new needs, the more likely they are to respond appropriately to pregnancy’s demands.  And the happier our bodies are during pregnancy, when we’re feeding, moving and resting them well, the more likely they are to recover appropriately in the months that follow.

Advertisements

Birth community and a little update

A while back I posted about wanting to generate a birth network here in the Cowichan Valley.  But the crazy few months that followed meant that that wish never got too much further than a blog post and a couple of discussions with friends.  So I was super excited when I was invited to join a circle of women at the new Matraea Centre in Duncan, called together by Sarah Juliusson of Island Mother, Dancing Star Birth, Birth Your Business, and other cool projects. Sarah took the initiative to bring a group of people whose work supports pregnant and birthing families for a Birthing from Within training for professionals and discussion about our local birth community. 

I was tired and rushed last night, and had had one of those days where it’s lucky I work mostly from home because other humans would not have appreciated my mood.  But I made it to Matraea nonetheless, and am so glad I did.  I already knew some of the women there including the midwives, and a postpartum doula (aka goddess) who founded the New Mom Centre, and I met some others whose services include pre and postnatal yoga, and prenatal dance and art.  It was amazing to be sitting in a room full of so much excitement–excitement about Matraea, excitement about building connections in this community, excitement about sharing a common enthusiasm for supporting women and families. 

It was exciting and also educational.  Sarah took us through an exercise designed to help us examine the way we listen and respond to women when they talk about pregnancy and birth.  We worked in pairs to practice not only reflective listening but also body language that shows our clients that we are ready to ‘meet them where they are.’  I took away the message that we need to really hear what women are saying, recognize the validity of their position, and work with them so that the choice they make is truly theirs and not an empty reflection of our values.  This process focuses not on the outcome–not on what a woman ultimately chooses to do–but on how she gets there.  Does she feel supported?  Does she feel confident?  Does she believe that she is the most important person in the equation?  Does she own her own pregnancy, birth, and body? 

Tomorrow I’m going to start going to one of Sarah’s Mama Renew groups.  I’m not sure I’ll be able to do the whole session; I may have a scheduling conflict, but I won’t know for a while.  So, in the meantime, I’m going and I’m really curious about what it’s going to be like.  I have pretty much no idea what to expect!  But I hear it’s an awesome group of women (8 or 10, I think), so I figure it can only be good. 

Tonight is the first ICAN meeting here at my house for the Cowichan Valley chapter.  I’m nervous, which is funny because there’s really nothing to be nervous about.  I’ve wanted to do this for such a long time, as I think a group like this can really make a huge difference in a woman’s life, if it’s there for her at the right moment.  So, even if no one comes, just spreading the word and waiting so that ICAN is available for any person who may need it at any point in the future is good enough.

Taking traumatic births seriously

I went to see a new doctor this past week.  I’ve been trying for five years, without much luck, to find a doctor who is a good fit for our family.  But we live in an underserved area, and unfortunately there just aren’t a lot of good choices–the doctors who are recommended most highly have full practices and won’t even take names for a waiting list.  So I had  high hopes when I went  into the new clinic on Tuesday, and I went in with a positive attitude:  this will be The One.

Unfortunately, I think I was wrong.  It was all going okay until she asked me if I had any concerns I wanted to address right away.  I said yes, there is one.  I decided a few months ago that it’s time for me to see some kind of counseling professional to go through the details of my second child’s birth, and process what it all has meant in the nearly four years since.  Although Annika’s birth was extremely traumatic, I made only one attempt to discuss it with a professional.  When she was a few weeks old, I went to see the nurse at the health unit who was responsible for counseling women with postpartum depression.  I don’t know if I was suffering from PPD per se, but I was definitely suffering emotionally, and she was free, so it seemed like a logical choice.  She was nice enough, but after I explained the situation (planned homebirth turned emergency c-section after 5 days of prodromal labour and all kinds of crazy things happening, etc.), she told me that I had to stop “wallowing” in self-pity, accept that I had a healthy baby and move on with my life.  Given the fact that I still hadn’t gotten up the nerve to remove the bandage covering my incision, and I still needed help getting in and out of bed because of the pain, I thought her remarks were insensitive and, at the very least, awfully premature.  Needless to say, I didn’t try to talk to anyone about it again for a long time.

But on Tuesday, I decided the time had come.  I’m working with pregnant and postpartum women now, and want to ensure that I don’t project my own issues on to them.  It’s a professional responsibility as well as a personal necessity.  It’s not easy to ask for help, especially with mental health issues, but I sucked it up, put on my big-girl panties, and decided to give it a go.  To be fair, I was nervous and probably didn’t explain very well, but I was assuming that a trained family doctor wouldn’t require a whole lot of detailed explanation, that she would have either seen this before or at least have some sense of how to handle it.  The conversation went as follows.

Me: “Um, well, I’m wondering if you can recommend a counselor or a therapist who I can talk to about my daughter’s birth?”

Doctor:  “Why, did something happen?”

Me:  “Well, it was really hard–I had planned a homebirth, but we ended up with an emergency c-section, and I was pretty depressed for a long time afterward.”

Doctor:  “Is your daughter okay?”

Me:  “Yes.  But–”

Doctor (interrupting):  “Well, then, why do you need to talk to someone?”

Me:  “Um, well, I want to figure it out…figure out why I’m still bothered by it.”

Doctor:  “But your daughter is fine.”

Me:  “Yes.”

Doctor (laughing):  “Maybe it’s like some kind of [laughter increasing] post-traumatic stress disorder?”

Me (feeling ridiculous):  “Well, I don’t know if I’d go that far…I don’t know what to call it, but it’s hard.”

Doctor (still laughing):  “I don’t know anyone who really does, uh, that, but I can ask around.”

Cue me feeling like a complete idiot, totally dismissed, and wishing I’d never brought it up.

Luckily, sufficient time has passed and I’ve been around the block enough times with doctors and therapists that I could handle this–I wasn’t destroyed by it, although it was humiliating.  And I could put it in context:  her reaction wasn’t about me, it was a reflection of a large, systemic problem–ongoing stigma and ignorance about mental health issues–and a smaller problem that is a subcategory of the first:  a tendency to dismiss women’s mental health concerns, particularly around pregnancy and birth.

So instead of being destroyed I got angry.  Not in the doctor’s office, of course; there, I was a good girl, laughing with her as though she were right, as though I was silly to have brought it up at all.  I played my part in the cultural script perfectly, even though it went against everything I believe in; it wasn’t like I decided consciously to play the part, it was the only choice I could make–the possibility of pressing my concerns, of insisting she take me seriously, evaporated the second she started laughing. 

What is it going to take to change this?  I was struck while Annika was a baby by how little support there was for me to access.  Once the 6-week postpartum visit came and went with my midwives, I was on my own, and there was really no one there–outside of family and friends–to provide any kind of meaningful or helpful assistance.  And while I put on a brave face and muddled through, I think women can expect more than that–I think women deserve more than that. 

If a woman is traumatized by the nature of her birth experience–for any reason, whether or not you believe her trauma is “justified”–she deserves care, and she deserves to be taken seriously.  She is not “wallowing” or making a big deal out of nothing.  Birth is a major life event, and for some women it is one that may require days, weeks, months or years to process.  Is it wrong to ask for healthcare professionals whose jobs include pre and postnatal care to assist with that?

The doctor I saw on Tuesday should not have laughed at me.  I wish I hadn’t laughed with her, because I don’t believe it’s a laughing matter.  Birth trauma is serious.  It can destroy a person’s quality of life and impair her ability to parent appropriately; it can hurt a whole family.  Women’s feelings matter; women’s experiences matter.  Birth matters.  Stop laughing, stop dismissing, and listen.  Asking for help is really hard–if a woman has the courage to go that far, give her the courtesy of going with her and doing what you can to offer some support.

%d bloggers like this: