Simple

It all really just comes down to this:

Stop pathologizing my body.

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.

Mom & Baby Fitness: Beautiful Transitions

Today I taught the first class in my new session of Mom & Baby Fitness, following a demo class that I ran on Friday.  Of course I always love teaching fitness, and especially pre and postnatal—that’s a given.  But it’s particularly rewarding this time because the class is composed almost entirely of women who used to be clients in Prenatal Fitness, and who have now returned with their new babies for a session of postnatal. 

Not only is it awesome to see their babies—newborn babies!  super-high squee factor!—and to hear about their births, but it’s very cool to see how beautifully these women are transitioning from one phase of life to another. After class today, one of them mentioned that amazing thing that I’ll bet others have experienced, where your new baby may be only 5 or 6 weeks old, but you absolutely cannot remember what life was like without her. 

Today was really inspirational to me, reminding me how precious those early months are as you create new reflexes, and new patterns of thought and behaviour in the process of building a relationship with a new child.  Of course the early postpartum period is rife with huge challenges, but some of the challenges are quite wonderful.  One baby today, lying on a mat in the centre of the studio, started fussing during a cardio interval.  I watched in the mirror as her mama kept moving, monitoring baby out of the corner of her eye, listening to the sound of her newborn squawking over the music:  she was clearly observing and attending to her baby even as she kept working out and following the choreography.  This was so far from the panicked new-mom caricature of ‘oh my God my baby’s fussing stop the presses and fix it NOW!’ Instead, in the midst of a sweaty fitness studio, it was a calm, intuitive, almost subconscious moment where a mother waited and felt her baby’s cues before going to her to give her exactly the care she needed.  It was breathtaking.

It’s such a privilege to observe women transforming into mothers, and to help support them along the way.  I know that I have a lot of knowledge and expertise to offer the women who take my classes. I wonder if they know how much they teach me when they attend?

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.

After a surgical birth

I spent a lot of time today thinking about how women and babies are treated immediately following caesarean deliveries.  This topic is often in my thoughts because of my own post-op experience.  For reasons I still don’t understand, I was not allowed to touch or hold my perfectly healthy newborn daughter until we were out of the OR and in recovery, about 45 minutes after she was delivered.  In the OR, both of my arms were strapped down, and everyone present just ignored me when I asked repeatedly to touch her.  Being completely stripped of power as an individual, as a woman, and as a parent in the first hour of my daughter’s life is still one of the worst memories I have of that day.  The resulting anger and loss is almost indescribable.

Two things today made me think about this even more than usual.  First, I made the mistake of watching A Baby Story on TV at the gym this morning while working out on the elliptical machine.  (My theory is that watching shows that inevitably piss me off will raise my heart rate a little more, increasing the value of my workout.  Totally bunk science, I know, but it’s my way of justifying really bad TV choices.  Anyway.)  In the show, a woman who had hoped for a vaginal birth gets a c-section.  The hospital staff dismiss her sadness and fear prior to the surgery; afterward, they ignore her as she calls for her newborn baby, who she can hear but not see crying somewhere beyond the curtain separating her head and chest from the rest of her body.  Her baby is brought close to her face for a minute or two—already clean, dry and swaddled—but then whisked away, leaving the woman lying there with a stunned and wounded look on her face that resonated just a little more than I would have liked. 

It wasn’t easy to get the images from this morning’s A Baby Story out of my mind, and then later in the day, by coincidence, I happened upon this post at Cesarean Parent’s Blog.  The author describes a situation that should be the norm post-op in cases where a baby and mother have no health issues requiring immediate attention.  Just like after a vaginal birth, women who have had caesarean surgeries should have the opportunity to have skin-to-skin contact with their newborn babies.  Not all women will want this, and in some cases it won’t be appropriate.  Obviously women and their health care providers need to make smart decisions responding to the specific context and requirements of each birth.  But barring the need for immediate medical procedures, offering a woman the chance to hold her baby—and keeping the baby close to her/his mother— is the humane thing to do.

I write about this here because the reality of a 30-40% caesarean rate means that more women than would otherwise expect or require a c-section need to be ready for the possibility that they will have one.  For those for whom the birth process is important or who want to see and feel their babies fresh from the womb—before they have been sanitized, weighed, measured, poked and prodded by a succession of strange hands—it might be worth spending some time thinking about how an ideal post-op period would look and feel and what the hospital staff, attendants and others might be able to do to support their wishes.  None of this guarantees a positive experience, and achieving an ideal is far from the point.  The point is not to stay ‘in control’ (no such thing in birth), but simply to remain subject instead of becoming object.  For some women, preserving those post-birth skin-to-skin moments amid the challenges of a surgical procedure (especially one with such a troubling political context) can make all the difference in terms of their overall feelings about their births, their babies, and themselves.  If doing so poses no medical risk to mother or baby, and, indeed, has myriad proven benefits, why not?

ICAN of the Cowichan Valley

Forgive me, readers, for it has been many months since my last post.  I took a little professional detour (can you detour from an already diversified path? hmmm…).  It was interesting, and among other things, gave me an opportunity to reevaluate my values and priorities. 

And now that I’m back from my sojourn, I’ve re-prioritized my work around birth advocacy.  To that end, I’ve (finally!) gotten around to doing something I’ve been talking about for years:  I just started a new chapter of ICAN, the International Cesarean Awreness Network, here in the Cowichan Valley.  ICAN of the Cowichan Valley, like other ICAN groups, will offer resources and information about cesarean sections, and provide support to women who are recovering from a c-section or trying to avoid an unecessary surgery. 

After I had Annika, I attended one ICAN meeting down in Victoria.  But for a variety of reasons, including distance (it was a 2-hour drive, round-trip), I never managed to get to another one.  I’ve always regretted that, and wished I’d had a practical option beyond suffering in isolation with the aftermath of her birth.  I did have a wonderful circle of online friends who helped me through those years, but there is a lot to be said for face-to-face, local connections, especially in the postpartum phase.  And there is also a lot to be said for a specialized group like an ICAN support group.  It’s often hard for women to talk about their experiences with surgical birth, as many people still trot out the ‘but you have a healthy baby!’ dismissals, and unecessary c-sections have become normalized in our society.  ICAN groups can offer a safe place for women to connect with others who are likely to empathize, and willing to listen without judgment to their stories.

I’m still in the process of getting the group up and running–it was only officially registered yesterday, and I have yet to plan any actual events or meetings!  My hope is to find a central space where we can gather, perhaps beginning in late May or early June, and go from there.  So, local folks, please help to spread the word and encourage people to contact me at icancowichan@gmail.com.  Local and far-flung, like our Facebook page. Thanks to all of you for helping me let people know about this important new resource.

Healthy Beginnings

I had the pleasure this week of being a guest speaker at a couple of Healthy Beginnings meetings, which are drop-in groups for young children, babies and their caregivers sponsored by the local health unit.  I spoke to one group in Duncan earlier in September, and two groups on Thursday in Shawnigan Lake.  I did a little demo of core work with the women (all moms except for one nanny), and checked a few for diastasis recti (everyone was good to go!).  But aside from encouraging more people to strengthen their pelvic floors, I really wanted to get two points across:  a) let them know that I’m here as a resource for them in the community; and b) emphasize the notion that fitness is holistic, and that postpartum fitness, especially, has little to do with fitting into pre-pregnancy jeans.

Let’s talk about the second point first.  I’ve written about this before here so I won’t repeat those points now.  But I was struck at the drop-ins by how much women focus on changing their size after pregnancy.  Of course I already knew this was the case, but every time I see signs of it, the red light starts to flash in my head: teachable moment!  teachable moment!  There are practical reasons to want to get back to pre-pregnancy size–the most significant of which is probably financial, as buying an entirely new postpartum wardrobe right after buying a new maternity wardrobe is an onerous expense.  But there is nothing wrong with taking time to get there, and moreover, a healthy lifestyle + time is the best formula for healthy and lasting post-pregnancy weight loss.  Anything extreme–extreme exercising, or even not-so-extreme dieting–is dangerous, plain and simple (and most likely ineffective).  

The thing is, we all know this, and beating people over the head with such information doesn’t work.  So instead, I tried to focus on the positive:  rather than telling people what not to do, I suggested what they can do to improve their health and wellbeing after baby, and to strengthen their bodies so that they can move with freedom, and with the knowledge that they are protecting their bodies from injury. Even more importantly, I tried to emphasize that they can do that without having to be away from their babies.  (Although there is nothing wrong with working out solo either–the point is, women have lots of options and they can pick and choose what is right for them at any given time.)  And I’ll tell you–it felt very good to look around the room at women’s faces and feel like they were soaking these messages in.  I know the relief I often feel when someone in a position of some authority/expertise gives me permission to be kind to myself and to follow my instincts about what is right or wrong for me as a parent, and I hope I was able to do that for some of the women there.

On the second topic: although part of my reason for going to the drop-ins was to let women know about Fit 4 Two, I had a bigger purpose in mind, and that was to let them know that there is a place they can go if they have questions about things to do with health and fitness during pregnancy, birth, and postpartum recovery.  I got involved with Fit 4 Two because I wanted to reach out to women as someone who is not a clinician of any sort, but has other kinds of information to share, and is happy to be a source of support.  Sometimes people hesitate to call on professionals when they have questions they feel are minor, or they have questions that professionals may not be equipped to answer (even the best birthy clinicians may know little about exercise physiology, for instance).  I wanted to introduce myself to the women as a fitness professional, but more importantly as their peer:  I know a lot about pre and postnatal fitness, but I’m also someone who has struggled through the pre and postnatal phases  and can lend an empathetic ear if they too are facing challenges.  So I was so glad to have the chance to go into these groups and let the women there know that they can email or call me any time with questions; if they are within my scope of practice, I’ll answer, and if they are outside it, I can help connect them with appropriate resources.  The point is that they aren’t alone, and they don’t have to pay a penny to be supported at this time in their lives, when so many women end up feeling isolated, inadequate, and often (sadly) at war with their own bodies.  Of course I’d love for them to take my classes, but it’s not about that; it’s about creating genuine relationships, and meeting women where they are, whether they are ready for and interested in a group workout or just need some basic information about how to work with their pregnant or postpartum bodies.

Oh, and I got to cuddle a newborn.  That was probably the highlight of the whole thing for me, personally.  There is nothing better than holding someone else’s newborn baby…  😉

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