There is nothing more difficult about having a baby than still appearing very pregnant for several weeks after giving birth. It’s one thing to grow in size while being pregnant, while knowing there is a baby developing inside you. It’s a whole other thing to be alone in your body once again, but still look as if there’s a baby in there. I’ve got three kids, and I can say that each time, as soon as the baby was out, I prayed, hoped, and fantasized that when I got up from that bed I would look like my pre-pregnancy self again immediately. Flat(ish) stomach, strong core, and a figure that allows me to easily button my favorite pair of jeans–the ones that were hanging in my closet for nine straight months, staring me down.
Come on, you might be saying. That’s nothing compared with the stress of breastfeeding or bottle sanitizing, the sleep deprivation, or the sheer enormity of being responsible for a completely vulnerable creature. And granted, my medical history predisposes me to this concern: when I was 20 years old, I struggled with anorexia, and while I no longer succumb to the disease’s worst forces, it will always be with me.
But while I might be an extreme case, for many, many women, learning to live in and love (while also perhaps trying to improve) your post-birth body is a real mental challenge. And my extreme case also taught me a lesson that applies to a much broader audience–all mothers, but also women in general. And yes, even men, too.
Let’s start with my first pregnancy. I wasn’t my healthiest (physically or mentally) during those nine months, but after my son’s birth, my body very easily and quickly bounced back. I feared history wouldn’t repeat itself with my second child, but I again dropped the weight effortlessly. That was also a healthier pregnancy, though the pattern was the same as in the first: I exercised daily, ate relatively healthily, and focused on gaining a minimum quantity of weight. I believed the less I gained, the less I’d have to lose. A simple theory that pretty much worked out in practice.
My third pregnancy was very different. I let go–by my standards, at least. I had more unhealthy and unusual cravings, and indulged them; I wasn’t as mobile or energetic; my workouts seemed exhausting; and I was constantly tired. As a result, I gained more weight, and it showed. I struggled with it psychologically, but not enough to change any of my behaviors. In fact, my third pregnancy was so different from my first two that I became convinced I was having a girl. I was nauseated, fat, tired, and ugly. Aren’t those all signs you should be buying pink onesies?
Well, I left the hospital two days after giving birth cradling boy number three and despising the way I looked and felt. Of course I was thrilled to have a healthy baby, but I also couldn’t help feeling repulsive. I immediately set off on this new challenge of trying to get my body back. However, no matter how hard I exercised, or what I ate, it seemed impossible to lose my stomach flab. Even three months later, it just hung there.
And it kept hanging there–or at least in one particular spot: my belly button. As other parts of my torso slowly tightened up, this excess remained… until it no longer seemed normal. I showed my husband. He agreed that something was off. So, I did what I always do when I find something that doesn’t look right. I took a selfie, and sent it to my entire family–a family densely populated by doctors–in a group message. Surely one of them could provide a diagnosis. My phone vibrated like crazy. The text messages were unanimous: “Hernia.”
I’d heard of people with hernias but didn’t know much about them–and certainly didn’t imagine they turned up in your belly button. I texted my best friend, a general surgeon, and she confirmed that it was, indeed, a hernia.
All those weeks of staring in the mirror, critically assessing my stomach, fat, flab, and skin. Disgusted by how everything looked. And therefore ignoring a serious medical condition that would need immediate attention.
“Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not after you,” wrote Joseph Heller in “Catch-22.” For people unhappy with their bodies, it’s similar–and insidious. We’re told by society that our concerns are frivolous, and in trying to be healthy, we often adopt this view. We keep quiet about our unhappiness because we don’t believe we deserve the attention. But as my experience showed, speaking up is often vital. I had my surgery last Wednesday. As I settle in for the six-week recovery, stay tuned for complaints about cabin fever, Facebook overdoses, and a lack of exercise…
This post is part of the Here.Now series, which seeks to destigmatize mental health,
and is made possible by UJA-Federation of New York and The Jewish Board.
You can find other educational mental health resources here.