Despite the myriad books and checklists and mommy blog round-ups, believe me when I tell you that there is no way to truly prepare for motherhood. I don’t mean to sound ominous here — the greatest surprise of motherhood in the weeks following the birth of my first child wasn’t how hard it was, but rather how much I loved it despite the hardship. I had braced myself so severely for the fact that it would be exhausting and thankless that I had forgotten to factor in how much love and wonder the experience would carry as well.
There were surprises about my body, too. I didn’t expect to gain 50 pounds (FIFTY. Five zero.), I didn’t expect to need that many stitches in my nether region, I didn’t expect to be wearing a size double D bra, and I didn’t expect the weight to be so hard to lose. Sure, it was worth it and all that, but I could’ve used a heads up about how foreign my body would feel in the months following childbirth. In an effort to prepare all of you for the uncharted territory of your postpartum body, I’m breaking down the five things that caught me most off-guard.
The weight has a mind of its own.
I have a Bachelor of Science in kinesiology, a certification in group fitness instruction, and years and years of experimentation with diet and exercise under my belt, but in contrast to every calories-in-versus-calories-burned formula that has been proven in a lab, I am convinced that post-pregnancy weight has a mind of its own. I was active throughout my entire pregnancy, ate pretty well, and was back in the gym as soon as I got the six-week postpartum green light. I also breastfed for nearly a year, which many friends had assured me would cause the weight to just fall off. They. Were. Wrong.
It took me over a year to lose the weight, p90X workout and five-day juice cleanse be damned. Meanwhile, I had friends that were in their pre-pregnancy jeans a week after giving birth, having hardly left the house and subsisting on hearty lasagnas and casseroles from friends. I can’t back it up with scientific research, but I suspect that some women are hardwired to return to their normal weight without a ton of effort, while others — myself included — will hold onto some of that weight for months or years, despite every effort to shed it. The takeaway? Make healthy choices no matter which camp your body seems to fall in, and remember that extending yourself grace is the healthiest choice of all.
Your pelvic floor will become a whole thing.
I suppose I was aware of my pelvic floor before having kids; I knew that I had one and I knew I could do kegel exercises to strengthen it, but it was a part of my anatomy that required very little of my attention. Fast forward to one of my first real postpartum workouts, and as I’m doing jumping jacks I suddenly feel like I am about to pee my pants. This was a totally new experience for me, so I re-upped my efforts to hold it in and I finished out my set of 25 jacks. As I moved quickly into the next exercise in my circuit, laying on my back with bent knees to bang out a set of 25 crunches, I noticed it: a wet spot on my grey leggings. I had peed my pants without even realizing it. What. The. F&%k. Since when does urine exit my body without my permission!? I was horrified. I cried (hello, hormones). I tied a sweatshirt around my waist, picked up my baby from the gym daycare, and went home to Google what sort of strange phenomenon was happening to me.
I quickly learned that stress incontinence is quite common postpartum, a result of the over-stretching and injury inflicted on the pelvic floor muscles, nerves, and ligaments during pregnancy and childbirth. Lovely. Time and kegels can do a lot to turn this around, as can pelvic rehab therapy and at-home devices designed to facilitate a circuit workout for your vagina. So if you see me taking frequent “stretching breaks” during the jumping jack segment in a bootcamp class, please don’t ask me which muscles need the rest.
Get the glam squad on speed dial.
Basically no part of your body is spared from postpartum changes, including hair and skin. Increased estrogen levels during pregnancy freeze the normal cycle of shower-clogging hair loss, but a couple months after childbirth many women experience a mass exodus of follicles as their scalp plays catch-up. Although it can be alarming and certainly unwanted, it’s totally normal and usually levels out within a few months.
Also unwanted? The hormonal roller coaster ride of dark spots and acne that many women see popping up on their faces as they embark on their motherhood journey. Perhaps the official “welcome to all the things no one told you about your postpartum body” moment is when you find yourself standing in the checkout line at Target, your cart stocked with diaper rash cream, acne treatment, volumizing hair mousse, and Poise pads; the worst fears of every decade of your life represented on one receipt. I’m telling you this as a friend. Don’t shoot the messenger.
Let’s talk about sex, baby.
Yup, I’m going there. I’ve already told you that I peed my pants at the gym, so why stop there, friends?! Most OBGyn’s advise you to wait six weeks after giving birth before you get back on the proverbial horse, and that can either feel like an eternity (as it probably does to your husband/baby daddy), or like not nearly enough time. Hopefully one of the things you learned during pregnancy was that everybody is different, and postpartum sex is no different.
I felt pretty ready by the time my doctor gave me the green light, but once things actually got underway, it hurt like hell. From one girlfriend to another, I recommend good communication, patience, a sense of humor, and lube - all the stuff you wish you had the very first time. Mostly, don’t freak out. Your body has been through a lot, and it takes time to get back into the groove. I hate the “moms aren’t interested in sex” trope, and I hope we can all extend ourselves a little more grace, take some of the pressure off, and remember that sex — which is what got us into this beautiful mess of motherhood in the first place — can be beautiful and fun, even post-baby.
Your body is officially badass.
A reminder for the moms out there: you made a human being. Your body did that. Right there inside that belly of yours, cells divided and multiplied and what was once a simple date between an ovum and sperm is now a vibrant human child, thanks to the work of your amazing body. And then that human exited your body, and I don’t care by which means — it went from a fetus to a baby by the miracle of birth that your body facilitated. Your skin stretched, your organs shifted, your hormones surged, your breasts lactated, your arms rocked, your voice soothed, your hands clothed and patted and cradled. No part of your body goes unchanged on this journey. And if you pause for a moment, if you stop looking in the mirror with a critical eye but instead you look in your heart with a sense of wonder at the miracle that this body of yours has accomplished, you’ll see it: Your body is more amazing than ever.
Motherhood is full of surprises, from how it impacts a marriage to how it affects your relationship with your career to what you watch on Netflix. Your body will surprise you, too. And even though I’ve given you this helpful heads up, you’ll still find yourself in total disbelief about some of it. I just hope that some of that disbelief is rooted in wonder, and that you always treat the body that gave your baby life with the utmost respect. Carry on, mama.
This post was written by Anna Quinlan and originally appeared on The Broadcast on July 8, 2016.