Getting pregnant, giving birth, and nurturing your infant are obviously life-altering events. They're also body-altering events. Putting on weight, having your skin expand to accommodate a growing baby -- then getting the baby out, by pushing or c-section -- takes a toll. Just how do expectant and new moms feel about the changes? We wanted to know, and boy, did we get an earful from the more than 3,500 of you who filled out our survey.
First, the good news: The majority of our pregnant respondents feel great about themselves. Seventy-two percent of you like how you look pregnant. Further evidence that you're loving your pregnant body: 84 percent would pose for a maternity portrait, and 58 percent would wear a bathing suit in public.
Fast-forward to new motherhood, and the picture (for many) is decidedly different. The majority of our respondents don't want to look in the mirror or get on the scale and even wish they could afford plastic surgery. When asked, "Are you happy with your body?" the majority, 72 percent, answered with a resounding no.
Here are some sentiments we heard over and over:
Nor are many of you feeling terribly optimistic going forward. While 70 percent of pregnant women thought they would eventually get their body back with diet and exercise, that number fell to 34 percent among new moms. As one respondent said, "I feel like I have no control over my body and that I will never lose the weight I've gained."
"I'm not surprised at all by the optimism of the expectant mom or the discouragement of the new mom," says Margaret Howard, PhD, director of the Postpartum Day Hospital at Women & Infants Hospital, in Providence. "In general, women are excited -- and much less critical -- about their body when they're pregnant."
Once you have the baby, however, all that optimism is tempered by some daunting realities. To start, chances are your birth didn't go exactly as you had envisioned. Then, there's nothing like a newborn to make you feel not in control. "Take a colicky baby who's up around the clock, for instance," Howard says.
Perhaps the biggest letdown is your postbaby body. On top of the fact that you have no time to take care of yourself, most women have no clue as to what a postpartum body really looks like, says Pamela Peeke, MD, author of Body for Life for Women (Rodale, 2005). These days, pregnant women show off. But women with brand-new babies, even celebrities, often go into hiding. No one flaunts their in-between self. And it can't help that when celebrities do emerge with their new tots in glossy magazines, they're back in shape at six weeks. Ah, if only we all had trainers and chefs at our beck and call.
Unfortunately, the shock and disappointment of your postbaby figure, combined with exhaustion and a sense of powerlessness, can become a trap: The worse you feel about yourself, the harder it is to take action that will make you feel better. Here's how to find your way out of this vicious circle.
When men and women are shown figures of different body shapes and asked to choose the ideal female form, men pick a fuller figure than women, notes Ed Abramson, PhD, author of Body Intelligence (McGraw-Hill). Keep in mind, too, that the flaws you worry about may not be so apparent to the world at large. Loose skin, an attribute that many of our respondents complained about, is something few people notice, including your spouse. Indeed, most of our respondents said that their spouses liked their body and thought they obsessed too much about their weight.
Calling yourself fat or ugly will only make matters worse. "People who feel bad about themselves are not able to mobilize," says Ed Abramson, PhD, author of Body Intelligence (McGraw-Hill). "It's the people who feel good about themselves who are able to get out of a rut and make positive changes."
How can you ditch the negative inner monologue? Start by using more neutral language. Instead of calling your belly gross, just say it's larger than you'd like. Also try doing a "positive body scan": Look in the mirror and assess your physical features one by one. You're likely to realize the good outweighs the bad. You might say, "My thighs may be heavy, but I have nice eyes, great teeth, and elegant hands."
Here's how one respondent chose to look on the bright side: "On the one hand, I have stretch marks and a flabby stomach. But I also have fabulous biceps from carrying my baby. My arms have never looked so good."
Some postpartum women are so preoccupied with their baby, they won't put her down for a minute. As a result, they grab whatever's easiest. But convenient foods, like potato chips, don't tend to be healthy. Have nutritious foods at the ready by buying precut fruits and veggies and frozen grilled chicken strips. Whole-grain cereal and yogurt are easy to eat on the go as well. If you cut out 100 calories a day -- that's just three bites of a hamburger or a tablespoon of butter -- you'll be 10 pounds lighter a year from now.
"Women are consummate overeaters during times of stress," says Dr. Peeke. "They'll feel rotten and tired, but instead of getting sleep, they eat." Before you take a bite, ask yourself: Are you hungry, or tired?
Sleep will do more than keep you out of the fridge. "You need a minimum of four hours of straight sleep a night to function," says Dr. Peeke. "You've got to hand that baby over to your spouse, and say, 'Here's the baby. I'm taking a nap.' Women are so hesitant to do that." Jodi Zielinski, mother of 4-year-old Noa and pregnant with her second, in Montclair, New Jersey, says that when she and her husband went to their first well-baby checkup, the doctor took one look at her and said she was sleep-deprived, which wasn't good for her or the baby. The doctor recommended that she and her husband alternate nights being up with Noa so they both would have a turn at a good night's sleep. "I felt bad when he went to work exhausted, but being tired all day with a baby is awful, too," Zielinski says. "Getting more sleep made such a difference to my psyche."
In your prebaby life, you may have hit the gym three or four times a week; now the very idea is so unrealistic and overwhelming, you just want to flop onto the couch. Or maybe you never exercised much before and can't fathom starting now. Your new goal is to grab 10 minutes when you can to take a walk or hit the treadmill or do part of an exercise tape. "If you can find 10 minutes three times a day to take a vigorous walk with baby, you'll have burned 200 to 300 calories," says Dr. Peeke. Any bit of exercise you can manage will make you feel better once you're done, and you'll be more likely to do more the next day.
"There's a price you pay for having a baby. It may be wider hips or breasts that aren't as perky as they once were," says Dr. Peeke. "Wherever you end up, be happy." As one mom realized, "It's amazing what my body accomplished. I produced a baby!"
"One of the things new moms often say is 'Not only did I used to be in great shape, but I used to do my hair, put on makeup. Now I'm shuffling around in sweats and a ponytail,'" notes Margaret Howard, PhD, director of the Postpartum Day Hospital, in Providence. Obviously, being well groomed is not a high priority at this point in your life. But finding a little time for yourself -- to take a walk, get a pedicure -- will give you a much-needed lift.
Sasha Emmons, a Brooklyn, New York, mother of a 3-month-old, did three things. "On the weekends, when my husband was home, I took long, hot showers to make up for the 60-second ones I grabbed during the week. I would emerge feeling human again." She also headed outside for 15 minutes to get sun and fresh air, which made her feel more upbeat.
But the nicest thing Emmons did for herself was to attend a weekly Mommy and Me Yoga class and a new-moms' group. "It was a lot of effort to get out of the house but such a relief to meet other people who shared my world at that moment," she says. "It was also great to hear from the moms of older babies, that it would get easier."
"The biggest source of stress is unmet expectations," says Dr. Peeke. If you think you're going to pop right back into your prepregnancy jeans, think again. "You just went through a big physiological change," she says. "This isn't like taking off the 8 pounds you gained over the holidays." The good news is that if you eat carefully and get some exercise, you can expect the weight to come off reasonably quickly, say, within four to six months. If your expectations are realistic, you'll feel better about your progress -- and yourself.
Originally published in American Baby magazine, October 2005.