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The aftermath: navigating the postpartum journey

If I described myself in three words, they’d be fat, ugly and boring. It hasn’t always been like this but having a baby has blown my interior world right open, my exterior similarly discombobulated. With so much focus on the run-up to the birth, I was woefully unprepared for what comes after.

Once I’d got over the first-trimester sickness, I enjoyed being pregnant. It was a privilege having my passenger on board, and I miss seeing the shape of his foot dance across my stomach. I did my best to stay healthy while isolated from friends and family due to Covid-19 lockdown restrictions. I walked most days, did pregnancy yoga via Zoom, chanted hypnobirthing affirmations in the bath, completed an online parenting course, wrote a birth plan, and squeezed my pelvic floor each time I remembered.

Then the Big Day arrived. I got an epidural, and my body performed a miracle.

And then the real work began.

Once we’ve given birth, the baby takes centre stage and the mothers fade into the background, expected to meet our torn-apart bodies and raging hormones with equanimity. We’re built to do this. We’re the lucky ones. And some do manage to take it in their stride, but those of us who don’t often feel like failures, guilty that we’re not adept at doing this job that’s supposed to come naturally to us.

Lockdown didn’t help, the rules limiting visits from healthcare professionals and forcing mimed hugs from friends on doorsteps. My partner is a key worker, so I was alone for 12-hour stretches at a time. My parents, who live abroad, have yet to meet their grandson.

Accepting my postpartum body has been an unexpected challenge. I exercised throughout my pregnancy and assumed that once my son was born, I’d be back in my jeans in no time. However my still-round stomach spills over the suffocating waistband of my jeans, which I tried on each week in a ritual that became an act of self harm. I weighed myself too, until my partner took the batteries out of the scale.

I’m also befuddled by thick fog that’s wrapped itself around my brain, impinging on my ability to form coherent sentences. When my partner comes home with stories from his day, I struggle to offer anything in return – also because my world has become so much smaller. Once upon a time I travelled to dangerous places, but now my destinations are infinitesimal moments like the pressure of a tiny finger curled around mine, or the sight of a perfect set of eyelashes silhouetted by a fleeting ray of sunlight.

I joined Mother Time’s post-pregnancy yoga class when my son was three-months old. I felt like I’d come up for air after the intensity of the fourth trimester, and Mother Time’s mission to create a space for mothers resonated after so much time alone.

At our first session, my son peered at the other babies that materialised on my computer screen – the first he’d seen since he was born – and I scrutinised the other mothers. Were they happy? Getting any sleep? Or were they fat, ugly and boring too?

Claire Whitman, our yoga teacher, begins each class with an opportunity for us to share how we’re feeling. I kept quiet for the first few sessions, unable to articulate such profundity of emotion over Zoom to perfect strangers. But then, one morning, with my son perched on my lap, I did. It came out in a torrent I hardly remember. When I finished, there was a long silence. For a moment I thought I’d overstepped the mark.

Turns out I hadn’t.

‘Well...I also thought I’d be in better shape by now…’

‘My mother is really thin, so I have that pressure too…’

‘It’s my stomach…’

‘I feel bad thinking this way…’

‘I’ve booked some help for an afternoon a week – but I feel like a failure for doing so…’

‘I wear earplugs when I sleep…’

If only I’d been handed an aftercare manual for mothers when I limped out of that post-natal ward – an expertly curated resource of information that would have answered questions I’d yet to ask. Google is not your friend when you’re sleep-deprived and vulnerable. Social media is even worse.

I’d love to have enjoyed a series of appointments with health visitors that focused on me as much as my baby: exploring how I feel about my new identity as a mother; assessing my diet; checking my weight; monitoring my iron levels; schooling me on sleep cycles and regressions rather than being told to ‘get more sleep’; caring for my mental health through conversation rather than assessed by a tick-box questionnaire; understanding the perils of cortisol and the impact it has on the body.

All this information could be packaged up in an affordable and accessible course supported by private initiatives such as Mother Time. Some may cite budget as an issue, but having this knowledge could mitigate cases of postnatal depression and eating disorders, for example, later on.

As I pick through the rubble, I’m still fat, ugly and boring. But I also hear the tinkle of laughter, the chink of pint glasses meeting on a sunny day, and the thrust of voices shouting over too-loud music. I’m what I was and what I am – and have the opportunity to shape what I will be. With the right tools, I can rebuild myself better, both physically and emotionally. I’m a mother who wants to take the best care of her child, which means taking better care of myself too.

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