By Dina Cohen, MS RDN CEDRD
The hand that rocks the cradle is the hand that rules the world. – William Ross Wallace
Welcome to motherhood! The phrase above is beautiful, but powerful is the last thing you may feel when you are exhausted and have a thousand things to do and you are STILL rocking that cradle trying to get your infant to sleep. Your house looks like a war zone, you have no idea why your baby is crying, and you can’t remember the last time you had a moment to yourself. You don’t feel like you rule the world; you feel like crawling into bed and blocking out the chaos around you.
In 2017, Kate Middleton spoke publicly about the challenges of parenthood. In an effort to educate the public about mental health and well-being during pregnancy and postpartum, she talked about her personal experiences after childbirth.
“Nothing can really prepare you for you the sheer overwhelming experience of what it means to become a mother. It is full of complex emotions of joy, exhaustion, love and worry all mixed together. Your fundamental identity changes overnight.” She emphasized that being a new mother is challenging even for those who have plenty of help and support, and she addressed “the pressure to be a perfect parent ― pretending we’re all coping perfectly and loving every minute of it. It is right to talk about motherhood as a wonderful thing, but we also need to talk about its stresses and strains. It’s OK not to find it easy, and asking for help should not be seen as a sign of weakness.”
But weakness is exactly what many women feel when faced with immense pressure to bounce back. The societal mindset that is making you think you should look and feel like nothing ever happened is utterly disrespectful to the miracle that’s just occurred. It’s like there’s this insidious whisper, “Let’s pretend this never happened.” You had a BABY, not a virus! But sadly, because of this pressure, many women experience guilt when they don’t feel strong right away, when the reality is that it may take a woman’s body many months to recover from pregnancy and childbirth. The cultural pressure to immediately lose the baby weight leads to increased body image dissatisfaction, which has been consistently associated with both prenatal and postpartum depression.
When you feel overwhelmed and afraid of this unfamiliar territory, it is so understandable that you’d want to feel some semblance of normalcy. It makes sense that you’d want to feel like you have all it together. But tempting as it may seem sometimes, working to “get your body back” will not be your magic solution. It will drain you of time, energy, and head space, things which are more precious now than ever.
In their book Mom in the Mirror, Dr. Dena Cabrera and Emily T. Wieranga point out, “Anxiety destroys the very bonds that make life worth living. Your children don’t need a mother who looks great or does great things. They need a mother who feels great. Otherwise they’ll think they’re constantly disappointing you – a belief that will lead them to self-abusive behaviors…”
You need to feel good to be a good mother. This means doing whatever you can to try and get good nutrition, appropriate exercise (that rejuvenates rather than exhausts you), as much sleep as is possible in your situation, and pockets of time to yourself. Getting good nutrition does not mean going on a diet. It means eating in a way that is adequate and enjoyable and provides you with energy. It means self-care, not deprivation. A new mother who is deprived of nourishment and who feels compelled to complete an intense fitness regimen when she’s already depleted in so many ways is not a good vehicle for nurturing a new life. But a mother with good boundaries who can recognize herself as an independent being with her own needs can be wonderful caretaker. Here are some ways to help you feel good both inside and out:
1) Surround yourself with plenty of nutritious foods. Even though you are no longer pregnant, there is still a life inside you that needs nourishment. Ensuring plenty of fruits and vegetables, sufficient protein and whole grains, three servings of dairy, and healthy fats from nuts, fish, and oils can help you meet your needs. If you are able to nurse your baby, know that you will be providing innumerable health benefits to both of you (such as decreased cancer risk for mom and healthier immune system for baby), and also know that you need even more fuel now than you did during pregnancy. Focus on getting in foods that are dense in nutrients, as your requirements for protein and numerous vitamins and minerals are increased. If you skimp on meals and snacks, your intake of essential nutrients will be correspondingly low, and this can have an impact on your baby. Several nutrients related to infant neurological development vary according to maternal intake. These include vitamins A, B-6, B-12, and folate, iodine and selenium, and fatty acids. Women who decrease their calories to levels recommended by many diet programs tend to experience a decrease in milk volume.
2) Eat when you are hungry and stop when you are satisfied. Take a lesson from your baby. Listening out for and responding appropriately to your body’s signals helps support a healthy weight. Keep in mind that occasionally forgetting to bring a snack along with you when you’re out for a while, or eating past the point of fullness on occasion is not the end of the world. It’s what you do most of the time that matters.
3) Utilize physical activity to help you feel better. When you are cleared for exercise by your doctor, consider which activities will make you feel energized and more at home in your body. If you are overwhelmed by your daily tasks, remember that this is not an all-or-nothing proposition. A 10 -minute walk can still help you feel better and is beneficial to your health. Also remember that exercise isn’t disappearing. If you don’t feel up to focusing on getting regular physical activity right now, move in a way that feels good to you when the opportunity arises and know that exercise will always be there for you at a time when it makes more sense for you.
4) Trust your body to arrive at a weight that is healthy for you. Your body has its own timeline. Some women are genetically wired to fit into their pre-pregnancy clothes shortly after giving birth. Most women do not have this experience. Your job right now is to support your body with nutritious food and enjoyable movement, just as that’s your job at any time in life. Counting calories does not have to be part of that job description. Your body is smart; tune in to what it is saying and give it the respect it deserves. Treat your body like you’d treat a good friend – with kindness and consideration.
5) Don’t be afraid to ask for help, and accept it graciously when it is provided. There are many ways that others can help out during this challenging time. If you pride yourself on being independent, you may discover that independence is overrated at this particular point in time. We weren’t meant to do this alone. Allowing family and friends to help with tasks such as food shopping and meal prep can free you up for some of the most basic elements of self-care: sleep, nutrition, and exercise.
Keep in mind that it while it is normal to feel overwhelmed and overly emotional during the first few weeks after delivery, it is not ok to experience persistent feelings of intense anxiety, sadness, irritability, or guilt. As many as 11-20% of women suffer from postpartum depression, a serious but extremely treatable condition. If you are struggling, do not hesitate to get a referral to a mental health professional. (You can get a referral from your medical provider or from a referral agency). The sooner you get help, the more time you’ll have to enjoy your baby as a healthier and happier mother.