"It will all be worth it" - the post-natal body of a mum with empty arms
This post is best read while listening to "Bluebird" by Alexis Ffrench.
"It will all be worth it, you'll see." I lost count of the times I was, reassuringly, told this, whilst pregnant with Luca and gaining weight at lightning speed. I - a 32-year-old woman with a complicated history with food, weight, and body image (which includes plunging into anorexia just as I was finishing secondary school) - was simply supposed to accept that my body was going to change, and change, and change, becoming larger and heavier and rounder, because once the baby was here, it would "all be worth it". Except, that baby never arrived in the way that myself and most people envisaged. Luca was found to be affected by a rare and lethal genetic disorder, and died at 26 weeks of gestation following the most impossible "decision" my husband and I ever had to make: terminating our much wanted pregnancy.
What was left of him, my first born child, was an urn with some ashes, memories that were sweet and harrowing in equal measure, and a body that no longer felt mine. A post-natal body. I had already lost one baby, before Luca, almost exactly a year earlier, to a missed miscarriage at nearly nine weeks. The first, incomprehensible, big trauma of my life, which left both my body and soul completely shattered. My body changed after my miscarriage, to the point that some of the people close to me worried about another eating disorder. Grief, loss, and isolation took their toll, leading me to eat very little, sleep even less, and lose a lot of weight. I guess in a way I was trying to "erase" the signs of my lost baby from my body, in any way I could - not eating seemed an easy enough option to me, and it worked. I jumped back into my Pilates classes, never discussed my pain with anyone except my husband, and developed serious anxiety attacks which accompanied me all the way to Christmas. I wanted for people to see that I was in great shape, and for no-one to ever imagine what my body had been through only a few months earlier, on a wet and chilly August morning. To this day, I'm not quite sure why I was so scared of letting the truth out, of voicing my grief, of discussing my loss and the physical and emotional pain it had generated. I chalk it up to the fact that losing my first baby so suddenly and unexpectedly shocked me to a degree I had never experienced before, and caused reactions and behaviours that I don't recognise as my own.
Then, I got pregnant with Luca. I had just started to feel better - in myself, in my body, in my mental health, in my life. I was eating healthily again, practising Pilates, going out with friends, and sleeping well. I had intense nausea in the first trimester - every single day, from about 6 to 14 weeks - which could only be placated by... well, eating! I didn't mind what it was, as long as it made the nausea go away for a bit: crackers, crisps, cheese, Nutella, biscuits, honey, granola. Not the healthiest choices, but, again "it will all be worth it". Surely enough, I put on quite a lot of weight pretty soon. However, finding out that Luca had almost certainly some very serious health issues when I was only 10 weeks into the pregnancy meant that I just didn't have the time or energy to focus on myself and my body. I kept eating, gorging on chocolate and ice cream in between scans, blood tests, biopsies, and many, many tears. "It will all be worth it", I continued to tell myself. "You're pregnant, all pregnant women eat a lot, they put on weight, then they lose it when the baby arrives. It's all part of the process, once Luca is here you'll forget about it and just focus on how amazing it will be to be his mum."
The morning sickness was "a good sign", the weight gain was "normal and worth it", the anxiety attacks were "pregnancy hormones". This is how I tried, so hard, to normalise a pregnancy that, pretty much right from the beginning, was simply not an ordinary one. Until the final diagnosis hit me like a tonne of bricks: Luca would not survive outside my womb, or if he did it would be for a very short time, in which he would be in a lot of pain. I was given this devastating news at 24 weeks of gestation, when my body had already changed so much that it was absolutely impossible to hide my enlarged breasts, my big bump, my swollen feet. At 26 weeks, I was admitted to the hospital, administered drugs to kick start the induction process, went through seven hours of active labour, and delivered my beautiful, stillborn son. The words I kept repeating during those incredibly painful hours were: "This is all for nothing. This pregnancy, this pain, all for nothing." I must have said that a dozen times to my husband, who gently tried to calm me down.
I left the hospital with a body that clearly screamed "I'VE JUST GIVEN BIRTH" but no baby to show for it. No baby to make it all worthwhile. No baby to make me feel what I thought I was, but not many other people could see: a mother. No baby to hold in my arms, look after, and love endlessly. Luca was stillborn during one of the hottest London summers I can remember, which meant I was wearing short, light dresses that left a lot of flesh on show. When you are already hating yourself for "deciding" to end your unborn child's life, I can assure you that looking at the mirror and seeing your heavy, large, squidgy post-natal body is infuriating. It just adds a layer of unease, frustration, and confusion to an already pretty fucked up situation. The midwives gave me tablets to stop my milk from coming out, which I guess helped a little as at least I wasn't faced with the traumatic experience of a baby-less lactation. I wanted to reach out to myself and to my body, because I couldn't reach out to my son, whose ashes were placed in an urn inside a small glasshouse in our living room - his "secret garden". I wanted to get back to eating good food, being active, going out. But I couldn't. It's not THAT simple. Even if my baby died, I still carried him for six months, I still went through labour and delivery, I was still bleeding, very hormonal, and a lot heavier than before. I still had a bump - a small one, but noticeable enough for people to give up their seats on public transport.
My first step towards reconnecting to myself and my body was to look for post-natal exercise classes. It wasn't long before I realised that pretty much all of those in my area, or those I could afford, involved bringing your newborn or bond with other new mums over tea and cake that would be served after each class. I could picture the awkward conversations: "Oh, hi! My name's Mary, my baby is three months old, how about you?" "Hi, I'm Sara, my baby died five weeks ago." Fuck that. Luckily, my wonderful mother in law has a friend who is also a very well respected Pilates teacher and runs her own studio in Central London. She and the other instructor knew everything that had happened to me, and gave me gentle, personalised one-to-one lessons until my maternity leave pay dropped and I no longer could afford them. Back to looking at cheaper, local classes. Back to finding absolutely nothing suitable. Back to doing online post-natal classes on YouTube, only to press "Pause" on my laptop and cry whenever the airbrushed instructor mentioned anything to do with "your new life with baby". My body wasn't changing back. The weight wasn't going down. My muscles were floppy, weak, soft. My breasts went back to their tiny size. None of my pre-pregnancy clothes fit anymore, so I had to keep wearing maternity ones - except doing so made me resent my body even more and feel almost like a fraud. I also started losing hair - A LOT. In the bath, entire chunks would come off by simply running my hand or a comb through it. My luscious, thick pregnancy (and pre-pregnancy, even) hair had all gone. My period, on the other hand, returned. During those first few weeks, I kept asking myself: "What was the point of everything? Getting pregnant a second time, losing a baby a second time, losing myself and my body, struggling to know who the hell I am now." During those first few weeks, I kept looking at myself in the mirror and feeling like my body had not only failed my son - it was failing me. I couldn't seem to control it anymore, to steer it towards the right direction, to love it and be patient with it. Only now do I realise that I was grieving two losses - the loss of Luca, and the loss of a body it had taken me so long to build a positive relationship with.
A little over two months after having Luca, I unexpectedly fell pregnant again. Now, I am almost 29 weeks into this third, highly scary, but apparently "healthy" pregnancy, and I have acquired a hybrid mix of post-natal and pregnancy body: I weigh 20 kgs (44lbs) more than when I got pregnant with Luca, my breasts are very large, and my muscles are incredibly weak and under-worked. I suffer from pains and aches that I didn't have in my previous pregnancies, and I'm pretty sure most of them are due to the fact that my body is so exhausted from not having any time off in nearly two years.
However, I'm doing my best to shift my perspective and look at myself with more indulgent, patient, compassionate eyes. I don't always like - or even recognise - what I see in the mirror, but I have decided to simply let go. Let go of my body consciousness, of my own harsh criticisms, of any sort of punishment. I have even enrolled in a birth preparation yoga course - I am sick and tired of keeping this new body of mine on lockdown, just because I'm afraid of what other women might think. I am prepared - because it has already happened - for people to comment that, surely, this time "it will all be worth it". The severe nausea I had with this third baby, the excessive weight gain, the extra worries, the sleepless nights. But can they read the future and really, I mean REALLY, assure me that this baby will be born, alive and well, and that what my body has been through in the past two years will finally be "worth it"? Perhaps, not everything has to be worth it. Perhaps. sometimes, all we need to do is take a step back, appreciate that after all we're still here, still standing, still alive, still smiling. And that it's about time we stopped treating ourselves like showrooms for the craving eyes of a society that simply doesn't understand how women's bodies ACTUALLY work, and started looking at them like the wondrous, powerful, ever-changing companions of a lifetime of adventures - some amazing, others devastating. In the midst of it all, our bodies will always be there for us, so we'd better be there for them, too.