Recently, Beyoncé’s postpartum photo, featuring her standing with her beautiful twins, went viral, causing all of us postpartum mothers to gape in total awe. She is glowing, and from the viewpoint of the photograph, it looks as though her body has generally bounced back to its pre-pregnancy state. Many of us know a few mothers who have somehow just stepped back into their pre-pregnancy bodies. While I am happy for them, I cannot actually relate. And if you are reading this, then I suspect that you, dear postpartum mom, cannot either.
For many of us who have given birth, our bodies have simply changed, never to revert again back to their old forms. Where it may have once been flat, there may be curves. What was once taut may now be soft and squishy. There might be lots of stretchmarks, indentations, plumpness and sagging. This is, frankly, the thing of nightmares for many of us; in fact, one survey found that 64 percent of mothers reported increased body image difficulties postpartum. It is the target of the famous “mommy makeover,” an expensive whole-body plastic surgery approach to undo many of these postpartum body changes. In short, women may feel the need to go to great lengths to prevent the oft-dreaded “mombod.” But for a moment, let’s consider that this does not have to be the case.
For many of us who have wanted a baby for so long, the arrival of that baby can be a truly miraculous experience. We know that having a new baby typically means countless sleepless nights, struggles with breastfeeding, postpartum mood changes, strain on a marriage, and extraordinary expenses of having a child. Still, I’ll bet that if we discovered a time machine that would allow moms an opportunity to go back in time and avoid having that child, most moms would decline it. Why? Because despite the hardships associated with motherhood, the birth of a child is something to be celebrated.
However, when a child is born, a mother (and a father) is also born. The mother shifts her identity, her roles on this earth, her views of herself, and her relationship to others. While this transition is often far more difficult than what she may have initially anticipated, the reality is that this new identity is an incredible and powerful one. And along with that emotional shift, there is also a physical one: the shift to a new, and quite beautiful, postpartum body.
Many people feel societal pressures to have children. Incredibly and ironically, this very same society (and unfortunately, sometimes even our own partners, husbands, friends, or parents) views the typical postpartum body as an undesirable one. Such messages are sent to us repeatedly, which can result in our internalizing that message and accepting it as truth. Thus a postpartum mother might look at her new body and feel a deep sense of sadness, shame or even disgust. But the reality is that once a mother has given birth, her whole life – and her body – has taken on a new, incredible shape. This, I believe, is something to be celebrated and embraced.
For these reasons, over the course of my work with hundreds of postpartum mothers, a major point of focus is often the unhappiness around the postpartum bodily changes. Mothers will frequently tend to become self-critical of their bodies. They love the bonding that they have while nursing, but then lament the changes in their breasts afterwards. Many admire their bodies for having expanded to accommodate a growing baby, but will then feel dissatisfied with the stretchmarks where their bellies grew. Some might even feel so worried about weight gain that they may consider restricting their caloric intake during pregnancy or postpartum to avoid it. We spend time validating their concerns, understanding and exploring why they may feel the way they do, and ultimately, finding ways to appreciate and love their new bodies.
Fortunately, there seems to be a positive movement throughout society towards acceptance of one’s postpartum body changes. The Honest Body Project, for example, aims to demonstrate the beauty of real postpartum bodies through photography. Some mothers, many of whom are fed up with the societal pressures to regain their pre-pregnancy bodies, have bravely photographed and publicly shared their own postpartum bodily changes. And the work of Spanish artist Zinteta recently gained popularity once she started using artistic methods to teach women to embrace their new bodies.
The changes in your postpartum life can feel completely overwhelming, and your new body might feel unrecognizable. However, as your settle into the new parts of your identity, it’s important to remember that body image issues can play a major role in your confidence and self-esteem. Acceptance of your postpartum body is a powerful step, one that can signify self-compassion as you embark on this incredible motherhood journey.