After you give birth, what remains of the happy, striving, pregnant person you once were? For me, it wasn’t the healthy eating habits (as soon as my baby worked up a full-throated cry, kale was out, and chocolate was in), and it definitely wasn’t the occasional massage therapy (which, God knows, I couldn't afford to begin with). Sadly, that glow in your cheeks quickly fades, and even your hair stages a dramatic escape from your head a few months in.
What stayed with me was swimming. Not the strength I used to feel — my first day back in the water, I flopped like a convalescing fish — and certainly not the speed or grace, but the familiar feeling of slicing through waves, one hand before the other. Over time, those deep breaths and stroke counts helped integrate a scattered mother back into her strange-new-world of a body.
Though I didn't realize it, I'd laid important groundwork during pregnancy. Every single day, I had hit that water knowing the exercise was good for my baby. As soon as I was cleared after giving birth, I hit the waters off Honolulu again: not for my baby, but for me. In some strange way, the comforting motions helped to bridge that gap between pregnancy's impossible dreams and the crushing reality of life with a newborn. From Postpartum Island, to the rest of my life.
I found solace in repetitive water movement after my life had been turned inside out, and upside down.
Why was it so hard to feel myself again, after having my baby? And how could the ritual of old, familiar movements help so much?
In France, women receive 10 to 20 sessions of perineal re-education, explains Adriana Lozada, postpartum educator and host of the Birthful podcast, in an interview with Romper. She emphasizes the phrasing: re-education. Because the muscles, ligaments, and tendons that once held your baby deflate after delivery, part of your recovery lies in teaching them to reconnect.
"Say you’re doing a tree pose,” she explains. "How do we make the pose more challenging? By closing your eyes, and standing on your tiptoes." In the dark, you disconnect from your muscles, and have to focus to re-engage them. It's challenging, and a little scary. "That’s a little bit of what happens after giving birth with your core and with your pelvis. It was in such a different state that you have to mindfully reconnect it."
For Lozada, you don't need to jump back into exercise to re-educate the crucial center of your body. In fact, one of the best ways to begin healing and connect with your core after birth, Lozada says, is with deep, diaphragmatic breathing. This makes meditation a great pregnancy ritual to cultivate, for the sake of your future, postpartum self. It's also another reason why I found solace in repetitive water movement after my life had been turned inside out, and upside down.
Muscle memory — a concept familiar with athletes — is a form of "procedural memory," explained Adam Lachis in an article on Lifehacker. Essentially, the brain encodes movements — your golf swing, your cross-country ski technique, guitar chords — over time through repetition, so that those movements become easier, seemingly more effortless.
But can this concept help new mothers?
Women don't always know what to expect from postpartum life, or how long recovery will take, Laura Arndt, a trainer and CEO of Matriarc, a postpartum recovery app, tells Romper. And not knowing can be deeply frustrating. Arndt encourages women to stay active during pregnancy (and indeed, throughout life) in part because those that do recover more quickly after giving birth.
"In my experience, if you start to feel better and see results, that’s motivation to keep going," she says. "But if it’s really difficult all the time, that’s motivation to quit. So I think the women who are lucky enough to have some muscle memory probably have a better experience when they get back to it."
Physically, the knowledge kicks in, but you'll remember psychologically and emotionally, too.
When you're learning a new activity, your brain has to sync up with your body, she says. "The more often you do it, though, you recruit muscle fibers until your body becomes more efficient at it. That means it's a learned practice. So even when you take time off, when you go back, your body remembers." Physically, the knowledge kicks in, but you'll remember psychologically and emotionally, too. Whatever practice you choose might even help you start feeling more like yourself, and keep you from feeling totally at sea.
"When I run, the rest of the world seems to melt away — my body just responds (most of the time, anyway)," explains Dr. Carly Snyder, a perinatal and reproductive psychiatrist and mother of three, in an interview with Romper. Before conceiving her third child, Snyder had been pregnant with twins, but tragically lost the pregnancy. Running became a respite for her in a time of life that often felt out of control. "I would run and cry, allowing my grief to wash over me without worrying that my kids would see me and be worried," she says.
When you're pregnant and even after, it can be hard to feel safe within your own body. Snyder remembers a wonderful run in Central Park, after her third pregnancy, shot through with a moment of fear. Was she running too fast? Weren't her pregnancy runs usually much slower? Terrified she might have lost that pregnancy, too, she put her hands on her chest, to feel for tell-tale tenderness. "I must have looked a bit nuts to any onlookers, but I needed to know that my pregnancy was OK. Relief washed over me and I continued to run like the wind, that much happier knowing that at least for the short-run, I could still run as I had pre-pregnancy and keep this pregnancy," she says. "My body was working for me in every way and it was magical."
Postpartum, that feeling that she could know and understand her body through the familiar motions of running remained. Today, she runs to calm herself, and to feel reassured of all that she is capable of.
"From the moment of conception, from the moment a woman is told she’s pregnant, this whole idea of maternal preoccupation happens," explains Dr. Venus Mahmoodi, a psychologist and specialist in maternal mental health at the Seleni Institute, in an interview with Romper. "It’s this very obsessive experience, where you’re sitting there imaging what your baby looks like, what your baby’s going to be like ... and how you’re going to give birth." You also spend a lot of time imagining how you'll be as a mother, and when postpartum reality doesn't match up with expectations, it's often distressing, Mahmoodi says.
Mahmoodi stresses that every mother is unique, but that for many, there's a period of adjustment during which they feel a powerful sense of incompetence. After all, learning to care for a baby presents a pretty steep learning curve. Some women regain a sense of competence from going back to work, she explains, because it's familiar, and gives them a sense of self-efficacy. Other women find the same feeling in reconnecting with friends, or pursuing an activity reserved for them alone.
"A lot of women say, I don’t feel like myself," says Mahmoodi. "I’m just a milk machine. Then we think, is there a period of time when you’re able to find a caregiver and do something that’s all about you? Where you can feel like yourself?"
Allowing even one aspect of your old identity to take root and flourish again, she says, can positively impact maternal mental health and mood.
During the postpartum period, I remember groping around in the dark, desperate to discover what kind of mother I'd be. Luckily, there were some pillars, ruins of an old life, still standing: my partner, my writing, and the slowly returning strength I found in the water. In retrospect, I do wish I'd been less hard on myself, less eager for every bit of fitness to instantly return. We live in an impatient culture, but patience is everything you need in the tricky post-birth months.
All our lives, explains Lozada, women are taught to hunt, pursue, and do. In the months after a new baby, it can be difficult, then, to simply be, and to accept yourself for where you are, patiently.
"I think the best place to start is with gratitude to your body, regardless of aesthetics,” she says. "Your body created, and sustains, life. If you start with that, you can build upon that body positive relationship, over time."
And of course, quite amazingly, no matter how slowly it goes or how difficult it feels, you're building new muscle memories in caring for your baby. Now that my brain has synced up with the actions of cuddling, feeding, strolling, and cleaning up the high chair, they're not the challenge that they used to be. Like swimming, they've become part of the soothing beat of my every day.
Check out Romper's new video series, Bearing The Motherload, where disagreeing parents from different sides of an issue sit down with a mediator and talk about how to support (and not judge) each other’s parenting perspectives. New episodes air Mondays on Facebook.