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How Giving Birth Changed The Way I Felt About My Own Strength

Courtesy of Chaunie Brusie

I know many people think it's somehow supposed to ultimately be the "dream" to lose the baby weight after having kids, but to be honest, I'm over here like, nope, it's not happening. Despite my best efforts, I am no skinnier or smaller after having my fourth baby almost — gulp — two years ago. And for the most part, I am OK with that. What I am, however, is strong. I am the strongest I've ever been in my entire life, even before kids, and you know what? It feels amazing.

Honestly, it's kind of crazy because by society's standards, I'm definitely plumper than I'd personally like to be, but I am in so much better shape than I was before kids. I could barely do two push-ups before kids, and now I can do over 30. But more importantly, I'm learning so much about what it means to be strong, especially as a mother. I've learned that it's not about how you look, but more about how you feel. Before I had kids I assumed that physical strength came in neat and tidy packages and was measured by your ability to look a certain way while also being able to do 10 pull-ups or squat a certain number, but motherhood has taught me that true strength is about so much more.

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I started exercising a lot more seriously after my fourth baby was about 1 year old. After having her I was definitely unhappy with my body, but more than that I was unhappy with my mental state. I was overworked and overstressed, lamenting that I was stuck at home with my young kids when my heart felt like it wanted to be working more. I was struggling to fit a full-time work-at-home job into the fringe hours when my kids were asleep or rarely occupied. I was in that strange sort of limbo land that descends upon a person who's about to turn 30. I wondered what would come next in my life after doing the whole marriage-kids-house thing. What did I have left to look forward to?

Unlike other exercises I'd tried, lifting was an escape, a welcome reprieve from the constant vice grip that was living in my mind.

So I turned to lifting. I started trailing my much-younger and much-fitter sister to the gym, where she taught me some basics about squatting and lifting and I mostly awkwardly stalked other people to copy their moves for some variety. And almost instantly, I fell in love with everything about lifting weights.

Courtesy of Chaunie Brusie

Unlike other exercises I'd tried, lifting was an escape, a welcome reprieve from the constant vice grip that was living in my mind. A classic introvert and a writer to boot, I constantly feel like I am fighting a never-ending battle to just get out of my own freaking head 24/7. "Overthinking" and "overanalyzing" could certainly pass as my middle names, and it's absolutely exhausting to live like that. But with lifting, there is no thinking. There is just breathing and grunting and sweating and focusing on my next rep, the next set, the next exercise. You just keep going. Keep challenging yourself. For 45 minutes, my mind is blissfully blank. Even before the first day in the gym ended, I knew I was hooked.

And as I've continued my quest in the gym since my sister introduced me to lifting last fall, I'm still hooked. Just last night, my husband looked over my emerging quads and developing triceps and looked slightly horrified. "Um, honey," he said. "Those are getting kind of intense." I just laughed, because I have absolutely zero fear of getting bulky muscles. Honestly, I would love that. Because strength, I've learned, is nothing to be scared of.

On the occasions when I feel like I can't make it through the day with a sassy toddler or an angry preschooler, I take a moment to remember that I am strong — and then I keep going.
Courtesy of Chaunie Brusie

For all the times I've felt insignificant as a stay-at-home mom, my days consisting of endless diaper changes and laundry loads and pretending to get excited over reading the same book over and over again, and never, ever feeling good when I look in the mirror, the strength I've found in the gym builds me back up again.

I have stretch marks, saggy boobs, and a stomach that folds over my pants, but strangely enough, I am in better shape than I ever was with a 20-year-old body.

With every pound I add to my squat bar, with every extra push-up I do, with every new challenge I tackle, and with every new exercise I master, I feel like I've found a new strength inside of myself that I forgot existed. On those days when I'm struggling with everything expected of me — keeping a house, being an equal earner, organizing our family life, managing the finances, making sure my kids are cared for, and trying to wade through the immense sadness that seems to surround us at every turn — remembering that I've been able to grow in very literal, physical ways helps me. On the occasions when I feel like I can't make it through the day with a sassy toddler or an angry preschooler, I take a moment to remember that I am strong — and then I keep going.

I remember what I somehow lost after giving my body over to babies and breastfeeding and birth: that I am capable of so much more. Quite honestly, as a younger woman, I thought of my self-worth largely in terms of what my body looked like as opposed to what it could do. Today, I definitely don't look conventionally attractive in all the ways our society has taught us a woman is. I have stretch marks, saggy boobs, and a stomach that folds over my pants, but strangely enough, I am in better shape than I ever was with a 20-year-old body. The point is, as I'm growing older, it's been a learning curve to realize that my body doesn't exist for other people, but for myself.

And in the end, this isn't about how much I can lift or how heavy I can squat, as fun as those accomplishments can be. It's about realizing my own strength as a woman once again, in the gym and in myself.