Not-so-shocking confession: pregnancy was the first time I committed to consistently prioritizing my health. Obviously I should have been doing this all along, and I probably would have had I been taught to view self-care not as an indulgence but as survival. I initially considered fully caring for myself permissible because I was keeping two people alive. Then it dawned on me that my body is always keeping me alive, and I'm just as important as my baby. Though I've readily sacrificed a lot for my child, the one thing I wasn't willing to sacrifice postpartum is listening to my body.
I was a smart, perceptive kid growing up, which meant that while I heard health teachers and parents talking to us about eating well and sleeping on time and all that, I observed them doing and valuing the exact opposite. I saw how all the women I knew were obsessed with their body shapes and sizes, and dieting to change them (or using self-deprecating humor to hide their still-obvious shame for not doing so). I knew they all went to bed after I did, and seeing them rely on coffee to survive the day strongly suggested they weren't really sleeping enough.
To me, unless someone was vomiting or had a really high fever, that didn't count as being “sick.” Likewise, unless a person had a bone sticking out, they weren't hurt. By those standards, it only made sense to tune out my body, because I couldn't trust what it was telling me (or rather, I'd learned not to respect what it had to say).
I saw how every adult I considered successful put way more emphasis on achievement than anything else, and knew the kinds of achievements they had started with success in school. The “sleep is for quitters” ethos they lived by was much more promoted by the culture than the little songs about health we learned in elementary school. For me, it quickly became clear that if all that “take care of your body” stuff came at the expense of getting the highest grades, doing respectable extracurriculars, and getting into a prestigious college — preferably while being thin and “pretty” — it wasn't really worth it.
Understandably, by the time I got older, I thought resting when I was tired or didn't feel well was just me being lazy. To me, unless someone was vomiting or had a really high fever, that didn't count as being “sick.” Likewise, unless a person had a bone sticking out, they weren't hurt. By those standards, it only made sense to tune out my body, because I couldn't trust what it was telling me (or rather, I'd learned not to respect what it had to say).
As a teenager, I actually managed to go several days with ruptured ovarian cysts before going to the hospital, because I kept telling myself I just was being “too sensitive” about my cramps — cramps it took me too long to realize I shouldn't have had, because I wasn't even having my period. In my unbelievably stressful first year of teaching, I actually got so overwhelmed and exhausted that I collapsed in my classroom before work and had to be rushed to the hospital. In the middle of a campaign I worked on a few years ago, I had a fever for over a day before noticing it because I was pushing so hard past it, trying to cover how crummy I felt with more and more coffee. Having a friend go white when they saw me because of how shabby I looked, then immediately say that they think I should go to a doctor, isn't the most flattered I've ever felt, but I'm grateful they were able to notice what I'd been ignoring.
Pregnancy and childbirth gave me a new perspective on my body — and life itself. Because I was so curious about everything that was happening with my baby, I started paying attention to every little sensation I felt, which inadvertently helped me stay more attuned to my own needs. I was consistently present and paying attention to how I felt in a way that I previously only did while in a particularly good yoga class.
More importantly, I also take my body seriously when it needs something
More than that, though, making life made me appreciate just how precious life is, and in a way that I’m almost embarrassed to admit I didn't really grasp before. The idea that eating, drinking, and resting enough made it possible for my body to make a brand-new person made me realize that my body is doing some pretty mind-blowing stuff all the time, and that I need to make sure I'm giving it all that it needs.
So while I'm not quite as vigilant as I was when I was pregnant — it's still hard to take 100 percent stellar care of yourself with a toddler running around on top of plenty of other responsibilities — I'm definitely much better about this than I was before having a baby. I don't ignore my fatigue anymore, or berate myself for being “lazy” when I'm actually just trying to do too much without resting enough. I try to be more realistic about what I can get done in a day, so that I don't have to push myself and/or my son into situations where we get stressed out and cranky.
I don't ignore my fatigue anymore, or berate myself for being “lazy” when I'm actually just trying to do too much without resting enough.
More importantly, I also take my body seriously when it needs something. I don't try to hold off on eating as long as possible so I can finish doing something else; I get to a reasonable stopping point and then grab a snack. If I'm feeling sluggish, I slow down and consider why, and figure out if it's possible to rest or nudge something off of my to-do list instead of trying to trudge through it. If something hurts, I go easy on myself instead of trying to will myself to deal with the pain so I can keep doing the same amount of stuff I normally do.
Listening to our bodies — and actually honoring what they tell us — shouldn't be a privilege we only get to “indulge” when we're pregnant, only to be expected to pop back up and give 200 percent again a few weeks later. It should be something we feel free to do all the time, because our health always matters.