When I was pregnant, I fully expected to give birth and then be back to *normal* after six weeks. Back to exercise, back to intimacy, back to getting fully dressed, and back to feeling more myself. I think it’s an expectation that a lot of us have in this country, perhaps because that’s when we receive our health check from the doctor?
For context, I’ve always been fit, healthy, and active. So why would it take me any longer to recover. Right?
So imagine my surprise that after giving birth to a huge 9.5lb baby and having stitches, I turned up to my six week check only to be asked about the baby (he’s good), how I was feeling (OK, I think? I was hoping you could tell me?), and if I’d thought about contraception (well, I am terrified of my vagina, and I haven’t slept so I think that’s the biggest protection against sex I’ve ever had!). That was it.
“Don’t you check the stitches? I’m quite worried in general as I’ve been suffering from both kinds of incontinence actually”, I said sheepishly. “There’s no need to check and that’s perfectly normal after childbirth’, the Doctor replied, and he moved swiftly on to Alfie.
I felt invisible. I’ve since found out the majority of women are not checked whether they give birth vaginally or via C-Section, which seems crazy. I’ve had two operations before and I had regular follow-ups and checks after both of these, and I naively presumed it would be the same after giving birth.
During my pregnancy I suffered from really bad pelvic girdle pain, so I had been going to see a private pelvic health physiotherapist called Marta Kinsella, so I decided I’d better go and see her again for a physical check because I needed some reassurance.
“You have rectocele”, Marta told me, “Which is a prolapse of your rectum. You also have scar tissue building up around the stitches, so you need to massage that area. You’ve got a 3cm tummy gap, you have piles… Oh and your pelvic floor is very weak, are you doing your exercises? Don’t worry, I will help you and despite what people think, none of this is permanent. It’s just part of your recovery. Do not go back to sex or running, you will do more damage.”
I was shocked. I had heard about prolapse happening to older women, but I didn’t know it happened to young women like me! I didn’t know how important pelvic floor exercises were in preventing them. Apparently, we should start strengthening our pelvic floor when we are teenagers. Why did no one teach us any of this?
But I also felt relief. Relief that someone told me exactly what was going on “down there” and that it wasn’t permanent. I knew what to do to recover.
And then I felt angry. What about all the women who couldn’t afford pelvic health physios? The more I started to talk to women the more I realised the system was failing us. And they were getting away with it because most people are too embarrassed to talk about it.
If you are reading this, perhaps suffering with pain or discomfort, or piles, or incontinence, let me say this to you: there is nothing to be embarrassed about. You are recovering from childbirth. It’s not permanent and you can get better. Go see a pelvic health physiotherapist or push for a physical check. It is your right.
When I entered the world of prolapse, piles, and poor pelvic health, it made me feel angry that the only narrative around postpartum bodies in the media is around weight loss. Losing the baby weight. Bouncing back. It made me feel so angry. Our bodies have just done this absolutely incredible and miraculous thing and the world only cares if we look like we haven’t had a baby.
It also just shows what a fatphobic society we live in. We aren’t even given the grace to recover from childbirth, raise a baby, and try and stay afloat with our new way of life without people judging our bodies.
Before having a baby, I had felt body confident for a good few years. I realised that cellulite is common, stretch marks are normal and in fact all our perceived flaws are what makes our bodies beautiful and unique. When we walk down the beach, we are not judging women’s bodies. Beauty is not just one body shape. And happiness is certainly not achieved from shrinking ourselves.
I loved watching my pregnant body grow and change, and I loved witnessing my postnatal body adapt to motherhood. Having a belly so squishy it made the perfect home for my baby to cuddle. Being able to feed my baby with my body. Being able to move again without the constraints of having a bump. I love seeing my stretch marks - they feel like little tattoos from mother nature to commemorate how my body grew my baby.
But despite all that, it didn’t feel like my body - it was like being in a stranger’s. But I did not feel confident. Not necessarily because of how I looked. But because I was terrified of my body letting me down. My bladder giving out. Not making it to the bathroom.
It makes me so sad that women are going through all of this behind the scenes. That and all the blocked milk ducts, the battles to up your milk supply, the potential mastitis and the sleep deprivation - and yet society seems to only discuss the bounce back.
I just want to assure you that it takes up to a year for your bones to move back in to place. It took nine months for your body to grow into a home for your baby. You even grew a whole extra organ - how crazy is that? And your body can recover in its own time.
If you are feeling a lack of confidence do me a favour - follow women of all shapes and sizes online. Unfollow anyone who makes you feel bad about yourself. Throw away any clothes that don’t fit (or at least store them out of your wardrobe) and invest in some lovely new clothes in your new size. You are not made to fit into clothes, clothes are meant to fit into you. And be proud of your body for everything it has done. It might feel strange for now, but it has done so much for you and it deserves love and respect.
I want so much for the narrative about the postnatal body to change. I want to smash down the taboos and shame around our recovery so that we don’t feel so alone. So we know that what we are going through is normal. And so that people know what we might be going through so they can support us. I want our healthcare system to offer free pelvic health checks as they do in France and Germany. And I want our education system to start teaching us about our bodies.
And finally, I want you to know what you are going through is normal and to reach out for support if you need it. It’s OK if you don’t feel ready to do things at six weeks. You are still so early in your recovery. And if I can offer one bit of advice, it’s please please take photographs of yourself and your baby no matter how you think you look. Because you will look back and realise that the way your body looked is the least important thing.