The ribbon retractors glint in the harsh OR lights as I pull back abdominal skin, fat and muscle to reveal the pearly white fascial layer. My colleague dives his arced needle through the fibrous connective tissue, running the suture along the incision, closing the hole, bite by bite. From the anesthetist’s speaker, an eclectic array of Pop 40 and classic rock music drifts through the otherwise quiet operating room. At the head of the OR table, on the other side of the blue drape, soft murmurs of wonder emit from the lips of the new parents whose lives were forever changed when their newborn was gently pulled from the mother’s womb. It’s the Friday morning scheduled c-section at the Meno Ya Win Health Centre and the case is proceeding routinely. As usual, the scrub nurse, my physician colleague and I chitchat as we work; the conversation drifts from grandkids, recent trips and to upcoming concerts in Winnipeg. At our small hospital in Northwestern Ontario, our personal lives are intertwined with our work; one of the best, and sometimes most challenging aspects of living and working in a small, isolated community.
As we chatter about our lives outside of the hospital walls, the scrub nurse eventually inquires as to how I have been doing lately. Just six months prior, in the same very hospital, I had had the immense privilege of creating a new family for our close friends as a surrogate when I delivered a perfect baby girl named Claire. After reassuring the nurse that I was well, and that Claire and our dear friends, Amy and Adam were also thriving, the scrub nurse went on to comment how I had so quickly ‘bounced back’ from Claire’s birth. Of course her comments were incredibly kind and well-intentioned, however, in that moment, like an opening reel to a film, hundreds of raw images flashed through my mind: me struggling to even sit up, so freshly post-partum; me tearfully realizing my inability to fasten my snowpants; me switching off my 5am alarm morning after morning to drag myself to the gym; me glaring angrily at the wall-sized gym mirrors, casting back my doughy reflection; me cursing and struggling into my pre-pregnancy jeans… It seemed almost comedic that my so-called ‘Bounce Back’ had apparently appeared effortless when in fact, it could not have been any further from reality.
In the months in which Claire had became my constant in-utero companion, my body had naturally softened and stretched in all of the ways that a woman’s body shifts in its efforts to host a growing life. Prior to Claire taking up residence in my uterus, I had been working diligently to regain my strength after having given birth to my own two children. Growing and giving birth to Claire will forever be a part of our family’s story and will be an experience that I truly will treasure forever. Although I will never regret my decision to help Adam and Amy become a beautiful family of three, I would be lying to say that the months that followed Claire’s departure from my body were days without adversity.
I am certain that, although I cannot truthfully speak for every post-partum woman, there are very few new Moms out there who truly revel in the wake of one’s physical self after giving birth. Stretchmarks, jiggling bellies, maternity pads, painfully engorged breasts, hemorrhoids and the true feeling of fear that one experiences when going to the bathroom for the first time. These war wounds, however, are usually negated by the finest eyelashes that you have ever laid eyes on, the impossibly minuscule toenails, those first incredulous smiles and the continuous and overwhelming sense of wonder that you cannot help feeling when you gaze into the face of your newborn. Who will she grow up to be? What will he look like as a teen? Who will be her first love? What will fuel his future passions? Despite the tortuous, sleepless nights and wreckage of one’s post-partum body, there is nothing sweeter in the world than snuggling your baby close.
Sadly, in the months following Claire’s birth, I secretly dragged around a sense of humiliation about the status of my post-partum body. Because there was no beautiful newborn to deflect my attention, it became a daily internal struggle. My delusion also extended to everyone around me. I assumed that in every encounter, people were quietly critiquing my pillowy abdomen, my perpetual dress in Lululemon leggings and baggy tops and my breathlessness from simply walking up a few stairs. I remember feeling the constant desire to ‘excuse’ my physical appearance by blurting out a qualifier every time that I met someone new; “I don’t always look like this! I swear. I just had a baby, only, the baby wasn’t mine… Which is actually why I don’t have a baby with me! Really, it’s not because I’m a terrible, neglectful Mom. Well, it’s just a long story really…”
As I write this now, I feel physically pained for that woman. After undertaking one of the most selfless tasks that a person could possibly do, instead of celebrating her strength, she was drowning in shame.
Within weeks of Claire’s birth, our family took a short leave to Nelson, B.C. to escape the lingering Sioux Lookout winter and to enjoy a slice of rare, uninterrupted family time. During those four weeks of pregnancy leave, I fell deeply into the gratitude of purely being with the kids and with Blake. When your job constantly takes you away from your family at any given time, day or night, I was overjoyed to turn off my phone and say a simple ‘yes’ to every request to play LEGO or to read a book. As the kids were old enough to do a half days of ski school, Blake and I also had the opportunity to have a number of ski dates, bombing around the mountain and acting like teenagers. Under Blake’s tutelage, I even landed my first 360 at the age of 35 and just six weeks post-partum. It was so much fun!
Despite the joy of those weeks together, I was internally struggling on the daily, embarrassed to even speak about my challenges to Blake. At one point, I was at the bunny hill with Alice; it was a beautiful, sunny day and I had ditched my ski jacket revealing my snowpants, gaping open at the front and held up by a pair of Blake’s suspenders. As I proudly watched Alice independently go up and down the rope-tow, I chatted with the liftie. ‘When are you due?’ he asked, pointing to my unbuttoned snowpants. ‘My wife has to ski like that too,’ he continued. ‘We are having a baby in a few months!’ I paused. Where to start? Do I just lie and say yes, I’m pregnant? Do I tell the truth and reveal that I’m only a few weeks post-partum? But, then I will also be inclined to explain that I was a surrogate because where the hell will he think that I ditched my six-week old? Do I honestly want to dive into my life story with a liftie? I simply smiled and nodded, feeling crushed.
I write this not for pity but to honestly lay out where the start line was for me. At the bottom. Right back at the start, in fact, it felt even MILES behind the start. Although, I wouldn’t admit it at the time to anyone, I felt physically and emotionally broken. Yet, despite it all, I was determined. I know that I am not many things, but having been raised by my mother, I do have resilience and work ethic down pat. So, I set a goal and got to work.
Weeks of workouts went by. Weeks of getting up at 5am, walking in the dark down the mountainside while the people of Nelson slept, just to get to the gym as they opened the doors. Weeks of learning how to move and challenge my body again. Weeks of fighting the constant self-judgements of how little weight I could lift and how soft I still looked in the changeroom mirrors. Weeks of those 5 am workouts, followed by the walk home straight UP the mountain, followed then by a day of carrying Alice around the challenging runs of Whitewater Ski Resort. Weeks of mindful eating, when all I really wanted to do was indulge in daily hot chocolate and freshly baked cinnamon buns. I literally was working my butt off. I couldn’t have possibly worked harder.
Four weeks later, back at home in Sioux Lookout, I weighed myself for the first time since our departure to Nelson. I had lost one pound. A SINGLUAR point on the scale. One minuscule little number. I felt enraged, defeated and beyond frustrated. I wanted so desperately to throw in the towel, to say ‘Screw this!’ I wanted so badly to just give up, to give into silencing my alarm, to give into the deserts, to give into those feelings of unworthiness and self-hate.
But damn it, I was determined. I kept at it. Mindful eating. Four workouts a week. Every week. For months and months. Despite long, continuous stretches of OB call and all of the demands of motherhood, I rarely missed a workout. I sank my teeth into my goal of feeling stronger, regaining my sense of self and losing the shameful self-talk around how I looked. I ploughed on.
I stopped focusing on the scale and started sitting up and noticing the benchmarks of what I was achieving. I started to lift more and more weight. I became excited for my 5am alarms. I started to walk around the gym like a boss, indifferent to how others may or may not have be perceiving me. The squat rack became a place of comfort, not a place of intimidation. I stopped glaring at my reflection and started feeling a sense of pride for those baby triceps that began to emerge. I stopped sweating in the effort of pulling on my skinny jeans. I started taking the stairs at work two at a time, bounding up without losing my breath. By the time I was nine-months post-partum, all of my non-scale victories had added up. In a celebratory shopping spree at Lululemon, kindly financed by Amy and Adam, I realized that I had even dropped two pant sizes.
All of this was exciting, but more importantly than the size of my Lululemons was the disappearance of that ball and chain of shame I had been previously dragging around. Along with over 20 lbs of weight lost, I had also ditched the constant narrative that I wasn’t good enough and that my physical appearance wasn’t up to the societal standard of what a woman should look like. Believe me, it’s much harder to give into that nagging voice of negativity when you just put 360lbs on the leg press and you’re feeling like a total badass. This has been the true victory of my ‘bounce back’ and I am damn proud of myself for achieving it.
In reflecting upon and writing this journey down on this page, my goal is certainly not to martyr myself. Just like you, I am a mom, a wife, a full-time working parent who has endless ‘to-dos’, limited time, and never ending demands on my time. And I am tired, oh so, so tired.
But, I got an app, I envisioned a goal, I gritted my teeth and I worked. I made my workouts a priority and fiercely defended my time in the gym from the creep of other demands. There was no magic of my ‘bounce back’. It was hard, full of pitfalls and struggle. But bit by bit, with just a little consistency and a whole lot of determination, I reached a place of physical strength and self-worthiness and truthfully, it is a journey that is ongoing and likely will be for the rest of my life.
Recently, I had a heart-to-heart with a close friend and physician Mama about wellness and self-care. There is an incredible amount of guilt attached to prioritizing oneself and engaging in a pleasurable act, whether that be taking an afternoon for yourself while your kids are in daycare or getting in a killer legs workout. As women, we lay victim to the notion that we must be selfless and devote the entirety to ourselves to our partners, children, extended families, communities, workplaces, etc. (and the list goes on) or we are simply not a ‘good’ Mom/wife/sister/colleague/daughter, etc. Unfortunately, this widely held belief causes many of us to be constantly fighting against an anxious state of ‘not good enough’, regardless of how much we do at the expense of our own selves.
Well ladies, listen up. 2020 is upon us and THIS. IS. YOUR. YEAR.
Put on your own oxgen mask. Schedule in your self-care time and then defend it like it’s your job. Stand your ground and prioritize yourself. Protect that time fiercely and give zero f*cks about those who make you feel shamed for not spending that time with your kids, or at work, or doing laundry or any other item on that infinite to-do list.
I used to carry so much guilt around spending time away from my kids to hit the gym, but here is the honest to God truth of what I have learnt over the past two years of defending my ‘me time’; throwing around weights and blasting ridiculous pop music for an hour makes me a better Mom, a better partner and a better doctor. It gives me more patience, more self-confidence and more strength to get over that next hurdle that lies in front of me. Most importantly, it empowers me and has changed my internal dialogue to one of more self-compassion and grace.
So to my dear friend Lianne, and all of the other Mamas that this may resonate with, YOU ARE WORTHY of being a priority. Put yourself on TOP of that to-do list. It may not be hitting the gym, but find something that fills your cup. Maybe it’s meditation, maybe it’s painting, maybe it’s walking your dog in the quiet of the evening. Whatever it is, make a plan, commit and get to work. I promise you that time you put invest in yourself will return to your family many-fold.
All the best for the New Year!