The Fourth Trimester | Part 1: The Female Body Postpartum and its Impact on Self Esteem.

The postpartum period for a new mom can be a whirlwind! Here you are, mother to this brand-new life, with no instructions on what comes next or how to navigate this new journey. Not only are you now on a new journey of caring for a tiny human, but you embark on this journey in a new body. Struggling with one’s self-image after delivery is nothing taboo, in fact, it is quite common. If you are a new mom struggling with adapting to the postpartum body, you are not alone, my friend. In fact, lower self-esteem after having delivered a baby was found in 30-70% of women. Bodily changes combined with plummeting hormones can wreak havoc on one’s self-image. Pair that with some sleepless nights and you have a perfect storm for low self-esteem. My hope through this article is to help women see their bodies the way God designed them and through His eyes. This article is not to tell you how to lose weight or that you cannot get in shape after having a baby, quite the opposite! The goal is to leave you feeling confident and beautiful as you continue to navigate the postpartum journey by understanding the extremely common if not inevitable changes your body has gone through. It is important to know our bodies and understand that the immense changes that take place have a purpose and a function. Knowledge is power ladies!

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Putting to bed the “bounce back” theory.

The female body changes in so many ways during pregnancy that often the post-partum body and all its beautiful evolution and healing gets overlooked. A body which perhaps was once was looked at with such respect and beauty as it housed such precious cargo is now judged and picked apart. During the postpartum period it is often difficult to continue to look at our bodies with such respect and kindness, as society and our own judgments creep in. Often, there is a societal expectation to “bounce back”, as if the body that just created, nurtured, and grew a tiny human being is expected to be like a rubber band and snap back into place! The female body is an amazing creation that obviously only God Himself could have drawn up. Even amid all this understanding of God’s work, you still may find yourself less than happy with your postpartum appearance. However, research shows that you are not alone in your thinking, and, in fact, it may be more common than you think.

Did you know that the postpartum period technically lasts 2 years? There is often a common misconception that postpartum ends 8-12 weeks after delivery. Because of this misconception, many women feel pressured whether by themselves, their spouse, their doctor, etc. to bounce back and return to pre-pregnancy look and feel within that tiny time frame. While a healthy level of exercise, eating right, and proper self-care is vital to being one’s best self for themselves and their child(ren), the trouble sets in with how realistic our expectations are for the “bounce back”. The female body has stretched and moved in ways that sometimes are irreversible, no matter how many calories you cut or sit ups you do. Women who have had a cesarean have had multiple layers of their abdomen sliced through, severing nerves and muscles, making it even more difficult to tighten that area. Research shows 15-20% of all women will hold on to up to 10 pounds or more of the weight gained during pregnancy. While this statistic may or may not bring comfort, it is a gentle reminder that what the female body embarks on during growing a person is a lifelong change to embrace and glorify our Creator in. There are some activities to engage in to help support an overall healthy body including but not limited to:

  • Drinking plenty of water
  • Getting adequate sleep (this may require the support and assistance of others; I mean we are talking about navigating life with a newborn here!)
  • Remembering to eat throughout the day (preferably nutrient dense foods full of the vitamins needed to replenish what was lost during delivery)
  • Engaging in moderate exercise (short walks or even household chores and cleaning suffice!)
  • Taking time to shower and refresh (so often busy moms can struggle to even have time for basic self-care, make the time ladies, YOU ARE IMPORTANT!)

Other, less talked about, bodily changes.

Not only is it very common for your body to hold onto the extra pounds, but you will also find your breasts, especially if you have breast fed or are breastfeeding, are a little less than perky! While breast is mostly tissue and not composed of muscle, the breasts are connected to the chest wall via ligaments which stretch and expand during pregnancy and unfortunately do not shrink back. This often leaves the breast stretched and sagging in nature. If you are breastfeeding your breast will continue to grow and shrink throughout the breast-feeding journey and once milk supply dries up and feeding ceases it is likely the breasts will lie lower than prior to pregnancy. This is normal and a completely natural response from your body. I recommend a good push up bra for that extra perkiness if you’re feeling a little low (pun intended)!

Weight gain and breast shrinkage are not the only things that may be contributing to lower self-esteem. You may even notice your body frame itself feels and looks a bit wider. That is because it most likely is! During pregnancy, the ribs separate to create room for the fetus to grow and hips widen to allow room for baby to sink lower into the pelvic area to prepare for delivery. In some cases, they never fully return to their original positioning in the body. God specifically thought of this when creating women to allow for life to be grown and make its way into and through our bodies, so amazing! 

Why can I not just love myself?

The fact that our bodies transform in such amazing ways as they create life is a gift, a gift only you as a female can partake in. How cool! And yet, through tired and tear-soaked eyes we find ourselves wishing away and criticizing the change that is proof of our partaking in God’s own miracle this side of Heaven. Why? In some instances, when we are made to feel embarrassed, disgusted, or ashamed, our heart and mind cannot tolerate this feeling and so we compensate by striving for unrealistic expectations of others so that we are seen as important, loved, and beautiful. There are many different interactions that may lead to unrealistic expectations of the female body. 

  • Presence of childhood trauma, abuse, or neglect
  • Family or friends making certain comments about our body as we began to mature with hips and curves
  • Being picked apart or teased for one’s appearance
  • Comments from a spouse about one’s body and appearance 

       This list is only merely the tip of a deep rooted iceberg for many who are left searching their minds for true compassion for themselves after having negative interactions that have left them feeling less then beautiful. However, there is another important factor often overlooked when it comes to the postpartum body and that is grief. Having a child can be a large milestone in a women’s life signifying a transformation from woman to mother. The new mother must be given space to grieve the loss of not only the prenatal body, but perhaps even the woman it housed. The woman who could maybe laugh without peeing a little (your pelvic floor has put in some work, you are not alone in this one!). The woman who could throw on a two piece bathing suit without a second glance. The woman who could take nap whenever she desired. The woman whose hair was so thick and full of life, now brittle and thin. Life in this new body as a new mother may look very different, and it is okay to have a whole tsunami of emotions surrounding that reality. 

        Learning how to love this new body that created new life can often only be done if we truly allow ourselves to grieve for what has been lost. Many people hear the word grief and think death, usually of a human or perhaps an animal. Grief, or grieving, is the process partaken in to honor, process, heal and accept anything lost. According to Kubler-Ross, grief happens in non-linear stages including denial, anger, depression, bargaining, and acceptance. Now think of how many of us women postpartum navigate these stages without even knowing. Denial of this new body, anger toward the extra skin, depressed by all the changes and shame for feeling this way, willingness to bargain for the old us back. Some will even find themselves one day saying “dang, I am proud of this body and am a strong woman”, only to bounce back the next day into anger and depression. Oscillating through the grieving process is a normal and even healthy, needed part of navigating this new you postpartum. Okay, so what does that look like.

  • Allow yourself to be angry, sad, frustrated, etc. about the changes happening
  • Remember the strength, endurance, and flexibility that body encompassed in order to create life , AND THANK IT!
  • Give yourself time to heal! No pressure to rush toward acceptance! 
  • Do not be discouraged when you oscillate through anger, depression, denial, bargaining, and acceptance. This is normal!

Ladies, it is time to give yourself grace during this difficult transitional time. You were created by a God who thought of it all and hand picked you to embark on this extraordinary journey! A Creator who formed every hair on your head and every stretch mark on your skin. Those marks, stretches, and extra skin are not flaws but beautiful reminders of a journey only some get to embark on in their lifetime. Allow yourself the time to grieve what has been lost to rejoice in what has been gained. If you are struggling with navigating life postpartum you shouldn’t have to do so alone. There are many different ways to help navigate the postpartum period and low self-esteem.

  • Find and engage in support groups
  • Reach out to a counselor 
  • Utilize family and friends wanting to help
  • Prayer
  • Find a friend to go shopping with for new clothes that accentuate this new body that produced life
  • Engage in daily self-care routines

If you find yourself still wanting to know more about your body and its many changes, Carolyn Heneghan writes a great synopsis of some more ways the female body changes postpartum. Check out her article here

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