The Maternity Matters team is made up of mums who have been through a variety of pregnancy and birth experiences – some good, some truly horrendous – and we bear both physical and emotional scars from these experiences. The emotional scars are hidden, perhaps known only to ourselves and a select few trusted others, but the physical scars, whilst not often on public display, can be clear for all to see if we let them. Stretch marks, saggy skin, the mark of a surgeon’s knife for some. All visible to some extent on the overwhelming majority of postpartum women, and all completely normal, but for a lot of these mothers, it’s a new normal they find hard to accept.
We launched the #MyBirthMyBody campaign to highlight the degrees of ‘normal’ when it comes to pregnancy and childbirth to reassure women, if nothing else, that their postnatal bodies are not things to be horrified or disgusted by, but are things of beauty, their scars a testament to their strength and achievement of becoming a mother. And that’s not overstating it – it’s a bloody ordeal for many and an achievement it is to bring new life into the world.
We chose to focus on caesarean sections, not only because the team has plenty of personal experience in this area (myself actually not included with my two ‘normal’ deliveries – a term I have a problem with in itself but that’s for another post!), but because the scar of a c-section is perhaps the most obvious example of a body permanently marked by pregnancy. The women featured in our video who bravely chose to share photographs of their stomachs with the telltale line cutting across it, had to not only undergo major abdominal surgery to meet their baby, but they have a constant reminder on their skin, like a tattoo they didn’t ask for. Even in cases where the caesarean has been life-saving, or was quite happily an elective procedure the mother has no bad memory of, her body is irreversably different than it was before. The same can be said of all postnatal women, regardless of mode of delivery.
But this doesn’t necessarily have to be a negative thing. While some women say that they hate the way their body has changed, some feel proud of their scars and stretch marks, saying they felt empowered by becoming a mother. I think I would honestly say I fall somewhere between these two polar opinions. I certainly wouldn’t say I ‘hate’ my 10 month postnatal tummy, but I feel there is some work to do to get my figure to a state I feel more comfortable with. A bit of toning here, a bit more weight loss there, and my tiger stripes I can live with. Accepting my new normal has helped me focus on eating more healthily and getting back into exercise, which has in turn frustrated me with slow progress back to my former fitness – something else I have had to accept.
While doing a bit of reading around the topic , I came across this 2014 research article by Hodgkinson et al: ‘Women’s experiences of their pregnancy and postpartum body image: a systematic review and meta-analysis‘. The researchers looked at the themes evident in a number of different studies previously conducted into the subject matter, and I’d urge you to give it a read if you have ten minutes. There are interesting learning points for health care professionals caring for pregnant women and fascinating insights into why women may have the body image perceptions they do when it comes to this period of huge change in their lives.
What struck me the most was some of the quotes from women they highlight from other studies. I wonder how many of these you may identify with:
“Having the big tummy during pregnancy was fine, I enjoyed that, because it meant I was pregnant and everyone could see that. But now, if I’m not with my baby then people have no idea why I’m bigger.”
“I hated to be pregnant, ugh. I thought it was disgusting.”
“I would have liked to have known that I wasn’t going to lose weight again quickly after having her… I just didn’t know these things…”
“You’re always trying to get it back, but never really can have it back.”
“They [breasts] don’t add to you being a woman anymore, they’re just practical…I suppose they’ve lost – lost something sexually maybe.”
“…Not changed; just probably deepened. Deepened in the sense that I’m probably more aware of myself in a very different way, which is valuable.”
“Some women just can’t get their old shape back at all, and I’m bound and determined not to be one of them.”
It’s not hard to appreciate the inevitable link between positive body image and self-esteem, and good mental health. The internal struggles that the women who said these things must have had, and may well continue to have, could be debilitating. If we consider the potentially fragile mental state of a new mum anyway without the added personal pressure to conform to the perceived ideal as soon as she has given birth, we can see why support, especially peer support, is so vital.
Which is why I was actually heartened to read another quote:
“There is just enormous connection between women who’ve had children…it’s like becoming part of a club.”
You’re not alone, we’re all in this together, and you are ‘normal’, whatever you may think.