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Changes After Pregnancy: Body and Brain

Emily Oster, author of Expecting Better, wrote that

"There are a lot of baby books that aim to tell you what will happen with your baby. And there are a lot of pregnancy books that detail what happens to you while you are pregnant. But the literature is oddly lacking in discussions of what happens, physically, to the mom after the baby arrives. Before the baby, you’re a vessel to be cherished and protected. After the baby, you’re a lactation-oriented baby accessory. This omission is problematic, since it fails to inform women about what to expect after they’re expecting. Physical recovery from childbirth is not always straightforward, and even in the best of circumstances, it’s messy."

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I also found myself uninformed about what to expect after pregnancy for myself, despite reading lots of books on pregnancy and babies. I heard of postpartum depression and C-section horror stories, but not a lot of other details. I know everyone is different and will not have the same challenges as myself, but I hope that I can share a few examples of some changes that can happen. I would love to hear about things that happened similar or different for you.

Disclaimer: I thoroughly enjoy being a mom and the changes that have come with it. I write this post not to vent or complain, but to share experiences that surprised me. I believe that a person can be 100% appreciative of being a parent and 100% in love with their children while simultaneously feeling exhausted, overwhelmed or just wanting a minute (or day) alone.

Here are some of the changes that I have experienced to my body and brain over the past 13 months since giving birth to my son, Ben:

1. Emotions

I was never an emotional person. I never had a ‘time of the month’ where I was more irritable or weepy, and during pregnancy I prided myself in keeping it together. That all went to shit the first few days postpartum. I remember one particularly sleepless night I sobbed through an entire episode of Black Mirror (tip: don’t watch Black Mirror immediately after having a baby). Other things that made me cry: Realizing that maybe my dairy consumption had been causing Ben pain (see below), any argument with my husband, making up and realizing how much I loved my husband, Ben looking cute, any sad news headlines, remembering the moment in the Prince of Egypt where the mother had to say goodbye to baby Moses. Basically anything and everything. Even a year later, I’m still, on average, a more emotional person than I was before.

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2. Boobs

My boobs got bigger during pregnancy, but nothing prepared me for the size that I’d be once my milk came in. To my relief, it wasn’t so extreme after a couple days. I knew that I would have to continue to restrict some of my intake while breastfeeding (e.g., medications, alcohol), but I wasn’t prepared to restrict other things I ate. Like the paranoid first-time parent I was, I logged everything I ate in effort to figure out what was causing Ben’s colicky behavior. Cutting dairy seemed to help, but I was not mentally prepared to give up dairy when I felt like I needed ice cream to cope with all my emotions (see above). Finally, I wasn’t prepared for all the hormonal changes that happened once I quit breastfeeding. I was in a funk for about two weeks, and then all the sudden I felt normal again.

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3. Leakage

When FIT4MOM instructors would announce that we were doing jumping jacks and skiers (side to side jumps with feet together), for a while I either resigned myself to doing a modified version or not worrying about leakage. I do my kegels, but it took about a year before things felt relatively secure again.

4. Birth Control

For anyone looking to not have another child right away, another change you have to deal with is getting back on birth control. I tried the Mirena IUD at about 8 weeks postpartum. My husband started noticing that my mood had changed and that I seemed more distant. I realized by looking at my food log that I had a sharp increase the number of nights that I had a glass of wine. When I went to get it removed, the doctor seemed confused and made it clear that she doubted the effects I described were from the IUD, and that it was likely due to other things like cumulative lack of sleep or postpartum depression. A couple months later, I decided it was all in my head and that, now better rested and more in the grove of being a parent, I would have a better time with it. After insertion mood shifted dramatically and I, once again, got it removed. My point is not to convince you that IUDs are bad (some and maybe most people have great experiences with them!), but to say that a lot of things can happen that aren’t confirmed or explainable by science*. A large percentage of medical research is privately funded, and pharmaceutical companies who have the most money aren’t eager to find reasons why some of their most profitable products aren’t wonderful. I have since talked to many friends who have had unexplainable trouble with birth control, and similar invalidation of their experiences from their doctors.

*Note: Though I say this, I am pro-vaccine and generally skeptical of non-scientifically-backed claims. I’m a PhD student and it has helped me both value research and see its shortcomings.

5. Sleep

For the first few months, during the rare stretches of time I could get Ben to sleep on a safe flat surface, I had trouble sleeping. If I finally fell asleep, I was on high alert and woke up to the first cry, and sometimes even phantom cries. However, because my body had to get used to sleeping on demand and waking up so many times at night, I have gradually transitioned into a fantastic sleeper. I can now fall asleep faster and take naps more efficiently than before.

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6. Focus

In a similar vein, my brain can become hyper-focused in a minute. Before Ben, when I would sit down to write, it used to take a while to get in a groove. Now, once Ben is down for a nap, I can go from zero to hyper-productive mode in no time. Babies can turn parents into super-efficient machines in a lot of arenas.

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7. Appetite

While I was pregnant, I thought I was eating a lot. But once I started breastfeeding, I ate A LOT. It was great. Once I quit breastfeeding, I gained some weight because I was still in the habit of eating so much. (Struggles with body image could take up an entire other post…)

What changes did you experience?