In my last column, I spoke about “tiger stripes” and my experience in my pregnancy; I shared the lesson I learned about my changing body and how I didn’t need to love the changes, but I did need to remind myself of the bigger picture, be patient with myself and not “punish” myself or my body in the process.
Upon reflecting on this experience, I realized that there were a few other lessons I learned during my months of pregnancy. Lessons as a recovered woman, lessons as a woman in general and lessons as a new parent. I share these lessons as I feel that more often than not, we do not openly discuss our experiences during the various difficult transitions through the life stages. Sure, we share how exciting these changes can be—and typically this stems from genuine excitement. However, there are so many facets and sides and feelings that arise when an individual undergoes such a major transition, whether it be graduation, marriage, parenthood, loss etc. Below I share one experience—I do not pretend that these lessons apply to all—in the hope of not only normalizing, but of validating and sharing.
1. You don’t have to love your body, but being grateful for it is helpful, and you definitely can’t punish it. As I discussed in my previous piece, there is no rule that one needs to love her body when experiencing pregnancy. Sure, some women glow in the experience and take each movement, each pain, each pound in the weight gain process as something miraculous to be appreciated. I don’t judge this. In fact, I admire it. I think it takes a special person to truly be able to think like this. But I want to note that this need not be expected. One of the hardest experiences—in my opinion—is the pressure of an unrealistic expectation. This can feel lonely and isolating and leave the individual feeling shame and as if there is “something wrong with him/her.” Rather, it is important to be patient with one’s body. To remind oneself gratitude as a practice may be helpful from time to time. Overall, though, it is essential not to punish one’s body even when feeling anger or disappointment. You are more than your body and you may not appreciate it at all times—or perhaps you have yet to experience appreciation. And still, manipulating your body or thinking solely about how you can alter your body will not leave you fulfilled. It will instead—most likely—lead to further disappointment.
2. Don’t force yourself to feel or not feel anything. It will happen and you will manage. There is an image of a pregnant woman and new mother that I have ingrained in my mind, glancing at her belly or newborn adoringly, feeling immediately connected. This will happen for some people—likely for most people. But some people don’t feel immediately connected. To be clear, I am not describing women who experience postpartum depression—a very real, very common and serious diagnosis. I am talking about neutrality; this is more normal than we think. I spoke to countless mothers who described loving their children but not necessarily feeling connected off the bat. Or, taking excellent care of themselves during pregnancy, but not necessarily feeling connected to the fact that a baby would be coming. There is no right way to feel. There are, however, markers of needed help/support such as increased hopelessness, fear or panic that can be indications of postpartum depression. It is vital to be open and honest with how one is feeling. And it is also vital to try to enter the experience with openness to whatever may come and with an identified support system. There is no one “right way.”
3. There is support out there if you need it—know to whom you can turn. I was taught long ago to identify who can help you in various situations. You may want to call a best friend when feeling overwhelmed by body changes rather than going to a spouse. Or perhaps you want to talk to a female family member when having questions like, “Is this normal?” Maybe a family member isn’t ideal for you, and you’re the first of your friends to have a baby—remember that people can validate and support you even if they haven’t walked in your shoes. Also remember that there are listservs and communities that are ready in the wings to answer questions and show you some love. And finally, there are countless professionals who can provide what you need. The first step is honesty with yourself.
4. Your body is your own—identify your boundaries and set them. I cannot stress this enough. People often take pregnancy as permission to ask, declare and talk about your body. They also may take it as permission to touch your belly without asking. Set your boundaries. There is a way to do this calmly and without creating animosity and it is important to stick up for yourself and when possible, to do so in a way that encourages people to reflect rather than cower in fear or become defensive. Identify your line and be clear when it is crossed. I had people constantly asking me if they could touch my belly. There were many times when calmly and with a smile I told them that I’d prefer they did not at the time. Whether pregnant or not we must be clear of our boundaries and speak up for ourselves, as this is our right.
There are countless other lessons—the ones I listed were related to my personal experience. Some may speak to you, some may conflict with your experience. Overall, the more we can be honest and normalize natural life events, the more people can feel connected and strong, rather than feeling as if they are “doing something wrong” or it isn’t happening for them like it does for others, which must mean “something is bad.” Let us learn from one another and raise each other up as we face life’s biggest adventures.
By Temimah Zucker, LMSW
Temimah is the assistant clinical director at Monte Nido Manhattan and works in private practice in New York City. She is a writer and national speaker on the subjects of eating disorders, body image and mental health. She is also an adjunct professor at the Wurzweiler School of Social Work. For more information, visit www.temimah.com.