When Kate Middleton stepped out of a London hospital earlier this year, just one day after giving birth to Prince George, her belly was beautifully there. Like many other mothers, I squealed with happiness. (A few days after my twins were born, a visitor had patted my still-quite-enormous belly, asking: “You got another baby in there?”)
But that grace period quickly evaporated and Middleton debuted her newly trim frame just six weeks post-partum, reminding many of us that yes, the race for perfection is still very much on.
For all of the women who shake their heads at that last sentence, let me say this. I hear you. I get it. I shook my head, too. But then, six weeks after I gave birth to my twins, I tucked my Seven-Sisters-educated brain into my pocket and got my ass in gear. I needed to shed those 60 pounds.
At that point, it felt like the only thing left in my control.
In between breastfeeding and pumping and supplementing and sleeping (barely), I started researching post-partum exercise programs. And I’m happy to report that we new mothers may not be as rational and patient as we might be about getting our bodies back, but at least we’re resourceful about inventing ways to do it.
There was Stroller Strides and countless "Baby and Me Yoga" classes, “Mama Ballroom,” and BABYlates. All possibly great ideas for women with singletons, but I had two screaming infants, both needing a breast or a bottle or a pacifier or a diaper change or a…You get it. No exercising was going to happen with them along for the ride.
So I went online. And found a few personal favorites.
Courtney Wyckoff started “MommaStrong” in the grips of postpartum depression. And she doesn’t mince words when she says why: “It stemmed from a need to make a living from home.” She calls MommaStrong a “movement;” I call it refreshingly doable.
The ethos of the program is perfectly summed up in MommaStrong’s tagline: “Strength in the middle of it.” I signed up for $30 and received daily 15-minute high intensity work-outs. In her brightly colored Texas living room, Courtney leads each video with spunk, and my heavy breathing, lined with expletives, is drowned by her constant encouragement.
I loved stealing fifteen minutes when the babies were napping or after I had put them to bed, to drop on my knees and do an insane number of burpees. And Courtney keeps it real. She’s on the ground with you, and sometimes her burly dog walks in front of the camera and sometimes her older daughter pops onto the couch to watch. She keeps on going. This is her life and now, it’s my life. Plus, some of the on-screen chaos makes me feel less guilty about wearing that spit-stained sports bra.
More than anything, MommaStrong is a great idea. And there’s accountability. A Facebook group and constant email contact with Courtney keeps people on track.
When I have occasionally visited the Facebook page, it has been full of women who somehow found the energy to bang out that fifteen minute work-out, occasionally tinged with the wish that they could just go to sleep instead.
Debra Flashenberg, director of the Prenatal Yoga Center in New York City, remembers being asked when she was due — “three weeks after I had given birth.” She came up with the idea for a dedicated yoga center for expecting and new moms after teaching Bikram yoga for years.
“I was very disenchanted with the rigid structure," she said. "I felt there was no room to address individual issues, let alone explore creating my own structure of a class.”
Now pregnant with her second child, she reminds women to take getting their “bodies back” slowly. “I do think that peer pressure and the media play into women wanting to get back into shape as soon as possible…but the desire for a hard workout is often sidelined by the desire to just get a shower in that day.”
Whether they are realistic about fitness or not, many women are simply unhappy with their bodies. Ashlee Wells Jackson gets that. A pin-up and boudoir photographer based in Chicago, she captured intimate photographs of women, but often became a sounding board for their complaints.
“We were wasting so much time in studio talking about what the women didn’t like about their bodies," she said, "that I decided to add a section to our intake questionnaire for them to simply list what we should avoid.”
Eventually, she started to pay more attention. A mom herself, she had an easy first pregnancy with her son and “bounced back immediately.” Her second pregnancy with identical twins daughters was much more challenging. Her girls had twin-to-twin transfusion syndrome (TTTS) , a disease that affects twins who share a placenta. Doctors decided to perform a risky surgery to save both girls. One daughter, Aurora, passed away 18 hours later, and her second daughter, Nova, survived but was born 15 weeks premature.
Wells Jackson said she felt “betrayed by her body” after the experience. Beyond the TTTS, “I wasn’t able to labor naturally, my c-section scar got infected. I developed this amazing ability to look in the mirror and ignore everything below my breasts. Then it clicked: I was one of my clients.”
So she decided to start the now super-viral 4th Trimester Bodies Project. “Maternity pictures are all the rage, but no one wants to photograph themselves after giving birth,” Wells Jackson said. She’s taken around 70 black and white pictures of women post-partum, beginning with herself. With no photoshop, and no distracting background, the photographs capture real women, sometimes alone and sometimes with their children.
But not everyone is comfortable with it. About six weeks ago, photographs were flagged on Facebook, with some deemed inappropriate. First, the project got a warning, then they got completely locked out. A Change.org petition has garnered 9,000 signatures to get the page reinstated.
As of press time, there was still no feedback from Facebook.
The 4th Trimester Project is about to hit the road and is still looking for women to photograph, including more women of color, surrogate moms, adoptive mothers, really anyone who wants to put their post-partum, up-all-night, breast-and-formula-feeding, here-I-am bodies out there.
I would do it…but I’m still not so sure about my stomach. Maybe in a few weeks...
Readers, any post-partum favorites of your own to recommend? Any advice for new mothers impatient to get a semblance of their old bodies back?
Jessica Alpert is a producer at NPR/WBUR's midday show, Here & Now.
This program aired on September 27, 2013. The audio for this program is not available.