This is a tale of two very different postpartum experiences.
I had my daughters less than two years apart. I was 30 when I had my first, and 31 when I had my second.
My pregnancies were virtually the same. I never had cravings or morning sickness. I worked out throughout both pregnancies, lifting right up until my water broke with both girls.
They arrived at almost the exact same gestational moment — both born at 37 weeks and 2 days — although my first came at 7:43 in the morning and my second arrived an hour and a half earlier.
My labor and delivery with each girl was textbook. I didn’t have an epidural with either and, when I had the urge to push, I got each of those stinkers out in a few pushes.
But after my first daughter, I had zero desire to return to the gym. I went through the motions, but I didn’t enjoy my workouts. It wasn’t until I stopped breastfeeding (well, pumping as we never got the hang of breastfeeding) at 10 months that I finally felt that part of my old self return.
After my second daughter was born, I felt the desire to return to the gym within days. And within a few weeks, I felt like my old self and was so motivated to get back to the barbell that I signed up for a weightlifting competition to ensure that I got my rear into gear.
Why were the two experiences so different? And was one recovery and return to fitness more “ideal” than the other?
I gave birth to at a small hospital in Frisco, Colo., at an elevation of 9,075 feet. Despite being at the birthing center at the highest altitude in the U.S., and arriving a few weeks early (if she’d come before 37 weeks we would have been sent to Denver to deliver) Caroline didn’t need supplemental oxygen. She was the epitome of health.
My post-labor numbers were equally impressive. I had very little tearing, requiring only one stitch that would dissolve within 10 days. No clots. And I was able to get up and walk around within an hour or two.
We left the hospital within 24 hours, on a Tuesday morning, but not before a nurse pulled my husband aside and said, “Look, I know she seems fine now, but she’s about to get walloped by emotions. She’s going to cry for no reason at all and she’s not going to know why. That’s normal. If she’s still crying after two weeks, you need to call us.”
On Friday the storm hit. I was sitting on the couch looking at my perfect little daughter and, all of a sudden, I remembered the scene in “Dumbo” where Dumbo’s mother is locked in her cell and she rocks him with her trunk.
The movie wasn’t on television. I probably hadn’t seen the movie in 20-plus years. The song that the mother sings to Dumbo to comfort him wasn’t playing either, but I could hear it perfectly in my mind.
And I began picturing Dumbo with those big teardrops falling down his cheeks and I lost it. I began sobbing as I cradled Caroline.
Alarmed, my husband rushed over and asked what was wrong. Through my sobs (it was full on ugly crying at this point), I tried to explain why I was crying.
I was afraid that someday my daughter would someday be without me. That I wouldn’t be able to protect her and always make her feel safe and secure. And how crushed Dumbo’s mother must have felt when she couldn’t adequately hold and comfort her baby.
My confused husband did his best to comfort me, but trusting our nurse, he knew it would pass. And it did.
Which brings me to my first warning to postpartum women: hormones.
I blame these buggers for most of my hardships after having kiddos. Pile on the stress of breastfeeding and lack of sleep, hormones can drive any new mom to the breaking point.
At two weeks postpartum, my doc cleared me to return to any and all activity. I was shocked. Even two weeks after giving birth, I still felt like I’d been hit by a bus. I couldn’t imagine lifting or returning to CrossFit. I wanted to crawl into a hole and sleep.
While hormones oestrogen and progesterone usually level out within two weeks of giving birth, prolactin and oxytocin hormones kick in to support breastfeeding and can fluctuate throughout a woman’s breastfeeding (or pumping, in my case) timeline.
For those women experience postpartum depression, a 2009 study found that hormones may also play a role.
I didn’t know this after Caroline. When I still felt run down months after giving birth, I accepted that this was my new normal and that I’d better just get used to it.
Back to fitness
I returned to the gym slowly. I started working out at home with kettle bell swings and Turkish get-ups. At 10 weeks postpartum, I tried joining a CrossFit gym, but I couldn’t hang during a partner workout and I quickly decided the sport was no longer for me.
My lifting at the local rec center and quickly plateaued. I had no coach and no partner to push me or encourage me and I stayed well within my comfort zone and began to tell myself that that was fine.
I began making rationalizing poorer and poorer choices with my workouts and eating habits. I’d just had a baby (even though by this point it had been four or five months). I was pumping. I was tired.
But those rationalizations and excuses began to compound and I felt worse than ever before.
Not my new normal
It wasn’t until I stopped pumping completely that I finally felt like a version of my old self. I can only assume that stopping producing milk cued my body’s hormones to return to pre-pregnancy levels.
Suddenly, I wanted to get back to the gym. I began increasing my weights. I felt strong and I felt capable.
It was a light-bulb moment for me that it wasn’t me being a lazy slug (well, maybe that was part of it). But it was a great relief to have a tangible explanation for why I had felt so cruddy the last 10 months.
This euphoria lasted a total of about 75 days until I got the positive pregnancy test for baby No. 2.
Determined not to have a repeat experience after Caroline, I didn’t cut myself any slack going into Lucy’s pregnancy. I kept lifting and lifting heavy. I took on very physical home projects, including taking a chainsaw to the neglected landscaping at our new home and moving tons or rocks, dirt, and sand, to put in a patio.
Lucy’s pregnancy had its challenges. Concerned with the size of my belly, I was sent for multiple ultrasounds to ensure that she was growing adequately. She passed ultrasounds every time. Despite these setbacks, Lucy came into the world loud and feisty.
A few hours after delivering her in front of a dozen nurses (it was shift change), I was ready to head home and get on with life as a family of four.
Taking the lessons I learned with Caroline, I knew the next few months would be a suckfest. I weathered the roller coaster of hormones much better. Dumbo didn’t catch me off guard. I did have a sob while playing with Caroline one afternoon a few days after Lucy was born, but I was able to get control of myself after 15 minutes.
Also knowing how the breastfeeding hormones affected me, I made a point to pump around the clock to build up a supply so that I could stop pumping earlier and still give Lucy plenty of mama’s milk.
For two months, I pumped every three hours. After two months, I dropped my 3 a.m. pump. A couple of weeks later, I adjusted my midnight and 6 a.m. pumping sessions. By the end of month three, I was pumping five times per day for about 20 minutes at each session.
I pumped so much milk, we had to buy a deep freezer to store it all.
But after five months, I felt confident I’d be able to continue feeding Lucy with breastmilk and I stopped pumping completely.
It has been wonderful.
Although I’ve gone through the freezer stash a little more quickly than anticipated (we made it to about 7.5 months on breastmilk), I wouldn’t change how I went about building my stash.
It’s now been two months since I stopped pumping and I feel like my old pre-mama self. I’m back to lifting heavy weights. Later this month I’ll go for my pre-kiddo one rep max of 200 pounds for squats. I’m working on surpassing my deadlift PR.
In addition to conquering the pumping domain, I felt much more comfortable in my role as “mom.” I didn’t second guess feeding and sleeping schedules. I trusted my instincts and adapted when needed.
Which postpartum was preferable?
Lucy’s. No doubt.
But honestly, I’m glad I experienced both. While Lucy’s was preferable in terms of how I felt physically, I was not as “go with the flow” as I probably should have been. I placed a lot of expectations on myself and my child, including my newborn. And when those expectations weren’t met, I stressed more than I needed to.
But I’m coming to accept that while I’m “go with the flow” in some areas, I’m not in others. And that’s okay. Parenting is not a sprint, it’s a marathon. All I can do is continue to strike that balance to ensure my girls have both a happy and fulfilled mommy who can put aside the need to accomplish and embrace the moment.
Disclaimer: Andrea Signor is a writer. She does not have any medical background or fitness certifications. She is a former journalist with an interest in weightlifting. Any woman interested in exercising and lifting in her pregnancy should consult with her medical team and fitness coaches.
Want more? Check out our series on postpartum lifting.