Becoming a mom to my daughter, Vivian, has been the most rewarding experience of my life. It is full of such sweet and beautiful moments. I hold a new appreciation for the miracle of life and how precious it all is. Until Vivian arrived, I never realized how much I took for granted.
Who knew it would be this hard?
However, the challenge of the first weeks and months surprised me. Everyone warned me, but I couldn’t understand until it happened to me. Physically, emotionally and practically, motherhood is more challenging and intense than I could have imagined. I joke that being a mom is more difficult than training for the Olympics!
There is so much to learn.
At first it simply felt like a matter of survival; a rollercoaster of emotions and challenges all squeezed into a short period of time. There were so many questions despite the number of baby books read:
Am I doing this right? Will I break her? Is this normal? What do I do now?
Then there is the lack of sleep. I haven’t felt this sleep-deprived since graduate school. Part of me wants to return quickly to being super productive and checking off my to-do lists, which would be impossible. The other part of me only wants to sit and stare at her while she sleeps. I know the right thing is somewhere in the middle.
Staying positive is difficult. It has been important for me to acknowledge this rather than pretend everything is always OK.
“Sometimes feeling sad is normal. I have felt overwhelmed, guilty and, at times, incapable. Motherhood has brought me a strange mix of fear and responsibility that changes every day.”
It has helped to talk to friends who have been moms much longer than I have. They reassure me that I shouldn’t worry and that it will get easier. I have stopped trying to fight those feelings. I give myself space to experience and process them. I know that this is not a time to judge or label myself.
At first, my husband, David, wanted to fix those emotions. He wanted to make it better. Together we realized I simply needed to hear “I understand” and for him to comfort me. After all, I am forming a new identity, and that isn’t easy.
I loved my former life with all the freedom it afforded. I loved working all the time and traveling a lot. Now I’m responsible for a precious being who needs me around the clock. I gave birth not only to Vivian but also to a new version of me. I have had to let go of what I used to know and rebuild myself with new priorities and values. This new life is different and not always easy, but it is very rewarding and makes me happier!
Be kind to yourself
On top of all this is the challenge of recovering physically from giving birth. I had a C-section, and it took many weeks to recover from that. There were days when it felt like almost everything hurt, and I had no idea how I would ever have the energy to get back to exercising while taking care of my daughter.
Slowly but surely, I did start to feel better. But I had to be patient with myself and give my body the time and space it needed to heal without pushing too hard or too soon.
When I transitioned into retirement from training at the world-class level, I learned the hard way the importance of finding balance through moderation. I use that experience now to help me recover as a new mom. I know what it takes to get back in shape. I also know that many new moms feel pressure to get back in shape and feel frustrated by how long the process takes.
How do you complete 45 minutes of cardio three to five days a week when caring for a new baby? We risk giving up completely because we set ourselves up for failure. We give ourselves unrealistic expectations.
On the other hand, we might try so hard to get in shape quickly that we miss precious moments with our baby that we can never get back. Retiring from swimming taught me to stop and smell the roses, to be kind to myself and trust the process. The little steps I take each day are victories and moments to celebrate.
If I can make time for 15 minutes on the treadmill, that’s great! If I can’t make the time, that’s OK, too. If I can swim 15 minutes instead of the normal 30 minutes, that’s still a win. Reaching my goal of getting back in shape might take me longer than I hoped, but that’s OK with me if I am doing it in a healthy way for me and the baby.
Strengthen your core
Motherhood led me to lose more strength than I expected, and most obviously in my core.
I suffered a lot of back pain from nursing and carrying the baby. I had never experienced significant back pain before. My abdominal muscles had weakened. It was difficult to swim and run the way I wanted. I needed to focus on rebuilding my core. Otherwise, I would set myself up for injury. After I strengthen those muscles, then I can rebuild my swimming stroke and running stride.
How to do it
1. Lean back/Reverse sit-up: One exercise to rebuild your core starts with a sitting-up position with your legs bent and feet flat on the ground. Keep your back straight and slowly lower down. (At first, I could hardly complete this exercise without falling backward.) Engage your abs to slowly lean backward. Go as far as you can hold it and come back up. It is almost a reverse sit-up.
Leaning back even slightly led me to feel my abdominal muscles trying to contract. I tried this exercise about twice a week. Each time, I tried to lean back a bit farther. I learned to rebuild the core first. It benefited me to return to the gym with exercises to improve my stability and functional movement before adding cardio.
2. Get feedback from a trainer: If possible, hire a trainer, even for only one or two sessions, to help with your form and provide feedback. It helps for someone to oversee how you’re moving your body, especially after childbirth. There’s a tendency to have an arch in our lower backs. Good posture is important. So is engaging the proper muscles.
3. Get low: Squats without weights is another good exercise.
Whatever path you choose, know this: You are not alone, and what you are going through will pass.