I want to thank Cath for sharing her story – it is when women like Cath step up and share, that we all come together, raise awareness, and help to change the way that women experience motherhood on both a physical and emotional level.
I turned up to Jen’s session thinking I knew my fitness goals and had my postnatal body back on track. Basically all I needed was the nanny service so I could exercise more often. In hindsight I now know the nanny service was far from the most important thing; I needed help to repair my poor body which was teetering on the edge of having a full blown hernia and potentially in need of extensive surgery.
Before kids I exercised four or five times a week: running, spinning, hot yoga/yin yoga, boxercise, weights. I stayed active throughout my pregnancies, albeit at a lower intensity, and my weight gain was average. I have two beautiful girls (now 4 and 2), both delivered vaginally and with epidurals; my first was assisted.
After my first born, my body pinged back in to shape with no issues, so it was definitely my mind that needed the exercise more at that point. When I was pregnant with baby number two, I was confident my body was going to ping back in to shape again, just as it had done with my first.
So my second baby came, easier birth, smaller baby, breastfeeding, sleep deprivation – all normal. I was sure I had everything covered! My Obgyn did the usual postnatal checkups and everything was ticking along, though he did say that I had abdominal separation this time around and recommended I wear a belly wrap. I did this religiously for about two months and checked my width of separation every few days. By three months postpartum, it was reducing significantly. I knew I wasn’t physically as strong as after the first birth but I was heading in the right direction.
By four ½ months postpartum, I WANTED to exercise. I craved getting into my exercise gear and escaping my crazy, toddler-tantrum, nappy-filled life for an hour each day. It was my sanity; it was MY time. So I went back to training four times a week with some friends who were also mums. It was great. I loved that hour of exercise, chatting with other adults, the endorphin hit afterwards. It made me a better, calmer mum, although in hindsight I may have pushed myself too hard, too early and not paid the attention to my pelvic floor that I needed to.
At seven months after baby number two, I had never felt better fitness and body wise. I was at my all-important body barometer: ‘wedding dress size’. The separation was still there: the lower half had joined but from my belly button up, there was still a gap of about two fingers width and my tummy was still a bit rounded.
When my second child was 11 months old, I moved back to Sydney, and by her first birthday I had started training with Jen in group exercise sessions. I signed up for Tough Mums. I was firmly into my exercise routine and ready to keep pushing myself so felt confident in this higher intensity group. I was feeling great!
Jen did her usual abdominal separation checks as for all her new mums. I still had my separation but I explained it had reduced significantly and this was probably just the way I was going to be. Jen checked my separation at EVERY session and adapted my level of intensity accordingly. I often felt like things were too easy and in all honesty, I didn’t feel like I was progressing or getting that much physically out of the sessions.
Every session Jen would also ask me if I’d been to see the Women’s Health Physiotherapist, which of course I hadn’t gotten around to yet. We all have our excuses and I had every excuse in the book, but she kept asking, telling me to go. Thank goodness she did.
The Reality of My Body
With my separation, and a ‘heavy’ feeling in my pelvic floor, I was finally motivated to see a women’s health physio. I went expecting to get sent on my way with a few do’s and dont’s and a list of uninspiring exercises that I’d most likely never do.
I was quite shocked to be told I had to stop running completely and basically go back to the lowest level of exercise. My pelvic floor stability and inner core muscles just weren’t there. This house of fitness I had built was on sandy foundations and if I kept going, I was going to do damage. Unless I went back to basics and rebuilt the foundations of my core, my body was going to get worse.
I accepted the need to take action and followed instructions. I started putting on weight and my fitness level dropped significantly within three weeks. Emotionally I was hating it, even though the physio appointments were confirming progress in the right direction for my inner core and pelvic floor. Three months later my progress plateaued.
I was doing a postnatal specialist Pilates class, one of Jen’s group sessions each week, as well as walking. I felt disenchanted; there was no post exercise endorphin rush, just the feeling of a wasted opportunity and hating this body that was falling apart.
I couldn’t see an end to my body failing me and I had become scared of damaging my body further, so doubted how, when or if I could push my body. I felt I had lost that control to push through any barrier. My newfound limitations in exercise would never get me to the fitness level I wanted.
This was mentally a very low point for me. I thought I had two choices: forget exercise and embrace having more time to go out, eat cakes and drink coffee, or investigate surgery, have this stomach sewn back together and then resume my limitless exercise regime.
I told Jen I was interested in looking into the surgery. With the possibility of a hernia looming, I was referred to a leading plastic surgeon. Jen was keen to come along to my appointment both to learn more and to support me with any additional questions, from her experience working with other mums, that I might not have considered. Jen wanted to know exactly what was going on for me for her own education and so she could help me make the right decision moving forward.
After seeing some very real surgery photos, and speaking to a very honest plastic surgeon about what would be involved, I was no longer so sure about surgery. Chatting to Jen about my feelings in the waiting room, a third path emerged..
The Third Path
What if I could work with a different specialist Women’s Health Physiotherapist, using hard data from ultra sound scans, to work on a physiotherapy rehabilitation program, concurrently with a specifically tailored exercise program? Jen would focus on loading my muscles in the right way, without creating further damage to my pelvic floor and abdominal separation, so that I could strengthen my core from the inside out and finally start progressing my fitness level again. I would attend regular physio sessions to make sure I wasn’t creating any further damage and also to measure any reductions in my ab separation.
There was no evidence that this would work. It was going to be trial and error and a long road to travel, unlike the quick fix of surgery…. but I like a challenge…and so does Jen!
The results so far
So here we are 12 months since that first physio check where I was told to stop running, and six months since I started my individual PT sessions with Jen, alongside the physio rehab program. I can most definitely say that I am on the road to recovery, enjoying my exercise again and getting the endorphin kicks I was after. I have changed my style of exercise (very little running but more spin classes) and I still can’t do a full plank or a sit up, but I can do A LOT of other exercises that challenge me just the same, if not more.
My separation in the last six months has gone from a width of 3.3cm to 0.5cm and the depth has reduced from being moderate to shallow. These changes may seem small to some but for me, especially given I was two years postpartum and getting progressively worse, they mean everything. I am motivated to continue down this path and can’t thank enough all those who have helped me.
But the biggest thank you has to go to Jen for keeping me motivated and safe whilst getting my body back on track. And to Jo at The Physiotherapy Clinic for working with me to build this new foundation. Hopefully I can inspire other mums to keep working at their fitness goals and not give up or fear the different body they have after having babies. Sometimes what can seem like the impossible is made relatively easy with the right, qualified, experienced trainer and support by your side – as I said, can’t thank you enough Jen Dugard!
If you are ‘stuck’ with your ‘new normal’ and would like help or have a story you would like to share – please don’t hesitate to be in touch – you can email me here – Jen x
Mum-focused author, educator and business owner, Jen Dugard is on a mission to ensure every woman is safely and effectively looked after when she becomes a mother. She is a highly qualified trainer and fitness professional educator and has been specialising in working with mums for over a decade. MumSafe is the go-to place online for women to find mum-focused fitness services that are all accredited, experienced and partnered with women’s health physios so you know you are in very safe hands.