By Lalita Iyer
Kareena Kapoor is tired of the undue attention her pregnancy has received, and has recently unleashed a, “I’m pregnant, not a corpse!” on the world. I just hope her post-baby body is not dissected as much as Aishwarya Rai’s was, and if it is, I hope she has equally powerful retorts to it.
But I think it is a truth universally acknowledged that popping a baby alters your mind and body in significant ways. It’s easier for the body to get on with the motions: breastfeed, burp baby, rock, clean poo, wash nappy, take a bath, bathe baby, breastfeed, clean poo again, change nappy, breastfeed, eat your lunch, breastfeed, burp, change nappy, take a loo break yourself, breastfeed again, burp, sing, make funny faces, clean poo again. Rinse, repeat.
It’s harder on the mind though. Very often, the blues are from body image — not being able to claim one’s body back soon after giving birth. When someone asks you how things are, you say, everything’s fine.
But it is not. You have just internalised it.
When I was handed a strip of laxatives and a bottle of Digene just before going in for my C-section, I was amused and wondered why. Little did I know about the excruciating constipation that was coming my way. It further advanced into piles or haemorrhoids, which made me scream every time I wanted to ‘go’.
I mentioned it to my ob-gyn, and he said, “Oh, these things are common in the first six to eight weeks after delivery.”
When I mentioned it to fellow moms, they said, “At least you didn’t have an episiotomy. You don’t know how much that hurts!”
When women exchange stories of birthing, they are actually wondering whether the other person was better or worse off than them. If the other was worse, it helps assuage her own pain. If the other has a happier story, she is going to take that much longer to come to grips with her own. And yet motherhood is made out to be this ethereal, sublime experience which seems to obliterate every element of pain that featured in it. Perhaps pain is a short-term memory.
The stories unfold slowly, over a period of time. There are women you talk to everyday during your pregnancy, but you never hear their real stories until much later. It is as though you have to pass a very tough exam and demonstrate you are vulnerable in order for people, even your closest friends, to share their stories.
My friend S, for instance, didn’t realise she had an episiotomy (a cut along her vagina to increase the vaginal opening) until much later after the birth. Her stitches took two whole months to heal, as the cut was right up to her thigh and she was on super strong pain killers to keep her going.
“No one told me I had been cut that way. I now assume it was done because the baby’s heart rate was dropping. It was the most painful experience I have had in my life. I did not sit properly for two months because of the way I had been cut or stitched,” she said.
Another friend N had a forceps-assisted delivery, and an episiotomy was performed. Though it has been a month now, she is still in tremendous amount of pain, especially while walking and sitting, accompanied by a burning sensation along with itchiness near the tear area. She is still constipated, although she has been taking laxatives. She is also on painkillers and a course of antibiotics for her healing. The pain does not seem to reduce, and it has been some time already, and she is getting worried about her recovery.
Everyone has a story. Some have been in labour for thirty hours, induced, and then C-sectioned. Some have labour as short as 20 minutes, but their placenta never came out and had to be surgically removed and they nearly bled to death and had to deal with abysmally low haemoglobin levels. Some had episiotomies that hurt for months. Some had babies that wouldn’t latch on, or milk ducts that didn’t open up, others were gushing like the rivers of Babylon but would rather the baby was on formula so they didn’t have to feel tied down.
To top it all, everything hurts.
The thing about pain management is that it’s like a one-night stand. Epidurals have short lives. It’s like a lover who is not around for the rough road ahead. He’s gone by the time you wake up.
Some of us cope by talking to others, especially women who have been there before. Others might just withdraw into a shell and disappear for months, and you don’t even realise they have sunk into depression. Most women carry their post-birth angst as a huge burden, never voicing it, or feeling it is inappropriate to. Sometimes the postpartum blues continue for a few years after the baby is born, but in most cases they are an on and off thing.
I wrote about this in my book, I’m Pregnant, Not Terminally Ill, You Idiot! and was told by many people that I should have spared them the gory details. But I felt it was important for mothers to have more information about birth injuries so they can at least try to avoid them. Cosmopolitan recently had an article about how a disturbing number of women quietly endure incontinence, painful sex, back aches, and crippling pelvic pain for years after giving birth, because of undiagnosed and untreated childbirth injuries. Many women suffer in silence for years and sometimes show up for treatment in their 50s to treat childbirth injuries they had decades ago, as pointed out by this Guardian article.
Women measure their birth victories by how soon they are able to get back into their old clothes, or do what they used to do before they were pregnant (which could include smoking, drinking, clubbing till 4 am, or just going for a run on the beach, getting into their favourite bikini, whatever). Any woman will feel more jubilant if she shows no outward signs of having produced a child — protruding belly, dark circles, fat arms, sagging breasts, or someone tells her, “Gosh, you look just the same as before!” If she looks better than fellow singletons, great! If she can still score, even better! It might also help if she is not always physically saddled with the child, and has a nanny-type person who does all of the manual stuff, while she, instead, poses for pretty mommy-baby pictures.
The longer a woman takes to come out ‘in the open’, the faster she gets labeled a loser. If someone is up and about in three months, she has just raised the bar for others to get back sooner, and they feel nothing but contempt for her. I used to feel a bit let down when someone said, “It was easier for me to give birth than to have a tooth extraction,” or, “She was up and about the next day.” Some women never gain their original bodies back, and are often scoffed at in private, as if, “Look, if this is what pregnancy does, I ain’t going there.”
My friend Pooja summed up her post-birth angst quite nicely. “The aftermath of giving birth is what no one really prepares you for. It’s plain hard! And I don’t think there is any harm in admitting that. Women who admit that are made out to be fussy. I wish someone gave me a realistic view of what’s to come. Beautiful ethereal images of women and babies that we have grown up seeing made me feel like something was wrong with me. I loved the experience, but it’s not all perfect as it’s made out to be.”
The preoccupation seems to be to get back to pre-pregnancy weight (and shape). Now considering that you continue to look pregnant even after giving birth (no, the stomach does not go in by elasticity), this is no mean feat and can take longer than you estimated. Unless of course you go on a raisin diet like Liz Hurley did, or survive on prawns like Posh Spice. Or the still-to-be-revealed-diet of VJ Mia who loudly proclaimed that she posed in a bikini three weeks after her baby was born. To the rest of us who don’t have personal chefs, trainers, or a nanny brigade, it’s tough. Sure this mega-calorie burning through breastfeeding is nature’s way of helping you lose weight. But no one tells you that it also makes you so ravenous, that you end up eating twice as much anyway.
But the good news is that your uterus is shrinking at the same time. As the baby suckles, your body releases prostaglandins which contract the uterus. Only, you can feel the contractions; it’s like a déjà vu of labour. Okay, period pain. And friends say, “Oh, that always happens.” Then there is a whole loosening of the fingers, to which they will say, “Oh, that’s nothing. It happened to me too.” When you mention it to the ob-gyn at the six-week visit, all he can do is remind you of postnatal exercises or “Calcium, calcium, calcium!” He will also then overtly remind you that should you want to get pregnant again, you should work on it soon.
So why doesn’t anyone tell you? It’s all one big secret. Every woman feels short-changed at some level by childbearing, but doesn’t know whom to tell. She fears she might be the odd one out, and the secret stays with her until she has an opportunity to let loose. Or someone else shares an equally gory story. These are stories that could be decades old, but were just saved up for a rainy day. Will talking about it make her look less cool? Less brave? Less maternal? Less resilient? Maybe it’s a combination.
Getting your body back is a very vague thing. It does not mean fitting into your old pair of jeans or fuck-me bra or tube dress. It means sitting down and standing up with ease, and feeling exactly the same va va voom you did before you were pregnant. Or being able to touch your toes and feeling exactly like you did before.
I can’t put a finger on what is tougher — carrying the baby around in you for nine months, or getting yourself together post baby. I had a C-section even though I thought I was the perfect candidate for all things ‘natural‘. And only you know that the bikini line scar just won’t go away. Neither will the overhang, which looks like a pelvic wattle. Every time I sat down or stood up in the initial months, I felt like a creaky cupboard. Seven years down, I am still waiting to get my body back. And beginning to get that like someone who went to war, neither my body nor mind will ever be the same again.