Jen Diebling (33), Zoe (3.5), and Branson (12 mo)
Jen shares -
"If someone were to look at a picture of me before pregnancy and now, they would probably say that I look the same (maybe with some more wrinkles)! However, over the course of the last four years, my body has been on a tremendous journey, and naturally, that has deeply impacted my body image. For most of my adult years I held pride and confidence in my slim, athletic body, ability to run half marathons and eat whatever I liked.
After my numerous surgeries postpartum, later procedures, stomach infection that lasted nearly a year, and an esophageal disease that was awakened during this time, my body will never be the same. It is difficult to communicate how each of those separate trials affected what I am able to eat, my fluctuations in diet, overall health, and therefore my confidence in my body, so suffice it to say, that it has been complicated.
Though many moms rightfully struggle with the opposite end of the scale, for years after giving birth I was consistently trying to maintain weight with very little options about foods that would digest well and not painfully. It can be hard to talk about without trying to make other moms feel like I was complaining about being "too thin," when in fact it was a battle to maintain a healthy weight and to be able to exercise and feel strong, all while trying to care of someone else. Weight and appearance do not tell a complete story.
Due to the location of my surgeries (in my perineal area), and the multitude of doctor examinations, appointments, and physical therapy that this required for recovery, I became very protective of my body and what I had been through. As a parent, particularly of a girl, I know how deeply our body image can shape our identity, so I want to be careful to at the same time to take pride in everything my body has overcome and also be covered and safe from infection and the world's judging eyes. Though I am grateful that my wounds remain unseen to outward view, I also wish sometimes that what I experienced could communicate both the beauty and pain we endure.
My postpartum journey was life-changing. My daughter was induced at almost 42 weeks, and at the time I thought labor was hands down the most rewarding and difficult thing my body had ever experienced. Over the next few days, weeks, and then years, I would realize that I was sadly wrong. I will first say that I am a most blessed and rewarded mother. I have two beautiful, healthy children, and with just a few scares along the way, they have consistently been healthy, happy, and adorable. I understand that so many mothers only dream of this.
The days proceeding my three year old daughter's birth seem both a lifetime and a day ago. About 24 hours after she was born, still at the hospital, I knew in my heart that something was not right with my body. Well-meaning girlfriends had warned me how awkward, painful, and confusing your postpartum body can be, so while I expressed my concerns to doctors and nurses, overall I tried to convince myself that this was just what the aftermath of having a baby felt like. The photographs of our newborn daughter that we had taken in the hospital are painful for me to see, as I clutched her trying to smile but feeling desperate pain. The next two days were a flurry of trying to get home and settle in as new parents the "way it was supposed to be," and not making it even a few hours before heading back to the emergency room, being admitted, given antibiotics and pain medication, being sent home again, and just a few hours later back again as my feet, legs, and postpartum belly had swollen to tremendous sizes, and I appeared even larger than just a few days prior when I was carrying a baby. Finally, worried faces in the ER confirmed that something was scarily wrong with me.
What ensued was the first of twelve surgeries I would have on a daily basis while my newborn daughter was just 4-16 days old. The operations sought to remove an infection, contracted from the hospital, that had settled in my perineum and grown to a nearly fatal state. I will never forget hugging my tiny new daughter and my husband as I was taken away to the first surgery I had ever had, and mentally saying goodbye to them as I worried that I might not return. I am forever grateful that I did. I spent the next three weeks in a hospital bed, in multiple rooms, with numerous nurses, a fleet of doctors, and throughout fevers, scares, pain medications, and in little bits telling my story and my truth...as I fought my own life, had to reckon with the fact that these were my first moments as a mother, trying to hold my baby in between procedures and visiting hours, unable to breastfeed, and send her home each night with my wonderful parents, who took care of her at night.
Those weeks felt like years, but when I begged to be released from the hospital and finally was allowed to be discharged, I thought that the worst was over and that I could begin to be a mother. Recovery, I found out, would encompass even more trials, but with each hurdle and opportunity to be resilient, and rest in the joy of my wonderful daughter. It has been complicated to describe my first year as a mother, because while I experienced many of the typical emotions ascribed to new moms (sleep-deprivation, worry over their development and their nutrition, the joy over milestones and mourning time past), I was also completely consumed with my own recovery.
I was on intense pain medication for over three months and experienced withdrawal as I tried desperately to wean off of the medication so that I could be fully present and alert for my daughter. I could not walk well or be left alone with my daughter for almost eight weeks, or even feed her during a night feeding for two months. I was unable to drive for several months, had persistent panic attacks as I relived my time in the hospital, had to go to over 50 doctor appointments throughout that first year toting an infant, and though I am surrounded by the MOST amazing family and friends, had a difficult time being around people who did not know or fully understand my journey. I was on medical leave the entire year from my job as an elementary school teacher.
Just after we rejoiced in my daughter's first birthday and the milestone that it was for all of us, I contracted another infection in the same place, was rushed to surgery, and ended up with colostrum difficile, a debilitating stomach infection that would stubbornly not respond to antibiotics and again took me away from my work as a teacher. At this time, I began to feel desperate for healing. Being a parent is a most difficult job, and I started to really feel sorry for myself as months went on and I could not be the mom, or person I wanted to be.
Though this time was painful, I knew the joy that my little one had brought into my life. I knew that I wanted to experience that again, though I was unsure whether or not my body could handle another pregnancy, delivery, and postpartum journey, physically or emotionally. This led my husband and I to the conclusion that we wanted to fulfill a dream instilled long before we became pregnant: to adopt.
Fast forward through tremendous recovery for me, and a very speedy adoption process, to just over one year ago when we brought my son home from the hospital. Though I must mention that the process included a failed adoption, an initially frightening week's stay in the NICU, and the unknown of a very brief relationship with my son's birth mom, overall bringing him home from the hospital allowed me to do what I had longed to do with my first child, and simply be a parent in those first days and months. As we adjusted to being a family of four and what it "should" feel like to have a newborn, I quickly realized that there really is no "should be." I will always grieve some things about the way my children came into the world, but their presence is a miracle for which I am eternally grateful. It has deeply changed me, my aspirations, and the compassion I feel on a daily basis.
My story is one of redemption and resilience, and my two amazing children became my source of healing and joy. I always thought that the miracle of pregnancy and birth were "supposed to be" beautiful, and though hard: straightforward. I have learned that this journey to becoming a parent is anything but simple, for anyone. We all have truths and hardships that need to be shared. Keeping them inside make us bitter and susceptible. Sharing my story gives me freedom, and I pray that it brings freedom to others. After my postpartum experience I began sharing my story through artwork and a blog, and was drawn to 4th Trimester Bodies. Reading and sharing in the stories of others has been part of my healing, and I promised myself that if you ever stopped at a city nearby I would participate. This amount of physical vulnerability and storytelling with strangers is well outside of my comfort zone, but I believe strongly in the movement and the importance of honesty with our fellow parents.
Becoming a parent is single-handedly the most joyful, and equally painful thing we can experience. Though worth it, there is no "way it was should have been" when it comes to becoming a parent. The more we share this with expecting/pre-adoptive/trying desperately to have a baby prospective parents, the less people will feel they have to meet a fictitious standard of health, beauty, emotional stability, and ease."