Jocie Strong (33), Henrietta "Etta" (2.5), and Beatrice "B.B." (2 months)
Jocie shares -
"I was lucky to grow up with confidence in my body and a positive self-image. Beginning with my first pregnancy, I was astounded that so many people, including co-workers, family and total strangers, suddenly felt entitled to make comments about my body. It felt intrusive, especially as I was having a hard time embracing my growing curves.
With my older daughter, I had a bewildering birth experience ending in an unplanned cesarean, where I didn't get to meet her until almost an hour after she was born. Afterwards, many commented that I bounced back quickly and "looked great," but I still had to face that surgical scar in the mirror each morning and it often brought me to tears. It reminded me that my “strong” body had failed me and my daughter in the birth process. And while my body was leaner than it had been before pregnancy, I struggled emotionally to grieve the loss of the beautiful natural birth I had anticipated.
Thankfully, my daughter and I had a very positive breastfeeding relationship that allowed me some grace and self-forgiveness following the traumatic birth experience. After overcoming some initial issues with latch and resulting nipple damage, Etta exclusively breastfed for 6 mo and we continued nursing until she self-weaned around 23 mo.
When I became pregnant for a second time, my anxiety soared and doubt about my body crept in. I knew I couldn’t relive my first birth experience, but I didn’t believe an unnecessary elective abdominal surgery was right for my body either. I had to know that my body was capable of the basic human function of reproduction. With the support of a doula and a midwife, and my mother and my husband, I birthed my second daughter via a homebirth transfer VBAC, after multiple days of labor. Although still not the exact birth experience I had envisioned, I felt empowered by the choices I’d made and triumphant in the capabilities of my body.
Today, my body is still healing, and will be for a while. I am in awe of my scarred, stretched, strong and resilient body – it has grown two healthy girls from almost nothing, and provided total nourishment and immune protection in the milk I make and feed my babies.
My professional background is in surgical nursing. Following an unplanned cesarean, I approached postpartum recovery in a matter-of-fact sort of way, as if I were just caring for one of my post-surgical patients. I knew it was important to stay hydrated and get enough iron, to manage my incisional pain, to walk around to prevent post-surgical complications such as an ileus or embolism. Physically, I recovered pretty quickly and without much lingering pain. Emotionally, I was a wreck, but didn’t really think I could or should talk about it. I coped by pushing those emotions down and away and trying to focus on my beautiful, healthy baby girl. After support from an IBCLC, our breastfeeding journey was wonderful and I felt happy and relieved that breastfeeding was so easy and special for us. It was miraculous to me that I could sustain the life of another human solely with milk that came from my own breasts. I actually decided to pursue IBCLC certification to be able to support others in having this meaningful bond and relationship with their babies.
During my second pregnancy, everyone told me that recovery from a vaginal birth was a lot easier than recovery from a cesarean. Well, in my experience, that wasn’t entirely true. This time around, I feel emotionally healthy. As I prepared for a vaginal birth with this pregnancy, I was forced to work through a lot of the postpartum anxiety I'd felt after my cesarean and I am much more relaxed during this postpartum period. I also feel like I know my second daughter so well, while with my first there was a period of adjustment where we needed to get to know each other. After my VBAC, I felt such a strong sense of accomplishment and relief, and restored faith in my body and identity as a woman. I also feel a renewed and intense love for my husband and all the support he gave me to get to where I am today.
However, after 50+ hours of labor, including an extended period of pushing, physical recovery and pain management has been much more difficult for me this time around. Heeding the advice of my midwife, I gave myself time to rest at home and avoided stairs for 1-2 weeks following birth. I’ve tried to be gentle with myself and ease back into things slowly. I feel like I was less prepared for this type of postpartum recovery and it certainly has not been the “easy” recovery I’d heard about. I’m now in a pelvic floor physical therapy program and I hope that this work will further assist my body in recovery and restrengthening, but I feel it will never be quite the same again.
After two very different and equally challenging birth and postpartum experiences, I am grateful and full of love for my family. I’m learning to look in the mirror and love my c-section scar because it brought me my daughter, who brings me and the world so much joy. I’m embracing my breasts, which have moved up and down and changed sizes countless times in the last 3 years, because they have provided amazing nutrition and medicine to my daughters. And I am being patient with myself as I learn how to be a mother of two - something that feels at its worst more frustrating and impossible than anything I've ever done before, but at its best like the most basic, yet significant and meaningful work of my life.
It seems that there is an impossible gap between mainline media portrayal of mothers and the reality of the motherhood experience. I've been following this project and admiring the brave women who have spoken out about their experiences. Philosophically, I find it odd that the shared human experiences of birth and postpartum recovery are such taboo topics of conversation. I think that if women have more realistic expectations of birth and postpartum recovery, and feel empowered to ask questions and discuss their experiences, they can be more prepared to manage challenges that arise, and potentially more likely to stay mentally and emotionally healthy as they become mothers. I want my girls to know that their bodies are unique, strong and capable, no matter how they appear during the various stages of their lives. And I want them to be able access truthful information to make informed decisions about pregnancy, birth and motherhood when the time comes.
There is no one right way to look or feel as a mother. We are all shaped by our own life experiences and changed by the people we love. Being able to exercise patience with yourself and your body as a mother may allow you some space to just enjoy the ride.