Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Reflections on pregnancy and new parenthood: Modifying expectations, emotions, vegan eating, exercise, body image, and lessons learnt

Bite-Sized Thoughts won't be changing to a parenting / baby-focused blog, but I did want to write one post summarising some of my thoughts and experiences with pregnancy and new parenthood. In large part this is self-indulgence, as I wanted to organise my thoughts and this is a way to do so. However, I hope the content may be relevant to others too, even if they are not my regular recipe-focused readers. This is a long post and so I have organised it by the headings included in the post title.


Modifying expectations
If there is one thing I would say to future new parents or people considering starting a family, it is to put all expectations of conception, pregnancy, birth and parenthood aside. My expectations ahead of time? I thought it would take 6-12 months to become pregnant; that I would experience mild morning sickness if at all; that I would love pregnancy and breeze through it with hardly any adjustments to my previous routines; and that I would manage runs of 10 miles or so until the last trimester, when I would gracefully set my running shoes aside but then bounce straight back into running within a fortnight of the birth. I thought labour would be hard, but that my newborn baby would then sleep for most of the day and I would be out and about with them, taking 2 hour walks and browsing shops with a peaceful baby in the pram.

The reality? Basically everything I thought would be easy was hard, and the things I thought would be hard were actually easier than anticipated. I got pregnant very quickly (for which I am very grateful, but it did mean it was a bit of a shock); I felt sick constantly for the first 13 weeks and sick most of the time for the first 16 weeks, albeit with minimal actual vomiting ("morning" sickness is a complete misnomer); and I found the second trimester (when I was meant to be "glowing") a series of minor ailments and challenges (2 colds, an inner ear infection, a bout of gastro, and some incredible pelvic / back pain that meant I could barely walk around weeks 20-21 of pregnancy). I found the physical changes hard (more on that below) and often felt like I'd got onto a 9-month roller coaster that I desperately wanted to get off, but couldn't. Unexpectedly, I then felt much more like myself and generally happier in the third trimester - when in theory I should have been tired and fed up - and after the week of intense back pain was able to return to running and keep it up (albeit slowly and at much shorter distances!) until the very end. Indeed, I ran 2 miles the day I went into labour. At the same time, I found the end stage of pregnancy incredibly difficult with the uncertainty over when Mini Bite would arrive and genuinely felt like I was going crazy with waiting at the end. Another (incorrect) expectation was that I would go into labour early, around 38 weeks to be precise, and so I couldn't understand when each day passed and Mini Bite didn't arrive until 40 weeks and 3 days. In that context, I also struggled with finishing work at 37 weeks and the lag before a baby appeared.

Labour itself was more manageable than I'd predicted (obviously a good thing) as, whilst hard, it was time limited and my body largely took over. I was very attached to gas and air but managed without an epidural, or even the bath / pool I wanted, as the hospital pools were all full. I am very grateful for that. However, new parenthood was infinitely more difficult than I thought it would be. The baby sleeping all day? Hardly. There were days it seemed like she didn't sleep at all, night or day. 2 hour walks with a peaceful baby? In the early weeks Mini Bite generally wanted to feed hourly, with associated frequent nappy changes, and also disliked the pram. Then there were the growth spurt days where she fed even more often - near constantly!

I also wasn't prepared for how hard life is with persistent sleep deprivation, or how much I'd struggle with not having time to myself or the freedom to do what I wanted when I wanted. I know that sounds selfish, and it is, but I now know that life before parenthood allows for selfishness. And I miss it!

Running straight after birth? Despite running (slowly and in small doses) up until the birth, it took me a week before I could consistently walk 10,000 steps per day, which was my pre-pregnancy baseline for activity, never mind run anywhere. What is more, I was actually terrified of running for the first fortnight as I needed an episiotomy and had visions of stitches re-opening. At 3 weeks, I was then so nostalgic for running that I did venture out, only to find that 10 minutes was my limit and my pace was slower than at the end of pregnancy. (More on pregnancy and exercise below.)

In addition to labour, breastfeeding is an area where my expectations were exceeded in a positive way. I thought I'd find it hard at the start and that it would take a while to get used to. In contrast, Mini Bite latched well from the start and was a voracious feeder - she clearly knew what she wanted and how to get it. My only struggle was the frequency of her feeding in the early weeks.

So, in sum: put aside expectations. I now try to do this on a daily basis. So if yesterday Mini Bite had a 2 hour nap in her cot and I got to eat a balanced lunch peacefully, vaccum, make dinner in advance, and rest for a bit? Today she is just as likely to be feeding or unsettled all day, my own eating will be whatever I can grab while I am feeding her, and there will be no chance of putting her down for even 10 minutes. If yesterday I cried for an hour and thought I'd made the biggest mistake of my life by becoming a parent, today I may rejoice in a baby smile and genuinely enjoy the rhythm of our feeding and playing routines.

Pregnancy and new parenthood are guaranteed to send you on an emotional rollercoaster. I don't think I experienced massive hormonal mood changes but I definitely had lots of highs and lows in pregnancy and the weeks after Mini Bite's birth. In fact, with hindsight, I would say I went through a grieving process for the first 2 months of her life. I missed my old life hugely, including work, and found it an enormous adjustment to give up my pre-baby routines. This was made harder by the expectation that I would love my newborn and love parenthood, as well as well-meaning comments from people about "these are the most precious times". I do love her and there were precious times, but it didn't mean I loved it all the time.

There is a lot written about post-natal depression and many great resources out there, which I won't even attempt to compete with. However, that is another area where it is worth putting expectations aside. Ironically, I thought I might be vulnerable to post-natal depression but my image of what it would be like didn't match my experiences. I had envisioned hormone-driven crying and inexplicable sadness that felt biological in nature. I did have some moments like that, but was able to see them for what they were and ride them out. In contrast, I had some persistent emotional lows that I discounted as depression because I thought it entirely understandable that I felt sad, given I'd made an enormous mistake in having a child and effectively ruined my life for the next 18 years. I was utterly convinced that my life was over and would be miserable for the foreseeable future. This is, of course, classic depressive thinking but when you're in the midst of it it can be hard to see it as such (even with a mental health background, which I have). I still wouldn't say I experienced post-natal depression as such - as noted, I think a period of grieving sums it up best - but I can now see that my thoughts in certain weeks were distorted and depressive in nature.

Vegan eating
From the outset I was prepared to go vegetarian for pregnancy if needed. By "needed" I mean if I became anaemic or showed some other nutritional deficiency, or if I desperately craved any non-vegan but vegetarian foods. As it turned out, I remained vegan about 90% of the time and the 10% exceptions were due to choice rather than need.

I took a pregnancy vitamin complex with iron and never experienced difficulties with insufficient nutrients. This was despite poor nutrition through the first trimester when I couldn't stomach most foods and largely lived off plain carbohydrates. The body is clearly more resilient than we give it credit for!

The few times I ate vegetarian were (i) early in the second trimester and a few occasions subsequently when I desperately craved protein, namely chicken!, and had some packets of Quorn chicken-style pieces (which have egg white); (ii) social occasions like shared work lunches, where I was less focused than usual on avoiding dairy / egg (although I did still do so if I could); and (iii) a few occasions when I really craved milk chocolate and gave in! Mini Bite was born at the 50th percentile exactly for weight, and whilst I don't pretend this is directly linked to my diet (babies are individuals and she could equally have been a 25th or 75th percentile baby and been healthy), it does suggest my mostly vegan diet did the trick.

Since having Mini Bite, I have returned to being fully vegan, although do always consider myself flexible to vegetarianism if circumstances demand (they just rarely do). She has fed incredibly well and grown incredibly well, now being over the 90th percentile for weight and length. Again, I don't attribute these things to veganism but it is reassuring to know that my usual diet does the job.

As for whether I will bring Mini Bite up on a vegan diet? I will certainly bring her up on a predominantly plant-based diet, because that is what I cook and prepare most often, and there are lots of foods we just don't have in the house. However, I don't intend to limit what she has at birthday parties or similar and I imagine she will be closer to Mr Bite's mostly vegetarian eating than my vegan style.

I touched on some of my running experiences above and the theme of 'put expectations aside' holds for exercise of any nature, during pregnancy and beyond. However, I wanted to detail some more specific experiences because exercise is so important to me.

Before pregnancy, my exercise routine was to do a long run of 7-12 miles on Saturday, a 30 minute cycle on Sunday, a 4 mile run on Tuesday, and 2-3 mile runs on each of Thursday and Friday (15-22 miles of running per week, or roughly 60-90 miles per month). I was fairly poor at fitting in strength or flexibility work, but did stretch after all runs.

During pregnancy? In the first trimester, as noted, I felt sick much of the time. Running long distances was definitely out. However, there wasn't a week where I didn't run at least a little bit, even if the distance was only 1 or 2 miles at a time. I found that I often felt slightly better after a run, and even if I didn't feel better physically, it helped emotionally. As the graph below shows, though, my distances dropped off to about half of what I'd been doing pre-pregnancy - 30-40 miles rather than 60-90.

The second trimester (months March through May in the above graph) was characterised by various ailments but I was able to run more, and my mileage picked up again although never to pre-pregnancy levels. My pace gradually slowed too and that continued into the third trimester (May-start of August) when distances dwindled again. The two months after Mini Bite was born (August/September) saw me do hardly any running, but October picked up again and I am now aiming for 10 miles per week. As the graph below shows, I'm also doing lots of walking these days, especially as Mini Bite naps best in the baby carrier when I am moving.

One of the new exercises I did in pregnancy, which I am very grateful for, is pilates. I did pregnancy pilates once per week for most weeks from 16 to 39 weeks of pregnancy. I actually had fewer headaches in pregnancy than usual and credit that entirely to the pilates. The few weeks I missed a class I inevitably had more back pain.

Despite exercising throughout pregnancy I was shocked by how weak I felt after giving birth. It really does take time to recover your core strength and have the stamina you used to have. I have a way to go before I could consider another half marathon (never mind full) but have been pleased to see my fitness come back exponentially after the first month. The biggest challenge now is getting out with Mini Bite in the equation - Mr Bite usually has her for an hour on a weekend morning so I can fit in a longer run, and I have found she falls asleep if I run with her in the pram and so do a couple of shorter runs during the week that way. I'm also trying to continue going to a mother/baby pilates class weekly to fortnightly, and do a mother/baby circuit training class at the same frequency.

Body image
I thought I would relish my changing pregnant body and experience pregnancy as a time of increased confidence in my shape. This was another incorrect expectation and, to my surprise, I found the experience of shape change extremely difficult. This was less to do with my changing shape per se and more to do with comments from other people. I felt scrutinised and objectified a lot of the time, and became more and more self-conscious as the months progressed. It didn't help that I could receive a comment about "looking so tiny!" and "your bump has grown so much - you're huge!" in the same day.

Whilst pregnancy pilates was helpful for me physically, I also found those classes a hotbed for comparisons between women. I'm sure people thought they were being nice when they told me I had "a perfect bump" but it actually made me less confident - what if next week I didn't anymore? Every pregnant woman grows at a different rate and has her own unique shape changes, and comparing people or labelling something "perfect", "big" or "small" is just ridiculous. I now regret any previous times I commented on a pregnant woman's bump growth and will certainly never do so again.

In terms of weight gain, I lost weight in the first trimester and gained at the lower end of what is considered average, but the rate of weight gain was uneven and not something I could have controlled (nor should any pregnant woman try to). There were weeks I didn't gain anything and others when the scale jumped up suddenly. For me, losing the weight after birth was also quick but there is certainly a distinction between weight and shape, as my post-birth shape does not mimic my pre-pregnancy body even if my weight is the same.

Lessons learnt
This has been a heavy post and I thought I'd finish on a slightly lighter note. Everyone is different and I don't intend to offer advice but for what it is worth - here are my top 10 tips or lessons learnt, as they apply to us.

1. Get a baby carrier (a wrap, sling or structured carrier). 
We have an Ergobaby and it has been an absolute life saver for me. Mini Bite struggles enormously with daytime naps but will sleep in the carrier and it allows me to get out of the house and to have two hands for cooking / cleaning / eating when at home. There is also some research to suggest that babies who are worn a lot of the day have fewer difficulties with gas / wind, and are generally happier and more content, than babies who are not.

2. Sleep when the baby sleeps - but only if you want to! 
Everyone tells you to sleep when the baby sleeps and while I get the logic of this, it felt like an extra pressure to me in the early weeks. For one, Mini Bite didn't necessarily sleep off me and so it wasn't always practical for me to sleep at the same time. For two, I then felt like I had to fall asleep quickly to make the most of this limited sleep opportunity, which is of course a recipe for not being able to sleep. In the end, I used any nap time opportunities to address what I saw as my most pressing need - sometimes sleep, other times rest, but sometimes cleaning or cooking.

3. Ask for help and don't try to do everything you did pre-baby.
There was a point when I got quite annoyed at Mr Bite for not helping with the cooking and cleaning - but I never asked him for help and carried on trying to do all the tasks I did before Mini Bite arrived. I was getting frustrated and he had no idea I wanted assistance, which was unhelpful for both of us. Don't try to do everything and don't expect people to read your mind.

4. Get out of the house.
Even if it's just for a walk around the block. It will give some structure to your day and avoid the feeling of claustrophobia that can come with feeding / changing / settling loops.

5. Don't get out of the house too much.
I learnt that if we had a big outing one day, we needed a quieter day to recuperate the next. It's hard work getting everything you need for an outing with a baby and then lugging the pram wherever you want to go, finding spaces to change the baby, and generally trying to ensure everyone gets through the outing without distress. I enjoy the times we do big days out but they aren't helpful too often.

6. It's fine to take short cuts.
So you always made bread from scratch, never bought packaged snacks, and ironed your sheets and pillowcases? It might be that those things don't work after having a baby - and that's alright. Figure out what still matters to you and what you are prepared to sacrifice. I sometimes buy packaged rice now, which I would never have done before, and I use a mix of disposable and reusable nappies despite expecting to predominantly favour reusable. Conversely, I still clean the house frequently because it bothers me hugely when it is dirty.

7. Have one small goal each day.
In the early weeks, this might have been vacuuming one room. These days I can aspire to vacuuming the whole house, but whatever it is, set something you want to do and allow yourself to feel pride when you do it - even if it wouldn't have warranted pride before a baby was in the equation!

8. Avoid comparisons whenever possible.
Every baby is different and every parent is different. Babies also develop at their own pace and what your child is doing can't sensibly be compared to what your friend, neighbour or work colleague's child is up to. This point is especially relevant when browsing articles online.

9. Figure out what works for you, and then do it.
For a while I tried to get us on a set schedule, religiously recording Mini Bite's feeding and sleeping times with the hope that we would one day be able to say "2pm is nap time" or "11am is feeding time". The thing is, babies change all the time and they also vary day-to-day - as we all do. I no longer watch the clock religiously but can generally predict the time windows she will be feeding, sleeping or awake. I think in terms of a rolling schedule (a loop of feeding, sleeping and awake time) rather than an exact one and that works better for us.

10. Remember that the days can be long, but the months short.
This saying sums up parenting exactly. I do my best to ride out the difficult long days and relish the joyous moments that I know will pass all too quickly.

If you have children - how do my experiences relate to yours? If you don't, any thoughts on my ramblings?


  1. Great post, Kari. I can relate to a lot of what you shared. My guy came early and while we bought a SSC as a baby carrier, I ended up preferring woven wraps. I am so happy that was your first tip. I love baby wearing and don't know where I'd be without it. :) Good luck with your next steps.. I hope you share more. :)

    1. I've heard woven wraps are better when babies are still very little so it makes complete sense you preferred them with your early arrival :-) Baby wearing is definitely a life saver however you do it!

  2. Great to read about how you are going, wart and all! Sounds like you are riding the waves just fine even if it is hard going at times. I recently saw a great show from a comedian with a song about going out called "I'll see you in 17 years" which made me laugh but also nod appreciatively. It does at time feel like a long time without personal freedom. And then I have days like today when I didn't feel well and Sylvla got herself ready and left me a little restorative snack for when I finally got up. It is such a rollercoaster.

    My experiences were quite different to yours but I still emphathise with a lot - the way that people feel quite free to comment on a pregnant body and though they would not feel that freedom otherwise was very frustrating to me, I regret to say I lost a lot of my exercise routines since Sylvia was born and find it much harder now, and I think getting out of the house after she was born was really important - I still look back with happiness at our regular walks when she was in the pram and I could walk at my pace and not hers.

    Good luck as you go along the journey with your wee one - I am sure that your reflectiveness will make you a better mother.

    1. How sweet regarding Sylvia looking after you :-) A rollercoaster is right and I can well see it going on for 17 years (or perhaps longer!).

  3. Thanks for sharing, I can relate to a fair bit of it. I do think the things I thought would be easy were harder and vice versa. My first child didn't sleep well and I was so tired that when my second came along I was all smugly ho ho nobody can be a worse sleeper than my first. Well me second was exponentially worse and it was awful for quite a while as I only got a total of two hours broken sleep over 24 hours! Fun times... my husband was a life saver, he went out and bought me a portable dvd player and said well if you're going to be awake all night anyway, you should be watching something that makes you laugh. So I survived with dvds of Red Dwarf, Sex and the City and Seinfeld :) It helped immensely!

    1. Oh gosh, 2 hours broken sleep in 24 hours would be enough to send anyone near mad! Thank goodness for DVDs and I hope eventually you have all progressed to getting enough rest!

  4. I am not a Mama and don't know if I will be ever blessed with that gift, but completely appreciate your blog post and all your honestly, especially that you gave in to your cravings, I know many vegans and vegetarians would never admit that in fear of reprisals or negative comments. It really is interesting for me to read and your new chapter in life of motherhood.

  5. I really appreciate you sharing this with us. It must have been hard as it is very personal, but I am always of the opinion that sharing things like this will help others in how they are feeling and maybe even help them cope and deal with things better.
    "I know that sounds selfish, and it is, but I now know that life before parenthood allows for selfishness. And I miss it!"
    It doesn't sound selfish in the least actually. It sounds perfectly normal. I think society has built up some expectations that parents should be completely selfless humans and do absolutely everything for their children. But just because you became a mom, doesn't mean you lose your sense of self or the Kari you were before being a parent.

    "If yesterday I cried for an hour and thought I'd made the biggest mistake of my life by becoming a parent, today I may rejoice in a baby smile and genuinely enjoy the rhythm of our feeding and playing routines."
    This again is beautifully honest.

    "Don't try to do everything and don't expect people to read your mind."
    Well... this certainly bodes true whether you have children or not ;)

    As someone without kids and has no plans for kids, I really did enjoy reading your thoughts and feelings. I often feel criticized and selfish myself for not wanting children. There are about a million and one reasons (ranging from my genes are cancer ridden and I'm scared of passing that along, to having to have a very "careful" conception & pregnancy as I'm on hormone replacement therapy from not having a thyroid, to being told I have a very good chance of getting terrible post-natal depression, to issues with body image, to just plain not wanting any), the fact is, it's just not for me. I seriously admire anyone for being a parent though as I can only imagine the amount of work that goes into it, like the glimpse you just gave us. It really is the hardest job in the world, also the most rewarding. It sounds like despite your expectations not matching well, you are managing well and I'm so happy for you and your family =)

    1. Thank you so much for this thoughtful comment Kimmy - it means a lot. I also appreciate your own perspective and insights, especially as for a long time I was sure I didn't want children either (for different reasons to you). I find it frustrating when society assumes women want children / a family and applaud those who stand up and say if they don't.


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