Sometime mid-way through my recent pregnancy, I read a quote by Barbara Katz Rothman that said, “Birth is not only about making babies. Birth is about making mothers--strong, competent, capable mothers who trust themselves and know their inner strength.” I pondered this idea throughout the ensuing months leading up to the birth of my daughter, as well as the 3 months since her arrival. And while I couldn’t agree more with this statement, I think it’s somewhat limited. If birth is about making mothers, then surely so is pregnancy.
The 9+ months we get to prepare for motherhood is a time of intense reassessment and reordering of priorities and habits in order to welcome a new life into the world – I needed every day and then some. This process manifests in a variety of ways for different people, from nesting and preparing a nursery to rethinking career goals. (I even had a friend who thought that if she could just figure out the perfect haircut, everything else would fall into place!) For me, this necessary refiguring came in the form of self-care.
The first few months of my pregnancy were really difficult. I was heading up a major, hands-on project at work and battling extreme nausea throughout the day, every day, while trying to still hide the news from my colleagues. With a background firmly planted in the protestant work ethic, I’ve always taken masochistic pride in my ability to work long, hard hours with little compensation for the love of the job. But it soon became apparent that I would not be able to keep up my regular pace, and my healthcare provider informed me that chronic stress and overtiredness could adversely affect the baby growing inside of me. I decided I needed to make some temporary shifts in habit in order to get through this pregnancy intact.
The changes were small at first: I started leaving work on time, going to bed an hour or two earlier, cutting down on coffee and packing healthier lunches to eat on the go. My second and third trimester brought with them anxiety about the upcoming birth, and so I begin a meditation practice in the morning and at night before bed to calm my rampant thoughts and improve sleep. I started stretching and swimming on the weekends. I somehow found the discipline to close my computer after dinner and not check emails on my phone during the many times I woke in the middle of the night. I learned to sit still in the winter sun for half an hour. I took long weekend walks with my partner. As my belly grew bigger by the day, I started massaging myself with natural oils after allowing myself a long, hot bath. Where I used to be critical of what I saw in the mirror, I now thanked my body for the amazing job it was doing creating and carrying a new person. I breathed deeply.
Formerly I would have felt guilty for engaging in such luxurious, lazy pleasures. I had valued efficiency and productivity for so long that this new focus on self-care felt, well, selfish. But when guilt would creep in, I would be reminded that taking care of myself and taking care of my growing baby were one and the same. In short, being pregnant gave me the excuse I needed to care for myself.
These new habits accompanied me throughout the exhaustion of the first trimester, through the stretching and kicking of the middle months, and into the excitement and hip-widening waddle of the last stretch of pregnancy. And when the day finally came, my new attitude towards self-care helped carry me through an intense natural labor and delivery and allowed me to be slow and kind to myself during postpartum recovery.
Now, three months later, I’m surprised to realize that the “temporary” shifts I made towards self-care might not be so temporary after all, nor should they be. Sure, with a new baby, I don’t have hours a day to go to a spa, but I can carve out time for an extra-hot shower, take 5 minutes to meditate before bed, and rather than feeling the pressure to get things done, I can steal a guilt-free nap when the opportunity comes my way.
Ultimately, my new attitude towards self-care has not only helped me maintain my sanity during this time of huge transition, but is making me into a better mother as well. I’ve learned to be ok with mono-tasking and focusing wholly on my daughter/partner/self as needed. I now have the discipline to unplug from screens, phones and tablets for hours a day and instead play, read, and talk with my baby. The weekend walks with my partner continue, as do the healthy meals (for the most part), and learning to thank my body continues to have a profound impact on how I approach my new postpartum physique with its extra pounds and stretch marks. Perhaps most importantly, I’m giving my daughter a model of self-care to emulate when I’m no longer around to do it for her. I want her to grow up knowing that she deserves care, and so I have come to terms with the fact that so do I -- I’m somebody’s daughter too after all. As I look back over the last year, I see now that pregnancy not only taught me to care for a small baby, it also taught me to care about myself.
Heather Jones is a curator, independent culture and lifestyle writer, and Co-founder and Editor of the online arts journal CAS. She currently lives and works between New York City and Stavanger, Norway.