Postpartum bodies

Natalie Harker Kenley
Apr 1 · 3 min read
Photo of Portland Head Light in Cape Elizabeth Maine by Natalie Harker Kenley

Thankfully many pregnant women feel allowed to eat! So much advice is given to women carrying children about eating enough, getting enough folic acid, protein, energy and even though it’s a challenge because many of us feel strong aversions to certain foods while pregnant and we also have the mental hurdle of giving ourselves permission to eat what we are craving, what sounds palatable and appealing instead of what we think we *should* eat. Once our children are born, we often stop feeding ourselves enough and instead we feed our bodies to the wolves of dieting. We fear our changed bodies and are confused why we don’t look exactly like we did before we got pregnant! Food rules might then start to take over our intuitions. We mourn our past bodies that we felt more comfortable in and we struggle to make peace with our new shapes and sizes.

After my first son was born, I gave myself permission to eat whatever I wanted, while I was breastfeeding for the year. But the impending doom of an upcoming famine, the “perfect” eating I would engage in after I weaned him, left me so afraid of what that perfect way to eat would be so instead of feeling competent in the kitchen, I felt lost.

A still small voice spoke to me gently, encouraging me to feed my body whatever it asked for in order to regain its trust; it reasoned that my body didn’t trust me because of my plans to under-nourish it in the future through dieting. But I was not able to tune into that wise voice of intuition and instead I listened to outside voices literally telling me I was fat in a well meaning but pejorative way.

After my second son was born, I felt compelled to attend a women’s conference hosted by my church. Although I didn’t find solace in the workshops, I did meet a woman who enlightened my mind and gave me the courage to return to my intuition. She was older than me and sat next to me and my infant at lunch. As I often do with varying results, I began asking her about herself. I learned that she had grown children, her husband was a physician and she had a Masters degree in the health sciences and was a provider. One of her children has special needs and she and her husband successfully advocated for their child and her classmates to move into a special care facility that allows them to live independently with the support that they need. They literally had the home and foundation built from the ground up. She then shared with me that her graduate studies focused on women’s bodies as they go through transitions: the transition from girlhood to womanhood, each month the transition from the premenstrual period to bleeding and post-bleeding, the transition from pregnancy to giving birth where the experience right before one’s child emerges is literally called “transition”, the transition to lactating and weaning and finally menopause where she believes we as women give birth to a new version of ourselves.

She stressed the importance of viewing our transitions as positive and trusting our bodies. For example, she shared that many women gain fat in their bellies during menopause because the extra fat helps to regulate the hormonal changes and therefore makes menopause an easier and more gentle experience for us. But this extra fat which is helpful, useful and wise is often hated for doing its job.

This piece of knowledge changed my relationship to my body. Her wisdom became a lighthouse to me, while I struggled to navigate through the tumultuous seas of postpartum life. Many of us have mistakenly come to believe that being our most thin and flat bellied selves is the healthiest way to exist but we don’t ask ourselves where those pernicious ideas come from.

When I returned home I began seeking out information that could support this fresh idea that was catching hold of my imagination and I found a lot of support in the health at every size community, I learned about intuitive eating and joyful movement but most importantly, I learned that my body was wise and all of these new resources simply confirmed what I already knew, somewhere deep inside, that my body knows best.

Natalie Harker Kenley

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writing about the ideas that capture my imagination