The 6 Week Postpartum Myth
After I had my first baby I enthusiastically did my first run the day she turned six weeks because that’s when everyone says you can/should start exercising again. And after not running through my pregnancy, I missed running. I ran for a few weeks and then had to stop for two months to regather my strength — one step forward, two steps back… Looking back, I can see that when that 6-week milestone arrived, I allowed myself to be steered by comparison and an unrealistic and often uninformed dialog about postpartum recovery and fitness rather than where I actually was at the time — which was the most depleted I’d ever been.
Personally, I find the notion that a woman should be ready or expected to start working out just six weeks after making a human being totally mind-boggling. Where that timeline comes from I’m not totally sure but it feels like a myth that very few are busting. Don’t get me wrong: The desire to get back to yourself/your body is real. And can most women who have been runners run around that time? Probably, because women are strong as hell. But should they? Good question.
How do we even define postpartum? It takes nine months to grow a baby and it takes at least that long — I’ve heard numbers ranging from nine months to two years from various medical professionals and bodyworkers — for your body to return to its pre-pregnancy state. This has nothing to do with how you look on the outside but instead refers to your internal organs, hormones, and more. But that isn’t part of the collective conversation around postpartum recovery. The only number I hear is the allegedly magical 6-week mark when you’re “recovered,” and apparently everything is supposed to go back to normal — you’re supposed to bounce back.
When I had my second baby this summer I vowed to myself that I’d approach recovery differently this time — that I’d do it right.
I was fortunate to birth my son at home with no medical intervention or injuries and cleared myself of all agenda for about three months after his arrival. I embraced a fourth trimester. Around the six week mark rather than putting on my running shoes, I got a rec from a couple mother runner friends to a physical therapist (if you’re in London go see The Maternity Physio, she’s brill!) who specializes in women’s health, in particular pre- and postnatal. She assessed my posture and stability and did an internal check of my pelvic floor — the integral hammock of muscles that support your reproductive organs, bladder, and more. She talked to me about how I was feeling and made recommendations in the context of my goals. I never received this level of support and information after having my first baby — I didn’t even know it existed but it has been game-changing.
While my doctor simultaneously told me around the same time that I was fine and could resume running — without any assessment of my internal state — my PT recommended that I wait six months before returning to running. Half a year. More than three times longer than the usual six-week recommendation. Waiting six months seems radical but I completely agree in principle because it takes a long time to recover from baby making and the reality is that those six months fly by so fast. Plus it’s worth the wait to recover fully and rebuild a foundation that’s capable of sustaining whatever level of running you want to chase. I mean, who wants to bounce back when you can move forward?
While I was in no rush to run, in practice for me six months ended up being too long to wait. Around eight weeks postpartum I experienced a hormonal rollercoaster that manifested as dark moods, OCD tendencies, and what felt like endless crying. In my best moments, I was managing. In my worst, it felt like I wasn’t even there. Most days all I wanted to do was stand in the shower and listen to Fiona Apple. I felt totally blindsided and overcome, even with all the skills, support, and resources at hand. Turns out this is common. Many women experience a significant and physically/mentally tangible hormonal fluctuation between 6–8 weeks postpartum while the body stabilizes milk supply and two months of sleep deprivation sets in. Whether you’re experiencing postpartum depression or not, this science makes “getting cleared” at six weeks seem even more unrealistic and irresponsible. The whole timeline sets women up to struggle.
I went back to my PT and told her I needed to start running ASAP for my mental health and together we made a plan to make that happen sooner. I started running around 12 weeks postpartum — twice the usual time rec — and it’s made an immediate impact on my well-being. I don’t know if it’s the actual running or just the 30 minutes to myself, but it’s helping a lot. Recovery still feels very real so I continue to prioritize rest and focus on rebuilding my foundation with strategic PT and yoga because it’s those things that have actually enabled me to be able to enjoy running postpartum so far. I’m feeling stronger physically and mentally as each week passes now and that’s a progression that I’m really proud of because I don’t want to bounce back – I want to move forward.
My bout of postnatal depression was a wakeup call. It’s been in my darkest moments in the last few months — and really in the last year throughout my pregnancy — that the need to proactively take my well-being into my own hands has been clearest. It goes without saying that pregnancy, childbirth, and mothering is so different for every woman, every time. There’s no one “right” way to do any of it other than to do it in your own unique way that’s full of self-awareness and support, and free from timelines and comparisons.
Here are some things that have helped me a lot over the last few months:
Celebrate rest. This (along with nutrition) is the #1 most important thing postpartum. It might not look as exciting or productive as the postpartum fitness/comeback hashtags you see on social media, but it’s more important in the early months. And it’s hard not to overdo it if you’re feeling good. If you feel good that’s awesome, but it doesn’t mean you’re not still recovering.
See a postnatal/women’s health/pelvic physical therapist. Whether or not you think you need it, this is incredibly valuable information and support. Even if you’ve pushed a baby out of your body it can be pretty mysterious what’s going on in there so arm yourself with awareness and information. Ask mom friends who’s helped them, get a referral from your doctor — get in there!
Speak up. Recovering from being pregnant and having a baby is hard. And being a mom is even harder. If you’re feeling blue, dark, depressed — whatever word best describes it for you — talk about it. It wasn’t until I started talking more openly with other moms that I started to feel better. For me, sharing the experience helps to normalize it, to make me feel less alone. Fleshman told me to “Bitch to other moms, it helps.” It sure does.
“Try again tomorrow.” In the past, this would have felt like a cop-out to me, an excuse. But now it’s become one of my most positive affirmations and a potent reminder that most things can wait right now. This applies to everything from emails to exercise to laundry and means things are taking a lot longer and I’ve become a lot more okay with that.
Work IN. This isn’t meant to be promotional but this has been instrumental in my postpartum recovery so I’m going to own it. I’ve honestly been referring back to my book Work IN often because the tools it offers for conscious — intentional — relaxation and recovery are so practical. And they work.
I’ve also shared two new postnatal routines that I created with help from my PT over on Jasyoga’s blog. If you’ve recently had a baby check them out and let me know how it goes!
And if you’re like me and just need to hear this from time to time, mamas: You are doing great.