Postpartum fitness

“So, I assume you’ve gotten right back into your old Pilates routine, huh?” 

I was about six weeks postpartum, and meeting a friend for lunch. I stared at her with disbelief. Pilates routine? Was she kidding? 

She was, in fact. Herself the mother of three grown children, my friend was intimately familiar with the challenges of pursuing physical fitness after the arrival of a new baby. Her attempt at humor was lost on me, however—six weeks of chronic sleep deprivation had rendered me a humorless, irritable version of the person I once was. Pilates? I was lucky to get in a walk from the bedroom to the kitchen.  

Before my daughter Lydia was born, I was optimistic about my potential to “bounce back” after pregnancy. I certainly wasn’t expecting to drop all the baby weight right away, but I figured that basic physical activity would be no problem. While I was pregnant, I ate well, took Pilates and yoga classes a couple times a week, and went on lengthy bike rides, all well into my third trimester. 

All of this ended after I gave birth. After my unplanned c-section, I was shocked to discover how much effort it took—and how much it hurt—to simply turn over in bed. Although women who have c-sections are counseled not to begin serious physical activity for at least eight weeks, I’d imagined performing some rudimentary Pilates moves while the baby slept. 

Au contraire! Even if I’d felt up to a few shoulder rolls, my baby would certainly have had none of it. Lydia was extremely colicky, screaming miserably around the clock. If I wasn’t feeding her, I was attempting to soothe her while bouncing her on an exercise ball or walking her around the block in a sling. Come to think of it, I guess I was getting some exercise—but I managed to negate most of it through my near-constant stress eating of “lactation cookies.” 

Sadly, I put my plans for physical activity on the shelf. “Maybe next year…” I told myself, brewing some Mother’s Milk tea and eating a plateful of macaroni and cheese.  

Eventually, however, Lydia calmed down a bit, and I started to ease back into the world of exercise. 

Warm ups

I began with some mom-and-baby yoga. Lydia held up well during the first part of the class, which was focused on yoga and massage techniques for the baby. But once we transitioned to the second half of class—the mom-focused part—Lydia flipped out. I retreated to the corner, feeding her for the remainder of class. “This is totally normal,” the instructor assured me, but I still felt a little cheated out of my part of the repertoire. 

I decided that maybe exercising with my baby just wasn’t in the cards. I signed up at my local YMCA, which is beloved by several friends for the free childcare that comes with the membership. 

I dropped Lydia off at the kids’ center my first day, triumphantly marching up to the equipment room, all alone. I hopped on a treadmill, enjoying my freedom. “I am an independent woman of the world!” I thought to myself, as I started trudging along in place. About five minutes passed, at which point a Y employee approached me, squinting at my license. “Are you Shannon?” he asked. “You need to come for your daughter.” 

I made my way down to the basement to find Lydia wailing in apparent agony. Tears were streaming down her tiny face. I felt awful—how selfish of me to leave her with strangers while I worked out!  

As the weeks wore on, the lack of exercise was making me irritable. “We need to figure something out,” my husband said. 

So we did. I realized that scheduling a weekly fitness class—and giving my husband some unfettered time alone with his daughter—garnered me some much-desired time by myself, greatly improving my mood. Once I established that habit, it was suddenly easier to do other things along the same lines, like taking a second class or doing some stretching while Lydia was hanging out in her bouncy seat. At first I felt like I had to be there for her all the time—that if I left her to exercise I was being vain and selfish. But that mentality, I discovered, made me neurotic, out of shape, and a little resentful.

So, new mothers, please listen: join the Y, and keep taking your baby to the childcare center—experienced mothers assure me the babies get used to it. Pop your little one in a stroller and go for a long walk. Put down the baby flash cards and pick up the free weights. After all, a relaxed and happy mother is good for the baby, right?

Shannon Keough lives in Minneapolis with her husband, 
Nick, and daughter, Lydia. Send questions or comments