Moms are sharing the unique, and sometimes unexpected, realities around getting back on their boards and bikes after childbirth. Words :: Danielle Baker.
Social and mainstream media is awash with stories, slideshows and film clips celebrating “mountain mommas who rip” within weeks, sometimes days, of giving birth. But many new mothers have discovered those back-in-the-saddle success stories are not always the norm. Set up by the expectation of quick and uncomplicated recoveries and hampered by a lack of information available, women looking forward to returning to the sports they love are instead often finding further injury, frustration and depression.
Rosara Joseph, a New Zealand-born mountain biker and former Olympian, found herself struggling to return to her regular activities after giving birth. “Four months postpartum and things were getting worse,” Rosara says. “ I was not able to do what I needed—mountain biking, running, and even just going for walks—to make myself feel grounded. I was in a really desperate state, mentally and emotionally.”
Diagnosed with a bladder prolapse, Rosara was given no medical guidance. Although she had done plenty of research during her pregnancy and approached her first few months post-birth conservatively, she was surprised to find out later that basic daily activities like lifting the car seat and baby together, using a front pack for carrying, or being on her feet a lot, should be avoided. When she finally sought professional help, she was told she would be managing her symptoms and restricting her activity for the rest of her life. “That was my lowest point,” she recalls.
Eventually, she connected with Rachel Richards, a physiotherapist with advanced training in pelvic floor rehabilitation and personal experience in motherhood and athletics. “I worked very hard and it took so much energy because any little time that I had to myself was dedicated to doing these boring exercises Rachel had prescribed,” says Rosara. “At around 12 to 15 months postpartum I started feeling strong in myself again and, although I continue to experience urinary incontinence with running and certain movements, the other prolapse symptoms eased.”
Rachel’s approach is effective because she doesn’t minimize the importance of women returning to the movement that is so needed for their mental and physical wellbeing. “It’s not that they can’t heal,” she says. “It’s just that often the approach needs to be a little more conservative and thoughtful.”
Many new-mother patients come to her feeling the pressure to quickly return to their previous levels of fitness and activity. “A body takes nine months of changing to get to that one moment of childbirth,” Rachel says, “it’s going to take a little longer to get back to where it was before. As well, there may be additional injuries combined with the extra tasks and things they now have to do as mothers.”
For Kootenay-based yoga teacher Tanya Skok Hobbs, when a decade-old back injury—calcified compressed L5 vertebra—suddenly flared up postpartum, she discovered just how much the physical actions of motherhood can contribute to core weakness and back pain. “Things like breastfeeding or picking up and holding a baby lengthen and weaken the back body,” Tanya explains. “This creates tension that no one really talks about.”
Tanya has approached her return to play cautiously. At three months postpartum, she skied a 90-minute backcountry lap, and by five months she was able to stay out for four hours. This incremental approach is the reality for many active women post-birth, but the celebration of bounce-back culture leaves a lot of women unprepared for it mentally.
“There are moms posting pictures of themselves on top of the (Stawamus) Chief one week postpartum,” says Dani Enskaitis, a birth doula based in Squamish. “That kind of recovery can happen, but I try to reiterate to moms all the time not to expect to jump right back into the activities they had been doing.”
In fact, Dani suggests that while being informed is key, having a firmly set post-birth plan isn’t always the healthiest approach for new moms. “I feel like athletes are the ones who have the hardest time with that because they are good at being regimented,” she says. “So when they bring baby home and things inevitably veer from their expectations, it can be really hard to experience that loss of control.”
Professional coach and ex-World Cup Downhill mountain biker Katrina Strand agrees, “The biggest favour someone can do for themselves postpartum, especially as an athlete, is to adjust their mindset around goals,” she says. “I didn’t realize how important that was and it affected my recovery because mentally I was really down.”
Strand had a traumatic birth and struggled with the resulting injury. After nearly three months at the gym doing tedious pelvic floor rehab, she was finally able to get back on a bike for a road ride, which she shared on social media, writing “You may wonder why it’s taken me almost 11 weeks postpartum… recovery is hard… In amongst the #soblessed hashtags that surround pregnancy, delivery and beyond… it doesn’t come without major challenges. I feel these challenges are kept somewhat secret, likely to show the world the facade that all is perfect in our lives, and that is a real shame. I’m not complaining, I’m being honest (and open).”
The lack of information on healing from birth-related injuries available during and after her pregnancy was the biggest hurdle for Katrina. “A lot of it comes from these postpartum issues being a bit embarrassing and scary,” she says of things like vaginal tearing, prolapses and incontinence. “They can be tied in with feelings of guilt and shame, so it’s all kept quiet. And that can lead to seriously devastating results.”
When Katrina was still struggling to find the support she needed two years after having her daughter, she started taking courses focused on training women with similar issues, and then began offering pre and postnatal specific coaching programs. “Having someone to hold your hand through the whole process—a trainer, the right physiotherapist, postpartum doula, whoever it is—that’s a gift. Very few people are able to start pounding the pavement looking for resources immediately after giving birth.”
Each post-birth journey is unique in its potential mix of joy, depression, community, and isolation—not to mention varying levels of support from partners, family, and friends. Women, especially those with expectations driven by their athletic predispositions, struggle unnecessarily with the lack of information available, setting themselves up for feelings of failure when their recovery doesn’t go as planned. Fortunately, women like Katrina, Rosara and Tanya are challenging the cultural taboo of talking about their post-birth recoveries publicly and creating space to allow for a wider variety of experiences to shared and witnessed.
When women can speak as openly about the state of their vaginas as they can about their concussions and broken bones, it also means they can benefit from the support of communities at a time when they need it most. “Sharing my story has been liberating in the sense that it helps other women feel connected and arms them with them with the knowledge that they aren’t alone,” says Katrina. “And in turn, sharing it did the same thing for me.”
Excerpted from the Winter/Spring ’21 issue of ML Coast Mountains.