My favorite thing to do as a child around Easter was to put my Peeps in the microwave and watch their glistening, soft bodies expand in the heat until the final moment when the bulging crystallized skin busts at the seams and, to my mom’s chagrin, the Peep explodes in release, leaving a trail of ooze sliding down the microwave wall.
The other day I’m about to introduce my daughter to this time honored tradition when something comes between me and the microwave door — my belly. I’m seven months pregnant and constantly forget that there’s a baby and seven months’ worth of cheese hanging over my jeans.
I look down, sigh, and put the Peep in the microwave. As we’re watching the sugary thing morph, my daughter laughs and says, “Mommy, the bunny’s belly looks like yours.”
I do feel just like a Peep cooking in the microwave, expanding and bursting under the growing weight of this baby boy. In three months, I too will pop. Afterward, I’ll feel just like the Peep post-microwave trip — a dismembered, sagging, shapeless rendition of my former self.
Every pregnant woman has that moment when she wonders whether it’s possible for her billowing hips and growing belly to rebound from the full frontal assault of baby and donuts. As a personal trainer and running coach, you’d expect me to be immune to the depression that accompanies stretch marks and cellulite. After all, I’ve trained hundreds of women post-baby and seen most of them achieve things that they weren’t doing pre-baby. But in front of the microwave that day I was full of doubt.
About two weeks after my daughter was born, I squeezed into my running shorts and laced up my shoes for my first run. I envisioned hitting the ground at my usual speed and entering my typical state of running-induced delirium as I peeled off a couple of miles. For more than 15 years running was a pleasure-bound escape and seemingly effortless. So I expected my first run to be hard after Addie, but nothing like the discouraging experience I was about to encounter.
The first few steps were dreadful. My legs felt like they were going to come unhinged, my groin ached, my boobs sloshed, my lungs burned and my head was a mess. Why can’t I do this? Why is this so hard? I stopped on the path and cried in frustration. Would I ever be able to run again?
I had always been a solo runner, loving the alone time and ability to shut out my work life as a journalist, which was often noisy and chaotic. After my daughter I realized I needed the support and encouragement of group fitness. I went on the hunt for a fitness class. I tried going back to my gym, but I found the fact that I couldn’t keep up demoralizing.
The instructor, who had taught class while in labor and returned to teaching a week after her fourth son’s birth, said to me during a plank drill, “Don’t be weak!”
I joined a run group in San Carlos (the only one I could find on the Peninsula) but on the first run had my doors blown off by a group of 20-somethings running a six-minute mile. I finally found Baby Boot Camp and the warmth and strength of a trainer who was truly exceptional.
The fitness industry is brutal on us moms. Most fitness programs, particularly running-based routines, demand that you work out a lot and perform a ridiculous cycle of strength, stretching and all-over body conditioning that even the most dedicated trainer would have a hard time keeping up with. The reality is that as moms we must balance our work, domestic duties, children, husbands, families and friendships between diaper changes, school drop-offs and cleaning spaghetti sauce off the ceiling.
Maintaining a rigid fitness schedule is not only unreasonable, but a recipe for failure. I think of my youth on AYSO soccer: I had several coaches who, unrealistic about my talent level (I wasn’t very good), were demeaning and forced me to perform agility drills that I hated. After five years of AYSO, I hung up my cleats and haven’t wanted to play since. Just seeing a soccer ball sometimes makes me cringe.
I feel that the fitness industry can do this to moms. It can make you feel that if you can’t hold a plank for one minute, run a mile and do 20 push-ups, then what’s the point.
Yes, you can get your pre-baby fitness and form back, and you can actually exceed your expectations. But the keys are taking it slow, being realistic about your goals and finding a program that fits your needs.
In my prior life, I was not just a casual runner, but a competitor who tracked miles daily, dreamed of ways to be faster and stronger, and took it all way too seriously. I viewed running as a job. As a new mother, I didn’t have the time or stamina to maintain that. I had to let go of my competitive edge and allow myself to be a beginner again.
Who cares if I can only run 100 yards? Who cares if I can’t do a squat or a lunge and if a sit-up is out of the question? Letting go of my past allowed me to stop comparing my current capabilities to pre-baby me.
So, I started with one lap around the block, one push-up, one lunge. Eventually, it all came together. Since my daughter was born, I’ve completed a half dozen trail runs, half-marathons, 10Ks, and improved my strength beyond where I was pre-baby. It wasn’t easy. Nor did it come without setbacks.
I was reminded of all this the other day. I keep all my running bibs and medals in the same box where I store our family mementos. I went to put away Adeline’s first walking shoes and happened upon my last race bib. I found consolation in that bib. I know this time around the challenges of working out, balancing multiple jobs, two kids and a household will be formidable. But I have faith that I’ll find a way to get my fitness back. It’s not going to be pretty, but half the battle is accepting that. I tucked the shoes into the box, went inside, ate a Peep and enjoyed blending with the pillows on my couch … for now.
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Jennifer Christgau-Aquino can be found walking Sawyer Camp Trail and trolling the ice cream aisle at the supermarket. She’s an A.C.E. certified personal trainer, AFAA certified group fitness instructor and a running coach through her business Mothers on the Run.