My Story, Part 3: A Radical Change of Heart

If you're just joining us, this post will make much more sense if you read Part 1 and Part 2 first.

THIS IS SO EASY! I'd proclaim on social media. I FEEL GREAT! WE'RE SLEEPING SO MUCH! I LOVE BEING A MOM OF TWO KIDS!

I crumbled every once in a while. Sobbing in the shower for no particular reason. Staring at Olivia and wondering why I wasn't content with just Natalie. Wishing we had waited until Natalie was older and more self-sufficient before adding to our family.

(Yes, I did seek treatment from a therapist for postpartum depression. If this is something that you, too, are experiencing, please pick up the phone and make an appointment. The website Postpartum Progress is a wonderful resource. Know that you're not a bad mom and you're not alone.)

Mostly I missed my old self. I wanted to lace up my running shoes and knock out a three mile run, easy breezy. Planking? Sure, I can plank for days! You want to see some push-ups? Bam, let's do a bunch! I missed doing those things and was desperate to feel like more than a milk factory.

At the time, I was working with an amazing online coach (Jessie Mundell at JMG Fitness Consulting -- definitely check her out if you're looking for an online program!). She gently suggested that I go see a pelvic health physiotherapist, just to make sure everything was healing a-ok and that I was doing the right things to strengthen my pelvic floor. I'm embarrassed to say I brushed her off. I didn't think that advice applied to ME. After all, I'm fit! I wasn't like these other women who "let themselves go" during pregnancy.

PLEASE note that I was a complete and total idiot for believing things like that, and I'm ashamed to have had those thoughts. I'm sharing it with you now because I want to be 100% open with you about how I got to where I am now. Basically I was a judgemental asshole. I'm sorry.

So I skipped visiting a pelvic health PT and jumped straight into the Couch to 5k running program and into an intense strength training program.

I was 6 or 7 weeks postpartum and INSANELY proud of "getting back on the horse." I was being congratulated right and left in person and online. Superwoman, beast, amazing, so inspiring! I really did feel like a rockstar. I am the valedictorian of postpartum fitness! In just a few short weeks I moved from bodyweight exercises, to lifting weights with just the barbell, to adding a significant amount of weight (for me). I was back squatting 70 pounds and deadlifting 100 pounds. I was also running 2-3 times per week.

A photo posted by Alexis Helmrath (@alexishelmrath) on Sep 24, 2015 at 7:39am PDT

 

If you look up "pride goeth before a fall," this is the picture you'll see.

When Olivia was a little over three months old, our household got hit with the plague. It was a miserable two weeks as we all traded some nasty virus back and forth. I could barely get out of bed, let alone work out. I never did make it back to the original, aggressive schedule I'd set for myself, but I did work out here and there.

While all of this was going on, I'd started finding more and more inspirational women in fitness to follow on social media. I was discouraged with the training I'd received, particularly since the guidelines I'd learned for working with pregnant and postnatal women (my ultimate goal!) just...didn't seem right. I reached out to one amazingly awesome trainer, Jen of Mama Lion Strong, for advice on reputable, ACCURATE continuing education. She pointed me towards some fabulous resources, and that truly changed everything.

I dove into learning about the ins and outs of the pelvic floor. What it does, why it matters, and why basically EVERYTHING I'd been doing was such a bad, bad, bad idea. I inhaled all of this radical (to me) information and finally, finally, finally understood everything that Jessie had been trying to tell me months earlier.

When I came up for air two things were abundantly clear to me:

1. I needed to go see a pelvic health PT. 2. The fitness industry, particularly the pieces of it that serve perinatal women, is broken.

The constant push of harder, faster, stronger, of "get your pre-baby body back!," of "lose the baby weight fast!!!," of hating our postpartum bodies and beating them into submission, of "what's YOUR excuse?"...these ideas are not serving anyone.

I thought I was respecting my body -- I never pushed through pain or discomfort. I thought I was challenging myself and being strong. I thought I was doing the right things.

But I wasn't.

My visit to the physical therapist revealed that I have a grade 2 bladder prolapse. She's confident that because I only have a few symptoms and because the overall tone of my pelvic floor is in pretty good shape, I can make a lot of improvements in a 4-6 week span if I'm diligent about doing my homework.

She can't say for sure what caused it, but she agreed that everything I was doing certainly didn't help. This is something that I'll have to keep an eye on (figuratively speaking, of course!) pretty much forever, because prolapses don't ever completely go away. In the grand scheme of things, though, it's extremely managable.

There's a lot of things I wish I could change about how I treated my body during pregnancy and after Olivia was born, but I can't. I honestly didn't know better at the time.

But now I do. I know better, and I will do better -- for myself and for the women I'll be working with.

This message of respecting your body, of honoring the work it did during pregnancy and birth, of loving your postpartum body for the AMAZING things it's done, this is the message I want to spread far and wide.

Does that mean we'll never run or lift weights again? Of course not!

But the thing I've come to realize is that the time we spend being pregnant and recovering after having a baby is actually very, very short. I have exactly one pelvic floor and I've already done a number to it, and for what? Some likes on Instagram?

Let's take the long view, mamas.

It's not easy. I know this. I'm living proof of this. But if we can accept and believe --TRULY believe -- that our self-worth is not measured by how quickly we get back to running 5ks or by how many weeks it takes us to fit in our pre-pregnancy jeans?

That would be a beautiful thing.

My Story, Part 2: Jump Around! ...or not

If you're just joining us, this post will make a lot more sense if you read Part 1 first.

Our instructor offered more low-impact options for those of us who were pregnant or just beginning their fitness journeys, but I never took them. I took an enormous amount of pride in still doing jump squats, burpees, and suicides, even at 20+ weeks pregnant.

(Are you wincing? I hope you're wincing.)

At the time I was studying to become a group fitness instructor myself, because we were planning a move to Knoxville, TN, and my biggest dream was to start a mom-and-baby fitness class of my own. The guidelines for working with pregnant and postnatal women was (and is), well, let's just say it: woefully inadequate. A very slim chapter of my textbook was devoted to "special populations," and of that only a few pages was spent on the specific needs of the perinatal woman.

Most of the current fitness advice for pregnant women boils down to "you can continue what you were doing before you got pregnant; just listen to your body." And this is good advice to a point. Listening to your body is always a good thing.

But sometimes your body is SHOUTING at you and you don't realize it, because everything else you've been told about working out while pregnant or after having a baby is misguided or flat-out wrong.

One day in class while I was about 16 weeks pregnant we were doing a circuit of exercises. I was at the jumprope station and I was killing it. Valedictorian of fit pregnant ladies, remember?

And then I peed myself.

I don't think anyone knew what happened, but still, to say I was mortified is a bit of an understatement. I rushed to the bathroom, cleaned myself up, and then finished the rest of class while I attempted to hold a kegel pretty much continuously.

Juumping rope was clearly off the table for me. Sneezing became problematic. But peeing yourself while you're pregnant is just what happens, right? A sad and unfortunate but completely unpreventable part of having children, right?

So I started wearing a thin pad to every class. It never happened to me quite like that again, but I'm certain I was leaking at least a little. I continued running and doing burpees, but eased off the jump squats and jumping jacks. Unless I was feeling particularly great that day, in which case I still did them. Because I am strong! I am fit! No need to let pregnancy slow me down! I will be an excellent example for all pregnant ladies everywhere. Look at me and be motivated! ...but let me change my pad first.

We moved to Knoxville in April 2015. Without my workout group I felt lost, but I continued studying and passed my group fitness instructor certification test later that month. I ran a few times (with a pad, of course), but by then I was in my third trimester and running had become really uncomfortable, so I quit and focused mainly on my strength training. My dad had a weight bench and a barbell, so I spent my time doing back squats, presses, pushups, and planks.

I finally stopped planking when my belly touched the floor.

The weather grew hotter and my bump grew bigger and my motivation waned. I stopped lifting weights and just did simple bodyweight workouts a few times a week, then maybe once a week, then didn't do much at all except walk in the final few weeks of my pregnancy. My main focus was on practicing my Hypnobirthing excercises and on dropping into a set of squats whenever I felt the tightening of a contraction.

My daughter, Olivia, was born four days before her due date in a very, very quick labor. I was up and walking around within a couple hours of her being placed on my chest, and while I followed the guidelines my midwife had given me about rolling to the side before I sat up, swinging both legs off the bed together at the same time, etc., I was still VERY mobile in the early weeks after Olivia's birth.

8 a.m. vs 11 a.m.

A photo posted by Alexis Helmrath (@alexishelmrath) on Jul 7, 2015 at 1:50pm PDT

I didn't feel like I had a choice. My husband had a limited amount of paternity leave (read: none, except for the handful of vacation days he'd accrued since starting his new job), and I had a two year old at home. She still needed her diaper changed and she still napped in a crib, and I wasn't about to teach her how to climb in and out by herself. I avoided lifting her for as long as I could, as per the midwife's advice. That turned out to be about a week, and then I was on my own for most of the time with a newborn and a toddler.

It's ok, I told myself. I'm strong and I'm fit and I'm careful about how I lift her. It will be ok.

I was so proud of how capable I was, of how much more I was able to do this time around compared to after Natalie's birth. Physically I felt much better the second time around. Less achy, especially in my back, less pain from the delivery, and very little of the excruciating breastfeeding pain I experienced with Natalie as she and I attempted to learn together how to do it.

I really saw this as my chance at redemption. After Natalie was born and my husband, Will, went back to work, I felt so helpless. I didn't know what to do with this tiny creature who felt like she was destroying my chest every time she needed to eat, which felt like every hour around the clock. I cried a lot. I hurt a lot.

I didn't want to feel like that again. This newborn thing was now old hat, and I was determined to show myself and everyone else how awesome a mom I had become, to prove how much I'd grown in between my first baby and my second.

Continue reading the final installment in Part 3.

My Story, Part 1: From Bookworm to Bootcamp Badass

I was never athletic as a kid. As my sister will tell you, I much preferred reading a book to running around outside. Gym class in elementary school was fun -- Parachutes! Capture the flag! Red rover! -- but in high school? I prayed every day for some kind of natural disaster that would simultaneously strike all the athletic fields and the gym, leaving no other option but to sit quietly and contemplate all the ways our lives are enriched by not playing team sports. But then after college I discovered that fitness could actually be fun, and it didn't have to involve standing awkwardly in the farthest corner of a field, wishing fervently for the ball to never, ever come my way.

It turns out that bootcamp-style fitness was my thing. Pushups and sprinting drills and burpees, oh my! I LOVED it. And I was good at it. Not at first, of course, but as I went to more classes I got stronger, faster, and tougher. I got really good at pushing through that mental wall where your brain is saying pleeeeaaaaaase let's just lie down on this nice soft grass and take a nap.

That led to a brief flirtation with CrossFit, which I quit after two months because I got pregnant with my oldest daughter, Natalie (now 2.5 years old). I probably could've continued, and I know many women do, but it was just too much for me. I was tired and nauseous and skipping classes left and right, so I dropped my membership and did literally nothing the rest of my pregnancy. My commute involved a fair amount of walking back and forth from the T (we lived in Boston at the time), so I did get in a lot of daily activity that way, but I didn't do any formal exercise or classes. Mostly just sitting on my butt and eating a lot of mac and cheese.

Ah, the luxuries of a first pregnancy.

Natalie was born at the end of July in 2013, and by early September I was itching to start running again and start to get back in shape. My midwife had cleared me for exercise, so I very slowly started the Couch to 5k program. It took me at least 12 weeks to finish the 6-week program, and by that time the cold and early evening darkness had started to descend on New England, so I shelved my running shoes and really didn't do much for a few months. I'm a fair weather runner, fo' sho.

Natalie-alexis
Natalie-alexis

In February 2014 I was invited by a friend to try out a mom-and-baby stroller-based fitness class. That's the one I credit on my about page with changing my life, because it did, 100%. I started by going to class once a week, and then after two months I jumped in with both feet and did my best to get there three times a week. That was really the tipping point for me in terms of seeing results, and soon enough I was in even better shape than I was before I got pregnant with Natalie.

That summer I felt amazing. I was attending classes regularly and training for my first post-baby half marathon, which I completed in October 2014 with my second-fastest time ever.

That baby stole my medal!
That baby stole my medal!

I wish I could say that I was solely motivated by the desire to outperform myself, but I'm going to be completely honest with you -- I'm way too competitive for that. Every time I could run faster than someone who used to be faster than me, or do more pushups or hold a plank for longer than anyone else, it thrilled me. This is...not the best personality trait. A little fun, healthy competition - sure. But I took it to a new level in my own head. EYES ON YOUR OWN PAPER, HELMRATH.

(I'm working on it.)

I got pregnant with our second daughter, Olivia, in late October 2014. And I was ecstatic. This was it -- my chance to be the valedictorian of all fit pregnant ladies. I would not let myself go like I did the first time around. I was going to keep running, keep planking, and keep burpee-ing.

...continue reading Part 2.