WHEN Maria Kang’s What’s your Excuse? photo went viral, I was vaguely annoyed at the sentiment. You’ll remember the picture – Maria, all gym body buff and surrounded by her three sons – 3 years, 2 years and 8-months-old. Look! she implored us, I’ve had three babies in three years and you could scrub your laundry clean against my abs!
More recently, a personal trainer in Australia made headlines with the assertion that new mums are using the demands of life with a baby as an excuse to be lazy, and consequently they’re getting fatter. The most hilarious aspect of this message is that it’s being delivered by a 24-year-old man (huh, boy) who will never know what it feels like to birth a baby and then be home each day caring for it. Yes, he admits, sleep deprivation and breastfeeding might make things tricky, but with the right motivation and goal setting, having a rockin’ post-baby bod is achievable for everyone!
Shaming ain’t the way
The problem with both messages is that they use shame as a motivator – and shame is a powerful force…. for making people who already feel like crap feel EVEN WORSE.
Could I have had a body like Maria’s after eight months? Not sure. Even at my smallest, I’ve never looked like that. I suppose if I had committed to intense and regular workouts, it may have been possible. But there are two important issues here – and yes, they’re real issues and NOT excuses.
The first is that while moderate exercise is beneficial for all new mums, intense exercise can interfere with breast milk production. If I had to choose between washboard abs and the ability to exclusively breastfeed my kids for the first year of their lives, you better believe I would let my belly jiggle!
The second issue is time. A newborn baby is demanding – the first six months are a blur of feeding and trying to get baby to sleep. And when I found a spare moment in between, I liked to do things like, oh I don’t know, a bit of eating and sleeping myself. Sometimes I would read a magazine, sometimes I stared like a zombie at the TV. During this most incredibly beautiful and challenging learning curve of my life, I was gentle with myself. For the first time in my life I stopped with the ‘shoulds’ and just allowed myself to go with the new flow of my life.
So apparently, the idea that going easy on myself during this intense time was really an excuse for being lazy! But how can I explain to a 24-year-old guy fitness freak that my singular focus at that time was nurturing the new relationship with my baby and not the size of my arse?
Let’s focus on what’s really important
As women, we spend our lives scrutinising every inch of our bodies and finding ourselves less than perfect. It’s exhausting. If we can, even for the briefest period of time, let go of this crushing judgment and focus all our energy away from our physical bodies and into becoming a mum, why would anyone begrudge us this? For those women whose number one priority is reclaiming their body post-baby, it just seems sad.
The most annoying thing about being accused of using motherhood as an excuse not to exercise is that after a certain point in time, it becomes true, doesn’t it? I have personally made a thousand excuses for not exercising over the course of my life, and in more recent times, being the mum of three kids has provided a treasure-trove of excuses. I am more time-poor than I have ever been, I am exhausted, unmotivated and when I do get a spare moment to myself, the truth is that exercising is the last way I want to spend it.
But the other truth is this; when I exercise regularly, I feel amazing. And it’s not because I work so hard I’m a shredded demon or that any residual weight comes flying off me. No, I feel amazing because a regular exercise routine usually means that the rest of my life is running in a more orderly way, too, and I really like that. Making time to exercise helps me cope better mentally and feel more accomplished. I am stronger and have more energy.
Pictures like Maria Kang’s are dispiriting because the majority of the female population won’t ever look like that. The picture’s intent is clear – there is no excuse for any woman not to look like this. Not only is it setting unrealistic standards for many women and they’re beautifully varying body types, but it makes the audacious assumption that all women WANT to look this way.
If someone wanted to sell me on exercise, I’d start with promoting how women could FEEL rather than how they could LOOK. Instead of focusing on how fat our laziness makes us or what our body could look like if only we stopped making excuses.
My words of wisdom
I have a very different kind of message for my fellow mums. There are two – one for new mums for babies under 12 months and one for veteran mums like me:
Dear New Mum,
Congratulations! You made a baby! You’re incredible. There’s nothing your body can’t do. I know you’re tired. Oh boy, I know you are! This gig is HARD and I know you’re adjusting. But here’s my best bit of advice for some mental clarity: get that baby in a pram and go walkies. I used to walk to and from my Mother’s Group and the fresh air was awesome. Don’t focus on your baby weight. Nourish yourself with walks in the sun, yummy salad sandwiches and the occasional side of potato wedges. And if you do have a bit of spare cash, think about investing it in a group personal training session at the park with fellow mums. Everyone takes bub in the pram and it’s awesome. Love your baby and know that doing so is not laziness. And when you get that itch to move, don’t ignore it. MOVE! Not for a beautiful behind but for a beautiful mind.
Dear Veteran Mum,
Duuuude! We had too many kids and now we’re shattered and accidentally drinking loads of caffeine for energy. Or maybe that was just me. Whatever, the point is, the to-do list is always too long and our needs are often the last priority. But you know and I know that exercise makes us feel better and actually increases our energy in the long term. Don’t make it about the size of your butt – make it about how good it feels to move. My number one tip: exercise first thing in the morning. The best I ever felt was when I was getting up for a 6am class at the gym a couple of times a week. I know it’s a killer but if you stick with it, it eventually becomes the new normal. Recruit a friend and walk, run, take up a dance class. Mark off at least TWO hours a week that belong to you for the purpose of exercising. Once it’s in your bones, you may just find you start making more time for you!
And to all mums, I say this; be true to yourself. You will know when it is time to make a change in your life. Don’t waste a second of this beautiful adventure feeling you don’t measure up. Most of us will never look like Maria Kang or work out as hard as a fitness professional might recommend, but that doesn’t mean we can’t lead active lives and enjoy great health. Motherhood is hard work, but we know that exercise is a crucial part of our future and an important lifestyle to pass on to our kids.
Angie Maddison is a freelance writer living in Melbourne. She has two sons, a daughter and one very tall baby daddy who always encourages her to go and get a massage but she never does because clearly, she is insane. Angie spends her free time sleeping and trawling the internet for new throw cushions, but she should probably be getting that massage instead. Currently staying up far too late to blog at The Little Mumma. Find Angie on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.