Body of Knowledge: Pregnancy changes your physique, sometimes in surprising ways

Babies make many lasting contributions to our lives: greater empathy for others, a greater reservoir of love, more laugh lines. But pregnancy and childbirth also leave lasting marks on women’s bodies, and it’s not always easy to accept these changes.

I asked several mothers about what they experienced once they had babies and how well they adjusted.

“I didn’t know anything about (the changes)—until I got pregnant—and then all my girlfriends who had had babies told me,” says Lisa Glidden, a mother of two in Oswego.

With more than 3.9 million babies born in the United States in 2012, one would think we’d hear more about the long-term effects of pregnancy. These lasting effects can include: weight gain, leaky bladder, weak abdominal muscles, hemorrhoids, stretch marks and bigger feet.

Maria Erdman of Syracuse saw her feet grow from a size 8 to an 8 1/2 with her first child and then to a size 9 with her second. (Personally, I think it’s nature’s way of helping moms keep up with their daughters’ feet, which will probably be bigger than ours, so we can eventually share shoes. Or it’s a plot by the shoe industry.)

Erdman also notes “fab ringlets” in her hair for several years after the birth of her son. As he grew, her ringlets straightened—and now she wants them back.

Some topics, such as postpartum depression, do receive serious attention. But other subjects remain relegated to somewhat embarrassing stories shared among mothers in quiet asides. Bladder leaking tied to sneezing, coughing or laughter is not a development one wants to post on Facebook. Vaginal stretching? That may not even make the pages of a family magazine. But they’re serious issues that can contribute to a mixed sense of body image and self-esteem. Enjoyment of sex? While the body may be ready for it after six weeks, many new mothers say it took many more months to get that back.

I developed an odd-sounding burp during my first pregnancy. And it never returned to normal. My son, the result of that first pregnancy, describes it as a high-pitched croaking frog. Thanks, dear. Luckily, I can control it in public. Mostly.

Varicose veins are another topic not bragged about. Some mothers see them as badges of honor, like stretch marks. I attribute one varicose vein as the result of pregnancy; the rest keep coming with age. Several mothers mentioned their loose abdominal muscles. Even after thousands of crunches or sit-ups, some abs just don’t get tight the way they did before stretching to make room for a baby.

Food cravings and aversions are a big topic during pregnancy. Jessica Reeher of Cicero missed her “runny eggs” while pregnant with her daughter Tannella, now 15 months. Sunnyside-up or over-easy eggs are often avoided while pregnant due to the possibility of bacteria in undercooked eggs.

“Since having Tannella, they seem like the most disgusting things ever,” she says. “And I’m really mad because I liked them so much.”

Breastfeeding is supposed to make the weight “drop off,” right? Not for everyone, notes Glidden, 42, and many other moms. “Maybe it’s an age thing, too, the whole body not coming back.”

“It does make sense that everything has to loosen up to make way for the baby,” Glidden says. But getting it all back in line through exercise and sensible eating is “really a slog,” she says.

Colleen Osterman of Syracuse says that while breastfeeding may help a woman lose weight, “You also eat like a horse because you’re starving all the time.”

Osterman developed melisma, a pregnancy-related skin darkening. Often referred to as “the mask of pregnancy,” it may go away after pregnancy or when not taking birth control pills, according to the American Academy of Dermatology. “On a positive note, she’s perfect,” Osterman says of her 15-month-old daughter, Annabelle.

Glidden’s advice: “Do your Kegels.” (The Mayo Clinic posts an explanation of and a how-to for the Kegel exercise on its website: The pelvic-muscle exercise is good for everything.

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