Have you ever wondered what type of animal you were in a past life? I like to think I was a sledding dog, because I feel most in my element when I am working hard and pushing my physical and mental boundaries. Well, I hate the cold, so maybe not a sled dog. You get the point. Exercise got me through years of teenage angst, my wild early 20s when I was partying and trying to figure out who I was, a divorce, and now through the tribulations of step-parenting. It gives me a sense of control, if only for 30 minutes a day, in a world so full of variables.
I have always loved to push the boundaries of my athleticism. Always. I was a gymnast as a girl and spent hours in the gym. My teenage years were spent on the softball field or the weight room. I was one of the only girls in high school to take weightlifting as an elective. I never aspired for skinny, and wanted to be strong before “strong is the new skinny” was a thing. The boys would tease me about my muscular arms and my athletic bottom. I didn’t care. Well, maybe I did, but not enough to forgo my passion. I loved out-sprinting the boys at track and never shied away from an arm-wrestling competition in class. Perhpas it was my expression of feminism. Whatever it was, I never felt my body couldn’t do something that I asked of it. Never. And that made me feel infinitely empowered.
The first time I questioned my body’s ability to do what I asked of it was during my first son’s birth. My uterus was contracting without pause and my son’s heart rate skyrocketed. I needed an emergency c-section. Even so, it was easy to forgive my body. Although it wasn’t what I had envisioned for childbirth, I had a healthy baby, healed quickly, breastfeeding came naturally, and my figure bounced back. I discovered Crossfit through some friends shortly after my son was born, and I enjoyed testing my body in new ways. The sport was awesomely grassroots at the time, and I appreciated that it didn’t require much equipment—just a strong mind and a heavy dose of grit.
When my son was nearly five, my husband and I decided to expand our family. We each had children from our first marriage, but none together. He had a vasectomy reversal, and the trying began. But we couldn’t get pregnant. I tried to will it. When that didn’t work, I drank the teas, ate the foods notorious for increasing estrogen, and I even kept a Mayan fertility statue next to my bed (and I’m not that kind of woman). Still, each month brought disappointment. Although my menstrual cycles were very regular, I thought maybe my boundary-pushing Crossfit habit was keeping me from conceiving, and trust me…everyone had their two-cents on the matter. Because I was muscular, many family members questioned if I was the one with fertility issues even though my husband had a very low sperm count from a less than successful vasectomy reversal. I may be generalizing here, but I think society tends to place infertility more on the female’s shoulders, but male infertility is just as prevalent as female infertility. I digress.
After nearly two years of trying, we were able to conceive twin boys with IVF and I carried those sweet babies to term—38 weeks! My body gained rock star-status in my mind. The boys were 7 and 6 pounds, healthy, and thriving. I was proud as hell of what we accomplished.
Sure, my body and I had some hiccups along the way, but it wasn’t until I discovered that I had diastasis recti that I truly felt betrayed by my body. I felt like my body was broken. This, my friends, was not simply mind over matter. I didn’t feel or look like myself and I wanted myself back. At my first pool party after the twins’ birth, clad in my first ever and very humbling tankini, my best friend’s autistic brother said, “Uh, excuse me, Ashley…when will your tummy not look pregnant anymore?” I didn’t have an answer and I loathed this reality. Even more troublesome, I couldn’t jump high, do push-ups, or many of the other movements that came so easily before, and my lower back would often hurt during a workout and throughout everyday activities. It was frustrating, humbling, and down-right sucky.
I went on the offense. I found a pelvic floor physical therapist in my area and later committed to three months of no Crossfit or high-intensity exercise. I had to push myself not to push myself. I diligently did my core rehabilitation exercises to help heal my diastasis recti during this time. It was boring. I wanted to run fast and lift heavy, but what kept me on-track was the knowledge that I could be stronger and more functional if I started from ground zero. I had to re-learn how to use my core not only in exercise, but also through activities of daily living like lifting my kids or a laundry basket. My core got much stronger during this time, but my biggest gain in strength came in the form of character-building. I learned to check my ego. I developed more patience with my body. I came to terms that I wasn’t going to Crossfit on a competitive level anymore, and that would have to be okay. It didn’t define me, and it didn’t limit me in the real scheme of life. I could enjoy the sport, but in a more beneficial way for my new body.
I’m two years post-partum now and I do lift heavy and run fast, but I slow down when my form gets sloppy. I am aware of my breath and my core through every movement. I stay away from crunches, sit-ups, toes-to-bar, GHD sit-ups, L-sits, Turkish get-ups and other exercises I know can damage my core. I engage my core (most of the time) to protect it when I am doing daily activities like lifting the kids or picking up a load of laundry. I would argue that I am as strong as ever because I understand how to use my entire core now when I exercise. My gap has closed substantially. It was a 4-finger gap, and now it is 2.5 at its weakest spot. Progress. For sure. Most days my stomach looks and feels pretty good. Other days, when I’m bloated or not minding my posture, it doesn’t look as good. Yes, I have been asked if I am pregnant. Yes, it is disheartening. Diastasis recti is unforgiving that way.
I would be lying if I said that I have totally forgiven my body. I haven’t entirely. I still have a love/hate with this stomach of mine. It beautifully, magically, fantastically carried three children. I will forever celebrate this. And, yeah, the more shallow part of me would also like a flat stomach, a bitchin bikini and a stiff martini.
Truth be told, a part of me (very small part) is grateful for my experience with diastasis recti. It taught me a few important lessons. It taught me to be a quitter, and that quitting has its time and place in all of our lives. Crossfit, in its truest form, was not good for my post-partum body. I needed to quit. And by quitting I gained perspective. It doesn’t really matter how much I can deadlift, but that I can deadlift with an intact core. I can pick up my kids without my back hurting, and I can jump on the trampoline without pissing my pants. It also taught me that sometimes my body needs patience and not tough love. This body has done a lot for me, and with a little self-acceptance, I think it can do so much more.