2016. Oh man. What a whirlwind. The world is still feeling a little dizzy from a heated American presidency race, a slew of terrorist attacks, Brexit, ZIKA and chasing after Pokemon. Who wouldn’t be? But, 2016 had its highlights too. If nothing else, we can always learn from the ups and downs alike. Here is what I learned in my year, for better or worse.
Lesson #1: Expect the Unexpected
It was a month before his due date when my son decided to make his debut to the world, He was supposed to be an on-time Valentine’s Day baby. Instead, he showed up on January 19th after my water broke and membranes simultaneously ruptured (which in truth made me think I was bleeding out or losing the baby…terrifying). Thus began my education in one of the biggest lessons you have as a parent: Don’t ever think you have it all figured out.
A baby is a person. It has its own mind. And probably shouldn’t be referenced as “it.” This lesson can also apply to the body and our health. Both can take unexpected twists and turns. We may get hit by a car (ahem, been there) or fall unexpectedly ill. Or we may become marathon runners at the age of 50 after a lifetime of avoiding sneakers and gym shorts. You just never know. The unlimited potential in the unexpected is actually a beautiful thing when we learn not to be afraid of it.
Lesson #2: Our Bodies Are in Sync with Nature
The only reason I can think of for why my son arrived a month early into this world is that there were barometric changes in the atmosphere as the January 2016 blizzard made its way to the east coast. There is actually evidence of changes in atmospheric pressure increasing the number of women who have their water break. Kind of like hospitals getting flooded by pink-skinned, squealing babies when the new moon comes around. It’s pretty incredible that we are linked so inexplicably to nature.
Lesson #3: Sleep is Crucial
This seems pretty obvious but it’s worth mentioning sleep for the millionth time on this blog. When you lose sleep, things get cray cray. I had the WORST mom brain for months when my son was under six months old, waking up lots and suffering from reflux. Now that he has slept through the night for almost five months, I can still feel the impact of restless nights. My body has become programmed by maternal instincts to wake up at the slightest noise from him. Add in weird hormonal things, a need to pee once every night around 2:00-3:00 am, and my husband snoring (sorry to call you out, love) and there ya have it. Still kind of tired. Not miserably, but just that slightly worn-thin feeling that a lot of parents live with for all 18 years their children are under their roof.
Sleep impacts the way we think and feel. An earlier bedtime can be tough to stick to when the evening hours are oh-so peaceful, quiet and MINE, but it’s so important. I would advise anyone reading this to think very carefully if the quality of their entire life could be improved by minor changes to sleep schedules. Again, it’s important stuff for our mental and physical health.
Lesson #4: Being a Nursing Mom is a J.O.B.
Being a mom is tough. Being a nursing mom is even harder. Yes, it’s a wonderful and beautiful bonding experience but it’s also incredibly challenging to juggle life around the schedule (or on-demand needs) of a nursing baby. We’re talking sprinting in and out of stores and cutting meetings short in order to feed or pump for the little one. Life is a revolving door of boobs in, boobs out. It’s no wonder so many women quit breastfeeding or don’t even initiate it! In fact, according to the CDC, the national average for initiating breastfeeding from birth is under 80%. At six months of age, less than 50% of infants are breastfed and under 20% are exclusively nursed, meaning they have to be supplemented by formula. For more info check out the CDC’s Breastfeeding Report Card.
But the thing about nursing is that it’s your child’s best chance at optimal nutrition and health. I’m not saying it’s the only way or shaming moms who have to do formula or supplement. There are lots of cases where that’s necessary, appropriate and life-saving. But, mama’s milk has everything in it that a baby needs and changes composition over time to meet those needs. Mama’s milk even produces antibodies to help baby get over specific illnesses and build up positive gut bacteria. So, even though it certainly feels like a job to breastfeed, it’s definitely worth trying to for as long as possible from a health perspective. Think of your paycheck as baby’s lifelong health!
Lesson #5: Patience is Everything
Patience is not an easy virtue to abide by. I think it’s why many people quit their workout and weight-loss programs, and why some mothers give their kids food to appease them when they are fussy. It’s hard to deal with frustrations or a lack of desirable results, but almost always, if we hang in just a little longer, the scales will tip in our favor. Things will change.
Nothing has taught me this as profoundly as waiting for my son’s gut health to mature. He was a gassy, fussy baby in the first three months so I cut out dairy from my diet and we did everything we could to keep the little guy comfortable. In months three to six, he developed GERD (gastrointestinal reflux) and was in extreme pain. While medicine eventually helped keep things under control and we took every precaution we could to help reduce instances of reflux, there was still not a lot we could do except give his body time. Right when we thought we couldn’t handle it any more, our hearts so distraught over a baby who was chronically exhausted, reacting to pain, and having troubles with constipation, his body did a 180. Around six months of age he started going to the bathroom regularly, sleeping more soundly, weaning off his meds, and becoming the happy baby we had caught glimpses of. My patience definitely wore thin many times, but the fragment of it that I clung to kept me going. It kept me aware of the truth in the statement new mothers hear all the time: “This too shall pass.”
Lesson #6: Isolation Hurts Health
I’ve learned firsthand that isolation is most definitely no fun. I spent lots of long days home alone while my husband traveled for work and I cared for my son in his early infancy. He was very sensory sensitive as a newborn so I wasn’t exactly able to be one of those new moms toting her baby around to Starbucks, Target and happy hour. I discovered from experience that no amount of Facebook, Instagram, texting or phone calls can equate to being with people in person, seeing their facial expressions, sensing their warmth, and hearing their laughter. “LOL” just isn’t the same. We are inherently social creatures. Our wellness is immediately improved by quality human interactions.
Lesson #7: Weight Retention is a Choice
I think because I grew up in a small town that I saw a lot of mothers with young children who were overweight. Something about the culture of a small town and rural America seems to lend itself to this a bit more. Anyways, I had this idea that once I became a mom my body would never be the same. But, when I moved to Washington, DC in my early 20s I saw so many older women taking care of themselves through healthy eating and exercise that I was inspired to change my perspective.
Neither age nor motherhood means an inevitable decline into being overweight or less healthy. You can absolutely lose the baby weight instead of retaining it, with some effort. I could too, I realized. And I did! I’m no supermom and I’m not out accomplishing amazing physical or culinary feats every day for my health. I’m simply a woman who is reminding herself that she is the one in control of her weight and health. Not anybody or anything else. I stay on track by simply following my choice to be healthy, day after day after day. With the occasional wine and chocolate. Okay, fine. I eat chocolate every day. Anybody else is capable of just the same.
Lesson #8: Little Things Add Up
One of the ways that I lost the majority of my baby weight during the first few months postpartum was by staying gently active and keeping myself in check so that not every day was pancakes and scrambled eggs day for breakfast. Although for the record, if calories didn’t count, I would probably do that all the time. In the same way, little things that we do for our health can snowball and help us overcome a suppressed immune system, a chronically aching lower back, high blood pressure or any number of conditions.
If we try to do too much too fast, it can backfire. For example, if someone with cardiac issues tries to go out and strengthen their weak heart in a single exercise session, they might quite literally kill themselves. Similarly, we can hurt ourselves if we skip over all the small details and actions that contribute to better health. If we pay those obnoxious little details just a smidge of attention, they will add up and take care of us so well that suddenly we are enthused instead of annoyed by them.
Lesson #9: Sometimes, Health Professionals Suck
Confession time. I was going to a pediatrician at a trusted peds office in my neighborhood. I liked her when I scoped her out as a prospect. She seemed to-the-point, candid and knowledgeable. In the early weeks of parenthood, when it was so critical that our late pre-term baby gain weight, thrive and recover from jaundice, I hung on every one of her scary-sounding words. As he got a little older I started to notice that her bedside manner wasn’t as good as it originally seemed, and wasn’t always contextually appropriate.
At several check-ups she made me genuinely nervous about my son’s perfectly healthy development, all because of how she chose her words. One appointment, she mixed up my son’s weight chart with another parent’s baby. It had been a couple months since I saw her and she whisked through the door in a huff and said very frankly, without so much as a “hello,” that she had bad news about his weight. I hemmed and hawed and said I thought he had been doing okay but that as a new parent with a baby who came early, I was always nervous since he was consistently “behind” his birth-age peers. Which is totally normal and to be expected. I was holding my breath to hear her next words. My heart had started racing. I felt like I was failing at motherhood. Then she said, “Oh, whoops! I completely got you mixed up with another patient. Carter is doing great!” On numerous other occasions, instead of giving me professional advice, she gave me advice based on her own child’s preferences and routines as a baby. That’s just out-of-the-ballpark unprofessional and subjective. Period.
There is a certain way that health professionals can make you feel, even when they have to deliver bad news. Their tone and demeanor is everything. It can change lives just as much as their diagnoses, programs and scalpels. And sometimes, even when a professional is smart and trustworthy, they can suck at communicating the right way. Be it a doctor, nurse, physical therapist, personal trainer, OBGYN, or any other health professional, you know when they are out of line. For example, there’s a right and a wrong way for personal trainers to motivate people who are dangerously overweight to get back on track. Should the overweight client be shamed? Absolutely not. Should they be reprimanded? No, of course not. Should they be made to feel afraid? Ideally, no. That behavior on behalf of any health professional is unacceptable in my book. Which brings me to my next point…
Lesson #10: Fire and Rehire (your health professional)
If your health professional acts in a way that makes you uncomfortable (see Lesson #9), you fire them. Period. You don’t let them drag you through the mud. You don’t let them make you feel unworthy or paranoid. Again, you fire them. You find someone who can take care of you in the right way. Simple as that. Don’t hesitate or be afraid to do it.
Lesson #11: Human Physical Development is Mind-Boggling
I know everyone is all crazy about babies learning to crawl, walk and talk, but I find the little details that my son discovers about his body to be just as fascinating. Okay, once he walks I will probably be ecstatic like every other normal parent. Recently, he has discovered that he can intentionally shake his head side-to-side like a “no” except he is super happy doing it, can touch his tongue with his fingers, can pinch his belly fat (haha), can scratch surfaces with his nails (eek!), can carefully stack objects on top of one another, and can play peekaboo with doors, blankets, curtains and anything he can hide behind. Believe it or not, this is the short list.
I’ve been totally baffled as he has discovered things like lateral and rotational movement, balancing on two feet without support, and how to feed himself using his hands, So many things that we take for granted and don’t even think about are exploding like fireworks into his awareness. Every single one of these little things makes us human. Every one of the little things we can do so effortlessly as adults helps define our physical experience in the human body. It’s truly incredible and we are truly lucky to have such amazing vehicles to transport us from cradle to grave. Sorry if that’s a touch morbid to you, but to me it’s a thing of pure beauty.
Lesson #12: Our Bodies Are All Insanely Unique
WARNING: TMI AHEAD. READ ON WITH CAUTION!
I’ve always heard that exclusive nursing is a form of birth control, for the most part. But a mere six weeks after having my baby, I got my period. Yup. Undeniably, my period. And I was breastfeeding around the clock. This is one very simple example of what tends to be a universal truth: There are no hard and fast rules that apply to all of our bodies. We all have some fundamental needs as humans like air, food, water and shelter, but we are each so uniquely designed that we can’t assume that what happens to one person’s body will happen to ours. This is why I much prefer to personalize workout programs rather than assume that one program meets the entire populations’ fitness needs. It doesn’t. It never will.
Lesson #13: Doing Things Too Fast Will Slow You Down
When we push ourselves too hard for too long, it hurts our health. I know this firsthand because it’s something I have to work hard to keep myself in check about. In fact, just this holiday season I’ve found that I’ve reached a point of “burned out” because I ran on all cylinders for several weeks straight. I was working to finish writing a book, take care of my 10-month old while my husband traveled for work, get holiday shopping and wrapping done, host a party and do all the cooking, and manage normal chores, dog walking, errands, etc. I’m completely worn out. But, it’s not just that I’m tired.
Like other instances in the past when I’ve been a touch too hardcore, my body is now suffering from inflammation and stress. My joints ache, my stress-response is out of control (think heart racing over something stupid and minor like hearing a dog barking for a while next door), my tolerance for indulgent foods is zero, and my sleep is a bit wrecked. These are just a few examples of how our bodies break down when we chronically stress them. When we get to a place like this we must go back to basics; eat well, sleep well, rest, keep blood flowing with light exercise, focus on things that balance us mentally and spiritually. Sounds like a good recipe for the holidays anyways!
Lesson #14: Support Systems are Necessary
Without support systems, health inevitably suffers. I mean, we can all claim to be super woman (or at least try to be), with minimal outreach to others for emotional and physical support, but then we suffer. Big time. Our health thrives when we have the opportunity to lean in to others for help when we need it. It allows us to have recovery time and to build our strength back up so that we can face the world.
I take a lot of pride in being a go-getter who goes and gets things done. But when the going gets tough, I can get exhausted. This year I had to learn to swallow my pride and ask for more help to get simple things accomplished. And ya know what? I’m living to tell the tale. It wasn’t so bad after all. The help of others has gotten me through 2016. It has been paramount to my health. And sanity.
Lesson #15: Good Health Takes Work
This probably seems so obvious. It kind of is. But so many of us KNOW the things we need to do for our health and yet, we don’t take action. We understand how to feel better but living out that lifestyle seems really difficult. Honestly, sometimes it can be. Buying fresh foods and preparing them takes a lot more effort than zapping something in the microwave. Going for a brisk walk or hitting the gym obviously requires more energy than sitting back and scrolling through social media. Although I’ve found that fingers can get tired too.
As my child has gotten older I’ve been challenged for the first time in a while to figure out how to stick to healthy choices and put in the effort to take care of not just him, but ME! Mama’s health matters, too! A few things that have helped me are walking into the grocery store with a list and a plan, acknowledging that efficient 30-minute workouts can be just as beneficial as lackadaisical 60-minute ones, and making sure that I’m in bed at the exact same time every night to ensure enough sleep. Maybe some of these simple things will help you too.
Lesson #16: Health is a Blessing
It’s a bit of a cliché, I know. But. HEALTH IS A BLESSING. Drop the mic.
Without further ado, I wish you all a very healthy, very happy holiday season! See you in 2017!
Yours in health and wellness,