In July 2013, I found out I was pregnant with my first son, Chase. My husband and I started trying the weekend after CrossFit regionals, and it happened pretty quickly. I felt lucky, blessed, and excited for the new chapter.
As usual, I got some flack for working out pregnant as many were worried about the baby’s safety. I listened to my OB, CrossFit coaches, and other CrossFit moms and ignored the others. I kept my heart rate controlled and the baby was thriving. Every day at the gym felt a little different, and I “listened to my body.”
I had a planned Cesarean section that came a few days early since my water broke. However, the entire process was still pretty calm (minus my nerves) and went smoothly.
I waited a full 8 weeks to do anything beside walk. I came back slowly with PVC pipes and body weight movements. I wasn’t the person trying to push it early. Nothing really hurt me; I felt I was coming back the “right” way; and I felt completely in control. However, this is really when most of my troubles began.
I just couldn't figure why after I had lost the baby weight about 6 months later, my stomach was still protruding. This wasn’t just extra skin. My stomach was hard, and I looked pregnant. I reached out on CrossFit mom groups. I called my OB back in California, who said give it more time. I saw a new OB in Michigan, who said I can always get a tummy tuck when I am done having kids. I was so scared, lost, and desperate with no answers.
After talking to a friend back in California, she told me how to test for diastasis recti and I will NEVER forget that night. I was alone in the bedroom on the hardwood floors, and my entire hand sunk into my belly. I felt paralyzed and completely in shock. I sobbed to my husband who was leaving in the morning for a work trip (not the best timing). Thoughts of the last year of training flashed before my eyes as I realized really how vulnerable I was making myself at the gym. By this point, I was almost a year postpartum and back to going pretty hard. I had no pain, but I was so disconnected with my body after birth that I didn’t even see any of the signs that something was wrong.
I know this all sounds very dramatic, and while this was not some life threatening disease, being in the dark for so long was definitely traumatizing. However, this darkness didn’t end here.
The search continued. I saw my dad’s sports doctor, who scared me that it wasn’t safe to have another kid until I got surgery. I freaked out from that news and called my nurse/lactation consultant in California. She told me that doctor was incorrect and that I could have another baby anytime. What was going on? There were tears, panic, and anger on a constant basis. I was a mess, until, by luck, I found my first pelvic floor physical therapist.
My mom was in physical therapy for her back and happened to mention my situation to her therapist. She suggested that I see the pelvic floor physical therapist at her office. I didn’t even know such people existed! And, even if I did know, I would not have ever thought to see one since I didn’t have a vaginal birth. I had no idea about the pelvic floor and how it connects to everything in your body.
By the time she had seen me, my rectus muscles were separated 9 fingers at my belly button and about 4-5 around my rib cage. My rectus muscles were firm and stuck in the wrong place.
It was time to scale back all of my workouts, again. I went down to lighter weights, avoided isolated ab work, and did strict movements instead of kipping. She helped me modify CrossFit movements and was so supportive. We both thought it was a miracle I got back down to 3 finger gap after body work, modifications at the gym, and KT taping. My stomach was still protruding pretty badly but a little less than before. I was grateful that I could at least do the fitness that I loved; however, I had no idea that I was far from being healed and my fascia was still incredibility weak.
Little did I know that maybe I shouldn't have I went back to intense CrossFit during this time in between pregnancies. I was putting in much less time at the gym than during my competitive years, yet I was PRing many of my workouts. Mentally, I wanted to feel like myself again so badly that I had an edge to push. It felt great! However, deep down I knew something wasn’t quite right. I couldn’t deadlift heavy anymore; I couldn’t L-sit; and I had lots of back pain. However, I had no answers; I didn’t think anyone could help me any further; and I knew I wasn’t done having kids.
Sometime right before finding my first pelvic floor physical therapist, I randomly texted Brianna Battles. A person I had never met in my life. After posting something on social media about my stomach, Lindsey Valenzuela's sister Ashley Cecil messaged me. She told me Brianna was going through something similar and that I should reach out. At the time, we were both lost, running around to different people trying to find answers and sharing our research- most of which left us at dead ends.
Then one day not too soon before I got pregnant with Dean, I got the most excited call from Bri; she had just met with a PT named Julie Wiebe and everything suddenly had changed. She tried to explain to me about piston breathing, and I could not believe that maybe, just maybe we might have some real answers. It was overwhelming to me at first. I didn’t really process the info, and I honestly didn’t want to deal with scaling everything back knowing I would hopefully be pregnant again soon. That wasn’t a good place to be.
However, not too long after that phone call, I did get that positive pregnancy test, and I was finally ready. I lowered the weights and stopped doing sit- ups, toes to bars, and muscle ups. I learned some new breathing strategies for my lifting, and I tried to fix my alignment the best I could on my own. It wasn’t as good as actually seeing Julie Wiebe, but it was a start.
My second son, Dean, was also born via non-emergency cesarean section. After much researching AND soul searching, I decided on a repeat C section rather than attempting a VBAC. This time I saw my pelvic floor physical therapist at about 7 weeks postpartum after my OB check up where I got “cleared.” My rectus muscles were severely separated again. She did a lot of bodywork on me and was a great support system. However, there were things we both just couldn’t figure out as time marched on, and she suggested that maybe I should get the surgery sooner rather than later so I could just be happy.
Around 6 months postpartum, I organized a Pregnancy and Postpartum athleticism seminar for Brianna at my CrossFit gym. While we hung out and nerded out on pelvic floor until midnight. She urged me to fly to Chicago to see a professional that was trained by Julie Wiebe. Just as I was figuring out how I was going to leave the baby, pump, and find babysitting, a friend found an amazing pelvic floor physical therapist 3 hours away. I was ready to drive there tomorrow, especially because she was 38 weeks pregnant! I was freaking out. Would I make it before she gave birth? Would she even take a new patient right now?
She was nice enough to call me and listen to my story. I have never felt more relieved and hopeful. However, the very best part came next. She told me that she had a partner in Ann Arbor, which is only 30 minutes from my house. I cried like a baby; it was finally time to get out of the dark.
I was finally moving forward with my healing again and learning a lot! 1) It wasn’t just the size of the gap but also how dense the fascia was underneath. 2) I actually learned how to fix my alignment. When I was pregnant I just ended up leaning forward instead of actually bringing my rib cage down. This also just added to my lower back pressure. 3) I learned just how important it is having someone assess your individual case. I am still amazed at the movement patterns that I have fixed while working with Nancy, and I could have never done that on my own. She also works with me on modifications at CrossFit to make sure I can still do the fitness I love without making myself worse. I take videos and we look at them and problem solve together. I have also added in home exercises to try to wake up my abdominals, keep my rib cage down, and activate my glutes. Many of these exercises are very mentally challenging but have already paid off in how I am moving. Overall, I am doing things drastically differently than the first time around, and I have truly realized just how much better of an athlete I will be for it.
It is amazing how your body compensates and sends you into bad movement patterns/ habits that are hard to break. There are some days where I still cannot believe how clueless I used to be, especially because I was a competitive athlete that “listened to my body” and “did what I have always done.” These messages on social media or from health practitioners can be harmful. We need to change the game and demand better care.
One physical therapist working on changing the message is Julie Wiebe, and I finally got to see her this past December. Seeing Julie, as dramatic as it sounds, was a dream come true. Even though she didn’t have the best news to deliver about my particular situation, it was the missing piece to the puzzle. I finally felt educated, in control, and had a real plan after years of misinformation and heartbreak. I cannot tell you how refreshing, hopeful, and exciting it felt.
Julie made some changes to my piston strategy and gave me some new movements to do in my warm ups to help my abs connect with my body again.
While she cannot officially diagnose a hernia, she thought I probably had one at my belly button and to get it checked out.
My fascia above my belly button is not responding, which means it is pretty much dead.
So with those pieces of information, I will need to seek out surgery if I want to reach my fitness goals. She recommended waiting at least 6 months to have the surgery so I could completely exhaust all methods of healing on my own to make myself stronger going into the surgery. I plan to wait about a year. Even though I am anxious to finally get to the true road to recovery, I don’t want to rush the process either. I have had too many setbacks along the way, and she thought that was a great idea.
When I got home I put Nancy in contact with Julie so she can help me continue the plan. I made an appointment and officially confirmed the hernia with a general surgeon, and have begun researching the options on how to fix this the best way possible. I will be meeting with many surgeons and will be documenting that journey as I go. It is important that I find someone that won’t just make me look good but also understands my athletic goals. Finally, I plan to come see Julie again post surgery to make sure that I am set up with the right strategies for healing during this next step.
I have learned from my own journey, meeting Julie, talking to many women that are struggling, and taking Brianna Battles Pregnancy and Postpartum Athleticism Course for Coaches that…
· Weak core, leaking, back pain, pelvic pain/pressure may be common but is not normal and a sign of dysfunction. These issues can be present in all women, not just mothers.
· Many women rush into the surgery without trying physical therapy first because they aren't aware that is even an option. They either could have healed without having the surgery at all or could have healed more on their own before surgery for an easier recovery.
· Postpartum women should have the support and guidance from their OB GYN's to see a pelvic floor physical therapist, whether they feel fine or not, before resuming exercise, especially because most trainers do not have any or all of this information to guide you in your fitness choices.
· Motherhood is physical. So going to the gym or not, it is imperative that postpartum women have strategies in place for their daily activities with the kids.
· Genetics play a role in how your muscles and fascia respond to pregnancy. This part we cannot control. This makes it even more important to be educated enough to control the things that we can.
· Breastfeeding hormones can play a factor in your ability to heal your muscles and tissues.
· It might be hard to find a pelvic floor physical therapist that is up to date with the newest research and methodology. It also might be hard to even get your doctor to write you a script for it if he/she feels you are “fine.” However, you can't stop pushing until you find someone that will write you a script.
I have hope that this information is reaching more women as time marches on. It has certainly gotten better since almost 4 years ago when Chase was born. But, I am going to be honest. I often still feel anger and bitterness from this journey, and I am really trying to let that all go by documenting the rest of my story and helping as many women as possible.
I am determined to turn this negative experience into a positive one by helping other moms feel empowered and knowledgeable. For me, helping is healing, and I truly believe this happened so I could be a part of this change for postpartum women; it is so desperately needed. So now, this is my calling. Please join me on my journey into this heart project.