The most unexpected aspect of postpartum for me was that at 23, I would end up incontinent

After a traumatic birth, Shani Chantel suffered (in silence) with incontinence after giving birth. She shares her story of not ‘bouncing back’ after baby and coming to terms with her new body.

How would I describe my postpartum journey? Unpredictable, scary, confusing and liberating. I was really naïve and it was unlike anything I’d been told my postpartum life...and body...would be.

I remember the lead up to the birth, the calm days before, and my excitement to meet my tiny human. As my due date approached, I also remember other mums and family asking ‘have you got a waist trainer or a tummy tightening garment for after your birth?’

Before then I’d never really thought about what my post-birth body might look like. I was thinking my tummy would surely just ‘go back to normal’ afterwards, and everyone told me I’d ‘bounce back’ because I was young, and it was my first baby. I just figured everything would go according to plan, and I didn’t know about, or consider the ‘what ifs’.

I’d never heard of tearing or induction – until they were happening – and while I had come across helpful professionals during my pregnancy, I never saw the same doctor twice, and I didn’t have the confidence back then that I had now to ask questions...I was just excited to become a mum.

My birth certainly didn’t go according to plan. I was induced, had a 25-hour labour, an unplanned epidural, a vacuum, forceps, a third-degree tear and lost four litres of blood. After feeding my daughter for the first time and taking a short nap, I woke to an empty hospital room with an epidural which hadn’t worn off and knew in that moment that things were going to be tough.

I couldn’t walk, even four days later because of complications with my epidural, but I was too scared to ask for help, not wanting anyone to think I couldn’t look after the baby I’d just birthed. Even after going home, I didn’t know how or who to ask for help and it wasn’t parenting I needed help with, it was me, my body. I didn’t know it anymore.

I think the biggest thing was that understanding that while I had birthed my child, I had also rebirthed myself – a completely different version of me.

I couldn’t feel when I needed to go to the toilet and I was wetting myself without realising it because I’d lost all sensation, but I was so busy trying to do all the things new mothers ‘should know how to do’ that I wouldn’t give myself a minute away from my baby to ask for help, or even know where to look for it.

It probably didn’t help that in my first week at home, in a small apartment, my heavily cultured family – who know nothing about giving people space – had all flown in as a surprise from interstate and overseas to stay.

In those first few weeks after birth I struggled with movement, I struggled with my tear – I didn’t know how to care for it and while I knew I had stitches I was too afraid to look down because I knew everything had changed.

Sadly, the only advice I received in hospital was to ‘double up on maternity pads or wear adult diapers’, and then a few weeks after birth at home, a maternal nurse just asked whether I’d been doing the good old pelvic floor exercises, suggesting if I kept them up I’d be ok in a few months.

For months after my baby was born, I wore maternity pads which caused severe thrush on top of the pain I was already in because the pads didn’t allow air flow and were continuously wet. It was such a sad time, I felt unprepared, alone, embarrassed, ashamed and scared, because I didn’t know if I’d ever get sensation back again.

I was upset that if I laughed too hard in public, coughed or sneezed, I’d find a wet stream down my legs, I felt sad that I didn’t know anyone else like me, and I felt confused as to why all the baby books I’d read or mummy documentaries I’d seen hadn’t covered leakage, or what to do about it.

I can still remember the first time I discovered Modibodi to manage my incontinence. I smiled like a kid in a candy store, and cried soon after. I could finally wear jeans again without a major bump in my pants and I didn’t have to wear oversized undies with a pad. I started going on walks and runs. I took longer drives with my daughter. I started to laugh harder, like I used to.

I’d like other women experiencing the same thing to know that there’s no shame in something that’s out of your control, and to be gentle with yourself. You’re not alone and there is help available.

Despite the struggles, my experience having a baby has pushed me to new limits and opened up my life in so many ways. I’ve learnt to love myself unconditionally in ways I could never have imagined when I had a size 6 figure, no baby and no mum tum. I’m more understanding, more aware of what women go through and more compassionate. It’s also what led me to start my social media activity which has helped me impact others on a scale I’m really proud of, it’s been a huge positive for me.

Hand on heart, I just want to remind women that this is such a sacred time for you and your partner. I really feel those first few weeks of being at home together, if possible, will set you up for what it will be like in your new bubble as a family.

How does the media portray postpartum and how did that compare with your reality?

I actually started my social media about six months postpartum because I was an absolute raging mess after I gave birth, and I was like ‘why did I not even know about these things that can happen’? This was information I didn’t see in the news, I didn’t see in magazines and it was information I had to dig deep to find, but I wanted it to be out there for people scrolling, where they might see a post with real women’s bodies, bodies before birth, bodies after birth, and where we could talk about complicated births and learn that other people’s journeys might be the same.

I think social media used to portray a false postpartum journey – all these beautiful women looking like the perfect mum with a perfectly clean home – but the more we show the reality, the less alone we feel and I’m seeing that happening on social media more which is exciting. I think it’s deeply important to show more of these stories. A lot of my followers are new mums or mums-to-be and I do this to help other women understand what life’s really like, because I don’t want it to be a shock.

What advice would you give pregnant mums to be and their partners about postpartum?

Listen to your body, it’s such a cliché but if we really break down what that means it’s hearing yourself, what do you need, what feels uncomfortable, and to know that you’re entitled to feel safe and supported. 

We hear time and time again to ‘make time for yourself’, but I think what’s important isn’t so much the self-care of having a face mask, but the self-care of getting inside your mind, taking the time to go there, to process your birth story and to be present with your own body, because you won’t get that new recovery process time back.

Be mindful that mothers need support and care after birth. It’s all about the baby, but the baby is fine, the baby is brand new and fresh in the world, but our bodies afterwards need care and attention and I think we should dry as mothers, partners, friends and family to get that balance right between caring for you...and caring for your child.

As for relationships, it’s important to express yourself when you’re newly at home, but be aware emotions will be high. You’ve just created life and you’re going to be a little different to usual, but it’s important to keep having open conversations and not to feel like you're ‘nagging’ or ‘annoying’ your partner.

Why did you want to be part of Embodied: Postpartum Unfiltered?

It’s just so important that we understand that postpartum is such a sacred time, and that yes the child is special and needs care, but the after care and support during postpartum is also deeply important for the mother. It’s really important for me to keep sharing that. I think this campaign is an opportunity to share womanhood, the things we go through, to reflect and to voice the fact no two journeys are exactly the same.