I was at a dinner party, cradling my newborn daughter proudly in my arms, when a male friend seated across the table looked at me, then whispered something into my husband’s ear. My curiosity was piqued. What did he say? Did he think that motherhood flattered me?
I found out on the car ride home. My husband gently let me know that my friend had asked if nursing causes pimples.
Many new moms are insecure about their looks, whether it’s the baby weight they can’t lose, the dark circles under their eyes or the frumpy way they dress. I was no different, but my hang-up was acne. It was worse than it had been during my teenage years. I’d never considered myself particularly vain, but I began feeling self-conscious—and my friend’s comment confirmed that other people were noticing my less-than-fair complexion, too.
“A majority of women feel insecure about their bodies immediately postpartum,” says Yvonne Bohn, MD, FACOG, co-author of The Mommy Docs’ Ultimate Guide to Pregnancy & Birth and OB/GYN in Los Angeles. Many factors, including hormone changes and sleep deprivation, make the transition into motherhood a universally stressful experience.
“Occasional feelings of insecurity are absolutely normal; they’re an unspoken secret of motherhood,” says La Shawn M. Paul, LCSW, owner of Social Work Diva in New York City. “Women find themselves feeling guilty and ashamed to address these feelings out of fear of looking shallow and self-absorbed during what is deemed to be a baby-centered time.” But your self-esteem shouldn’t have to suffer in silence. Take note of common new-mom stressors, and find out how to overcome them.
Babies and breakouts
Due to hormone fluctuations, up to 25 percent of new moms—including those who breastfeed in particular—have unsightly blemishes during the first weeks or months after they give birth. Stress and sleep deprivation can increase your risk of acne flare-ups, as can skipping your nightly face-wash in favor of extra Zs. Sugary snacks and milk may also trigger acne, says Carolyn Jacob, MD, FAAD, a dermatologist in Chicago.
When I was nursing my daughter, I assumed acne medications were off-limits. But benzoyl peroxide washes, glycolic acid washes and the topical prescription anti-biotic clindamycin are all safe, Jacob says. “They’re not absorbed to any great extent, and they wouldn’t have an effect on the breast milk or the baby.”
If you don’t want to use medications, consider blue-light therapy at the dermatologist’s office or omega-3 fish oil supple- ments. “Blue-light therapy kills off the normal bacteria that causes acne pimples to begin,” explains Jacob. “And fish oil pills are anti-inflammatory—if you have less inflammation, you have fewer pimples. Plus, they help with brain development in babies.”
Waiting for weight loss
Many women are surprised to come home from the hospital with a belly that still looks pregnant. And the fact that weight loss can take months adds to the discouragement.
Erin Schurtz, mother of one in San Diego, gained 74 pounds during her recent pregnancy. Although she lost 55 pounds in the first eight months, her foray into motherhood was peppered with negative thoughts about her own appearance.
“I felt so superficial worrying about my weight gain,” Schurtz says. “I had wanted to be a mom for so long, and I finally had this perfect little baby. Yet … when I would look in the mirror, it was extremely difficult on my self-esteem.”
Experts recommend patience and acceptance when it comes to the numbers on the scale. “It took nine months to gain this weight, and it takes time to get it off,” says Erika Nichelson, DO, an OB/GYN at Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore. “Women are too hard on themselves. This is a time to be happy, enjoy the new baby and motherhood and not bring yourself down obsessing over your weight.”
During the first few months of motherhood, new moms often dress in what they consider to be a decidedly dowdy manner. Debbie Cohn, a mother of two in Westchester County, New York, whose youngest child is 10 months old, knows the feeling well. “Getting dressed is no longer fun; it’s more a bout of anxiety,” she says. “I wear leggings way more often than any adult should. All of my tops resemble tents.”
There are many reasons why new moms may dress differently. Some worry about ruining their nice clothing with milk stains and spit-up, so they wear T-shirts all the time. Others don’t fit into their regular wardrobe yet but are tired of wearing maternity clothing, so they resort to gym clothes or their husbands’ castoffs.
“Few women want to spend more money on temporary clothing, so they look to what they have at home,” says Julie Bindeman, PsyD, a therapist in Rockville, Maryland.
Still other moms are exhausted from round-the-clock feedings and haven’t yet figured out how to fit everything into their days. “Sleep deprivation and the constant demands a newborn places on a mom leave very little time and energy for primping, accessories or blow-dried hair,” says Bohn.
But keep in mind: Dressing in something comfortable that you feel good about can help boost your spirits. “It can be a color, a style of shirt or even an accessory,” says Ariane Smith Machin, PhD, assistant professor of psychology at Saint Francis University. “Something that reminds you that you’re OK just the way you are and can still take care of yourself.”
Accepting your new normal
If you have negative feelings about your appearance, ignoring them or replacing them with positive self-dialogue can help.
“Try to counteract your critical voice with an empowering statement,” Machin suggests. “For example, when you look in the mirror and your automatic thought is, ‘I look terrible,’ replace it with, ‘Wow, I made a baby, and I’m taking it day by day.’” By identifying triggers that are especially harmful or spirit-breaking, you can arm yourself with positive mantras to combat them.
In my case, staring into a mirror daily with my new daughter helped. Early on, it was an easy reminder of my acne. But the longer that we stood in front of the glass, the more I found myself making eye contact with my growing, curious baby instead of focusing on myself. In fact, in time, there were even occasions when I had to walk back to the mirror to check my hair or see if I had spinach in my teeth—because I had honestly forgotten to look.