Take It Easy, Mamas: Finding Value in Unexpected Setbacks

“If you so choose, even the unexpected setbacks can bring new and positive possibilities. If you so choose, you can find value and fulfillment in every circumstance.” – Ralph Marston

I could have written this post last summer when I realized my postpartum body wasn’t healing properly, and I was left with ongoing discomfort and pain from birth (it’s still there, in fact). I could have also written it in January when my left knee suddenly gave out due to weak glutes and overstretched hamstrings, making it impossible for me to bend it without the help of my hands.

In both cases, I wanted to tell my readers – especially the new mamas out there – to take it easy and not be so hard on themselves. For real. But time got away on me, and I’m finally writing about it now.

I know as well as any new mama how it feels when that-friend-who-started-trail-running-a-month-after-delivering-a-baby posts a photo of her latest baby-free jaunt through the woods. I’ll admit I still feel those pangs of jealousy as I think back to my own first month postpartum, to my post-baby body. I still feel them now. On the surface some women make it seem like they just plopped a baby out and then it’s business as usual. (Is this actually ever the case!?) Physically speaking, it seems they heal quickly and their bodies are good to them.

This just wasn’t, isn’t, the case for me. And I discovered that comparing myself to others really is futile because I don’t want others to compare themselves to me. I know that I post a lot of photos of me doing active, outdoorsy things, so I wanted to set the record straight. Since May, I have only been doing those things when I feel good enough to do them. Otherwise, I’ve been coping with health issues that have come as a major surprise to me.

A surprise and a major wake-up call.

Hitting Rock Bottom and the Path to Healing

Last July I started to have issues with my vision. I thought it was due to a slight astigmatism in my left eye, exacerbated by fatigue (otherwise my vision is perfect). By Christmas, my world felt wonky. I’d look out into a room and things wouldn’t register properly. I felt constantly “out of it”, somehow removed from my surroundings. Good sleep improved the condition, but then we set off on our 70-day adventure in the South Pacific and any hope of good sleep went down the tubes.

As the weeks went by and our little girl’s sleep became increasingly interrupted, I struggled to get more than an hour of sleep at a time. I was still enjoying my surroundings, but feeling removed from them was disconcerting to me.

Playing on the beach in Maupiti, French Polynesia. Photo Paul Zizka Photography.
Playing on the beach in Maupiti, French Polynesia. Photo Paul Zizka Photography.

On May 1st we came home and my condition deteriorated. I suddenly became so dizzy while I was walking that I felt nauseous. I became incredibly sensitive to movement and easily overwhelmed by a toddler running around me, or even the thought of leaning over to tie my shoes. Staring at a computer screen was often out of the question, so my work and passion for writing was sent to the back burner. Even if I could stare at a screen, my brain sat in a heavy fog for weeks on end, accompanied by a low-level, nagging pressure. My eyes felt so tired I felt a constant desire to just close them, to rest, to tune out the world. Driving was out of the question. As if motherhood wasn’t hard enough already, I was unable to operate at full capacity and grew increasingly anxious, restless and unable to sleep.

All this with a daughter who either runs full-tilt or sleeps. There’s no in between with her.

My little power house. Photo Paul Zizka Photography.
My little power house. Photo Paul Zizka Photography.

After visits to the doctor (“could be vertigo”), osteopath (“sounds like a concussion, but it isn’t”), and optometrist (“look elsewhere”), my own research landed me on vestibular.org. And upon advice from friends and family who had dealt with vestibular (or inner ear) disorders before, I booked an appointment at the end of June with a physiotherapist who had specialized training for vestibular rehabilitation. She ran a number of tests and told me it was either vestibular neuritis or vestibular migraine.

Finally, after two months of searching, I at least had a name for this condition. I can’t know when it truly started, since the symptoms are similar to those that accompany exhaustion and fatigue. But I left the clinic with an action plan, and after a few weeks of rehabilitative exercises, I’m starting to feel better. Better enough to commit to some work contracts and finally write this post.

Finding Value in the Hardest of Times

I’m not sure exactly why I wanted to tell you this, but I think it’s to burst a bubble on our notions of adventure and finding balance in motherhood.

Lately I have felt anything but adventurous. We have beautiful evenings here in the summer in Banff, and even if my husband is home to watch the baby, I have found myself surrendering to the couch for episodes of Gossip Girl and a cup of tea. I have napped more in the last two months than I ever have in my life, foregoing my precious “hour of power” (writing time) during Maya’s naps and hitting the pillow myself. I have toned down my outdoor adventures, backed out of commitments and stopped being the one to contact friends to set up plans, all in an effort to take a step back from life so that I can focus on my health.

Biking has felt surprisingly good, and I have really grown to love it. Photo Meghan J. Ward collection.
Biking has felt surprisingly good, and I have grown to love it. Photo Meghan J. Ward collection.

It has been difficult to “find value and fulfillment”, as the quote at the beginning of this post mentions, when on the worst of days I am cooped up in a dark room, willing myself to fall asleep so that I can escape the feelings of disorientation and unease that come with vestibular dysfunction. But looking back I see a lot of value in the process I went through of pruning all the non-essential things from my life. I was forced to. And being forced to ‘sit on the sidelines’ for a time has made me eager to explore the outdoors once again and very grateful that I feel well enough to do so.

Finally, I see value in having a story to tell. I see value in being able to share my experiences with other women who may be wondering, like I did, how some mamas seem to “bounce back” and float through motherhood like it’s a piece of cake.

Because it’s simply not true. Motherhood is amazing and incredibly rewarding, but no one simply floats. Sure, not all women have the health issues I’ve encountered, but if I’ve learned anything from my experience it’s that you never know what’s going on behind closed doors. The best we can do is stop comparing, be honest with our trusted family and friends and reach out for support. Just because others make it look like a breeze doesn’t mean you need to handle it on your own. There’s even a time to put your passions aside and focus on you. Your passions will be there when you’re ready again, like a loyal friend.

Lately my outdoor excursions have been far from adventurous, and that’s OK. My adventurous spirit lives on. And it’s ready and waiting for me to come knocking.

What kind of setbacks have you dealt with as a new parent?

Has anyone else dealt with vestibular issues? I’d love to hear your story in the comments below.

Author: Meghan J. Ward

Meghan J. Ward is an outdoor, travel and adventure writer based in Banff, Canada, and a Fellow of the Royal Canadian Geographical Society. Meghan has written several books, as well as produced content for films, anthologies, blogs and some of North America’s top outdoor, fitness and adventure publications. She has a forthcoming travel memoir (Fall 2022), to published by Rocky Mountain Books.

31 thoughts

  1. Thanks for writing this post. My son is little over 4 weeks old and I haven’t healed up completely from his birth. I’ve been instructed to rest to allow stitches to heal. This process has had to start over multiply times for me. I’ve been resting (watching House :)), but it has been quite challenging not being able to do anything active. It can be a frustrating journey at times. Thank you for the encouragement!

    1. Thanks for your comment, Sharon. If I’ve learned anything it’s that as new mothers we’re somehow left with the impression that we’ll heal up within a few weeks and then we’ll be back into things. This may be true for some women, but my daughter is now 16 months and I still feel like I’m on that road to healing from birth. I highly recommend you see an osteopath if things just don’t feel ‘right’ down there in the future, especially once your stitches have healed. Continue to be patient with the process, and enjoy House! 🙂

  2. I am sorry for what you are going through. I did not feel like one of those mothers that just bounced back either. My daughter was difficult as an infant and it seemed all my friends with children my daughter’s age had it easy. My husband and I were on opposing schedules which meant that neither of us ever got a break. We were either working or parenting. I am not a young mom, I wrestle with anxiety and just feel lazy and tired most of the time. My daughter and I do a lot together, but some days a video and her Tablet are my best friend. Motherhood is hard. It is beautiful and rewarding as you said, but it is frustrating, exhausting and some times heartbreaking. I wish you luck. Hang in there mama.

    1. I know that feeling of others “having it easy,” but then often I hear the real story later and realize just how much I assumed. I didn’t want this to be a sob story, but yes, motherhood is so hard! Thankfully those amazing things far outweigh any negative experiences I’ve had so far.

      1. What is funny is one of my friends that had the easy child used to look at me like I was crazy all the time as I was always frazzled with a screaming baby in my arms while hers did not make a peep. She used to dole out suggestions such as she must be hungry or maybe she has a full diaper. I just fed her and changed her but thanks. Now with her second baby, she gets it. Luckily my daughter is much easier as a toddler, but it is still tiring. It is OK to vent. It does not make you a bad mom, just an honest one. They are a blessing indeed, but some days it is hard.

  3. Having two C-Sections and being forced to slow down was a wake up call for me. Believe me, those stitches don’t heal by themselves. For the first week, even walking to my mailbox 400m away was difficult. Standing up straight was difficult, and yes, even holding that bundle of joy too.

    Creating another being takes a toll on even the healthiest persons body. To the women running trail right after birth, my kudos to you. To the mamas that are literally taking it one step at a time, my kudos to you too. No story is wrong, they are just different.

    Taking the time to adjust to my new baby and new body was a great moment of reflection for me. Meghan, I think you said it right –
    “Your passions will be there when you’re ready again, like a loyal friend.”

    You bet they will. The new world you just opened up will come right with it – teaching your child(ren). This has opened up my eyes to my passion and now I get to experience the discovery stage yet again. It’s an incredible gift.

    1. I didn’t have a C-section, Holly, but you could say that I experienced some ‘trauma’ to my body with Maya’s birth. You’re right when you say “kudos” to women, wherever they’re at. There isn’t a right or wrong, but I do feel like too often women feel pressured to ‘get back into things’, and often we are making assumptions about the ones who make it look easy.

      I am really starting to value this ‘not quite new mom, but learning new things’ phase…it’s the one I didn’t expect. I expected some recovery time postpartum, but not THIS much.

      Having the ability to teach our children is an incredible gift. And part of what I want to pass on is the self-respect and self-love I’m learning. Thanks for writing. 🙂

  4. I’m not a parent, but I’ve certainly had a lot of dizziness/nausea/vertigo issues, although they’ve never been diagnosed as anything specific. Have you tried taking Gravol when it’s really bad, just so you can function? (The ginger stuff doesn’t work for me). It’s not a cure, but it could make a bad day better.

    1. Matt I find a Children’s Gravol takes the edge off and isn’t too drowsy. I had a few weeks when I was on it all the time. Thankfully I haven’t had to take one in about two weeks.

  5. Oh yes, how it would be great to be one of those Mamas that bounce back to their normal athletic selves postpartum!! Having said that I was very lucky to recover my energy relatively quickly…but when i built up to longer bike rides my milk supply would suffer, and after one particularly strenuous hike i was forced to rethink my approach. I had to accept that having my baby healthy was ultimately more impirtant to me (for this phase) than resuming my former self. And as time has passed I have actually found my new, more Mum-focused self a refreshing change. Because I give myself a break from chronic cardio, i feel more energy, my hormones are working well, and, well, its making me learn new things, all this extra time i have where i would otherwise be doing “my old stuff”….thanks for your honest post, it seems becoming a mother is a great lesson in “phases”… This is early motherhood/maximise your health phase…getting your outdoor mojo phase will come back if you want it to, WHEN you are ready…and for now you can focus on other things you would otherwise not even be thinking about! Can i just say i really look forward to seeing your posts in my email inbox? Always thought-provoking…and often spot on.

    1. Thanks Michelle. First off, I really appreciate your last statement there. I am not always sure who is reading on a regular basis.

      I agree that my outdoor mojo may return, but something i’m learning to accept is how much things are changing, and that’s OK. We’re headed on another backcountry trip with Maya next week, and I’m longing for that time in the wilderness. But the crazy cardio stuff and adrenaline fixes I use to long for aren’t a big part of my life right now.

      Thanks for your comment and for giving me a window into your world as a mother.

  6. After my first child I suffered from postpartum depression and anxiety, both of which I never experienced at all in life before. It was a huge challenge to overcome, but with help I did. Life moved on.

    And then it changes again and other personal issues come to the surface and again affect they way I function and live. Again, I survived and moved on.

    For sure life is a roller coaster living through these challenges makes us wiser and stronger.I love your message of finding value in the hardest times, because that is a survival technique. Appreciate the little things, enjoy every moment large and small, find good everywhere.

    It’s times like these where we learn what is really important in life: family and friends.

    Hang in there, Meghan. Wishing you all the best!

    1. You’re so right, Traci. Further to learning that family and friends are important in life, I learned that my health and personal wellbeing is the most important thing. Sometimes that means putting our foot down and setting boundaries, or speaking our needs firmly. We need to be our own advocates!

      Thanks for your encouragement!

  7. Thank you for this. At the moment I have a fractured clavicle and separated shoulder… Which was healing fine until recent muscle spasms kicked in! Ouch! My husband is away for weeks at a time, we just moved and I need to unpack, and I have 6 & 7 yr old boys. Some things will just have to wait. I’ll have to let go of some of the things I feel I HAVE to do. And survive. And somehow enjoy my kids who are quickly growing up.

    But I wanted to mention… About 12 years ago I had a bout of vertigo for several weeks… Not horrible, but pretty awful. I was managing the ‘benign positional… Something-something in the ear calcium something-er-other’ vertigo with Physio, but a doctor suggested it wouldn’t hurt to try a round of meds for sinus infection. It seemed to cure it immediately!?

    I’m glad things are settling down for you. I hope you are feeling a little better each day.

    But thanks for reminding me that something’s got to give… And there is no crime in slowing down. In fact, good things happen when you let go of a few things you don’t really HAVE to do, and instead focus on the important things you can do.

    1. Oh, Tanya – that is a lot to deal with! I like how you put it though, “there is no crime in slowing down.” For us go-go-go personalities (I feel guilty when I relax!), when we simply can’t continue it can be a tough but needed lesson.

      I’ve learned a lot about vestibular disorders lately, and thankfully for some of them there is an easy fix, like head positioning. I have considered trying some sinus medications since I have been quite congested. Thought it was allergies. I am also going to try a cranial sacral massage.

      I wish you all the best.

  8. Meghan, I totally related to your blog…Canmore can be a hard place to have a baby. You go to the quarry and see mums with young kids and ripped bodies and you wonder how they got it back so quickly as you struggle with baby weight, muscle loss, and often, internal damage. Our bodies change when we have kids…after 2 C-sections, and bladder surgery (because of babies) my stomach will never be the same, and my shape has changed…sometimes that takes the brain time to accept. But it does come back…the feeling of being fit again, having your body perform the way you want it to. My kids are 2.5 and 4. I am just starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel. I have mountain biked more this summer and am feeling strong…but this took time. It took my kids time to calm down (they were not calm and easy children) and get old enough to leave them with a sitter or husband, it took me having to have bladder surgery so I could walk (let alone run), cough and laugh without peeing. Interestingly, I have felt tired since my second child (2.5 years now) and have felt a crackling sound in my left ear that has never gone away. While pregnant with Evan I got motion sickness (which I never had with my first)…it has never fully gone away. I’m sure it’s inner ear related, though doctors have looked in my ears and said they are fine…but I know it’s ear. I totally feel for the struggles you are facing with this vestibular issue. I hope it clears and allows you to be the active person you are. TIME heals….sometimes just not on the timeline that we want.
    Shannon Fox

    1. Thanks for taking the time to comment, Shannon.

      I also got bad motion sickness with pregnancy, and with the vestibular stuff I have it even when I’m not in a vehicle.

      I encourage you to see a vestibular physiotherapist if you continue to have inner ear issues. They can conduct a series of tests to help narrow it down. My doctor also looked in my ears and said they look fine even though I have the sensation of fullness and crackling.

      All the best!

  9. Thanks for your honesty! Members of the outdoor community can easily get caught in a game of one-upmanship. I have a mild form of epilepsy and, even though my seizures are controlled by medication and I have only lost consciousness during a seizure once, I chose to discontinue my career as a whitewater guide. I couldn’t put others in potential danger because I didn’t want to give up a dream. Now, with my new daughter, I’ll have to face this question again.

  10. I appreciated this post tonight. I’m still searching for why I’m feeling lightheaded/foggy postpartum for the second time. The first time lasted about 10 months, and this time it’s been about two months and counting…seeing a neurologist about vestibular migraines in a week or so.
    Thanks for sharing! It’s comforting to know other moms are fighting through the same thing.

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