There’s a lot out there for new moms to think about: Diapers, breastfeeding, and a sudden jump in weekly expenses are just a few worries shared by most.
But not all postpartum women are created equally.
While some new moms may stare at their reflection in the mirror, preoccupied by the leftover baby weight and longing to look like themselves again, others without the time and financial cushions of their more fortunate peers are staring, not at their midsections, but at an empty cupboard, an overdue rent payment, or a notice of eviction.
Doctors and dietitians recommend an organic diet of whole foods paired with an exercise regimen as a way to stay healthy during and post-pregnancy, but these things cost time and money and may be out of reach for lower-income women who are already statistically at a higher risk for obesity and other health issues.
But even for women with the resources to follow all the doctor’s orders, shedding those pesky post-pregnancy pounds is no easy feat.
“I had a vision that after [giving birth], I would be able to keep up my normal workout routine, but the reality is that it doesn’t work like that,” said Jenine Reier, a fitness instructor and franchise owner of Baby Boot Camp in Naperville. The business offers a workout program that allows new moms to incorporate their children into their health routine. “If you’re up every two hours during the night breastfeeding, you’re not going to be able to do the 5 a.m. workouts anymore.”
Reier, a lifelong athlete who got involved with Baby Boot Camp after giving birth to her daughter, said she thinks most moms who come to class like it that they don’t have to squeeze in a workout when their baby is out of the way.
A monthly membership to Baby Boot Camp runs about $55 a month, and while Reier acknowledges that this may be more than many women can afford, she still stresses that working out and eating right are essential to postpartum health.
“If somebody is not able to afford to come to classes, I think that they definitely still need to work out,” she said, suggesting new moms on a budget take their strollers for walks around the neighborhood, or break up workouts in 10-minute bursts.
“I would recommend filling your pantry with whole grains, fruits, vegetables and lean protein. You just got to keep the processed stuff out, and put whole, real foods in!”
This may be easier said than done, however.
“I don’t buy organic food,” said new mom and preschool teacher Katie Macmillan of her pregnancy diet. Though she feels pressured by her friends to get back to her pre-baby figure, the Minnesota native and fervent couponer doesn’t bother sticking to a whole-foods, organic diet because she thinks it’s just too expensive.
Since her husband lost his job last month, Macmillan and her family are on an especially tight budget, and receive assistance from the federally funded Women, Infants and Children program, which provides supplemental food for pregnant women, nursing mothers and children up to age 5.
Despite this help, Macmillan said that buying high-end fruits, vegetables and other healthy food items is often a luxury her family is unable to afford.
“That kind of lifestyle isn’t very accessible to us right now,” Macmillan said. “It’s always harder to eat healthy, you know? A gallon of milk is $4 whereas a case of soda is $2.50 when it’s on sale, so it’s honestly cheaper to not bother eating healthy.”
And this is where the problem lies, said Dr. Angela Odoms-Young, assistant professor of kinesiology and nutrition at the University of Illinois-Chicago. Odoms-Young points to studies that show women who are “food insecure,” or unsure where their next meal is coming from, are more likely to be overweight even before they get pregnant.
“There are potentially other factors,” Odoms-Young said, “like access to healthy foods. If you don’t have the money and you live in a low access area that becomes, in a sense, a double threat. There are huge inequities within in our food system, and for these women it’s not even an issue of eating a ‘whole foods, organic diet,’ that’s just the ideal.”
And it’s an ideal that’s hard for some women to even fathom.
“If we think broadly, the way that people manage weight is related to what happens to them in their daily lives,” Odoms-Young said. “When women are under dire financial constraints, the lowest thing on their totem pole is managing their weight. These are people in survival mode, they’re thinking, ‘Am I gonna have a place to live?’ or ‘Where is my next meal gonna come from?’”
So what can low-income women do to stay healthy during pregnancy and after giving birth? Odoms-Young, Macmillan and Melinda Johnson, a registered dietitian and a spokeswoman for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, all agree there’s no shame in seeking assistance.
Said Johnson: “Low-income mothers should be aware of the WIC program, which provides tremendous benefits in the form of nutrition education and vouchers for healthy food, as well as breastfeeding support.”
Odoms-Young echoes this sentiment, and pushes for more support for programs like WIC, which are at constant risk of being defunded, especially in this divided political environment.
“We need to somehow get people angry about the fact that these programs may potentially be cut. We need to show people what that would mean for the families who rely on them. It’s a different world for women who have to get back up and go to work after having a baby, versus a woman who can stay at home, who has time to really think about, ‘Oh, I need to lose this fat that I gained while I was having a baby.’ [Lower-income women] are thinking, ‘Who is going to look after my baby while I take the bus an hour to work?’”