Sleep deprivation is a part of new parenthood, but calorie deprivation shouldn’t be. It’s time we confront the expectation to “bounce back.”

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Illustration by Brittany England

My body has done some amazing things. When I was 15, it healed from an 8-hour operation. I had severe scoliosis, and the lumbar region of my back needed to be fused.

In my 20s, it supported me through numerous races. I’ve run more marathons, half marathons, and 5 and 10Ks than I can count.

And in my 30s, my body carried two children. For 9 months, my heart held and nourished theirs.

Of course, this should have been cause for celebration. After all, I bore a healthy daughter and son. And while I was in awe of their existence — their full faces and rounded features were perfect — I did not feel the same sense of pride in my appearance.

My stomach was distended and unsightly. My hips were wide and bulky. My feet were swollen and unsexy (though if I’m being honest, my lower extremities have never been much to look at), and everything was soft.

I felt doughy.

My midsection collapsed like an undercooked cake.

This is normal. In fact, one of the most marvelous things about the human body is its ability to change, transpose, and transform.

However, the media suggests otherwise. Models appear on runways and magazine covers weeks after giving birth, looking unchanged. Influencers regularly talk about #postpartumfitness and #postpartumweightloss, and a quick Google search of the term “lose baby weight” yields more than 100 million results… in less than a second.

As such, I felt an immense amount of pressure to be perfect. To “bounce back.” So immense that I pushed my body. I starved my body. I betrayed my body.

I “recovered” in less than 6 weeks but at great detriment to my mental and physical health.

The first few days after giving birth were fine. I was emotional and sleep-deprived and too sore to care. I didn’t count calories (or brush my hair) until I left the hospital. But when I got home, I began dieting, something no breastfeeding mother should do.

I avoided red meat and fats. I ignored hunger cues. I often went to bed with my stomach rumbling and grumbling, and I started working out.

I ran 3 miles just days after giving birth.

And while this may sound ideal, at least on paper — I was regularly told I looked “great” and “was lucky” and some applauded me for my “dedication” and perseverance — my quest for health quickly became obsessive. I struggled with a distorted body image and postpartum eating disorder.

I am not alone. According to a 2017 study from researchers at University of Illinois and Brigham Young University, 46 percent of new moms are frustrated by their post-birth physique. The reason?

Unrealistic standards and images of toned women who “bounced back” weeks after childbirth left them feeling helpless and hopeless. The media’s overall focus on pregnancy also played a role.

But what can we do to change the way women perceive themselves? We can call out companies which perpetuate unrealistic ideals. We can “unfollow” those who schlep diet pills, supplements, and other forms of thinspiration under the guise of wellness. And we can stop talking about women’s post-birth bodies. Period.

Yes, this includes applauding postpartum weight loss.

You see, new mothers (and parents) are so much more than a shape, size, or number on the scale. We are cooks, doctors, sleep coaches, wet nurses, lovers, and caregivers. We protect our little ones and give them a safe place to sleep — and land. We entertain our children and comfort them. And we do this without thinking or blinking.

Many parents take on these tasks in addition to a full-time, out-of-the-home role. Many take on these tasks in addition to caring for other children or aging parents. Many parents take on these tasks with little or no support.

So instead of commenting on a new parent’s appearance, comment on their achievements. Let them know what a great job they are doing, even if all they did was get up and offer their wee one a bottle or their breast. Celebrate tangible successes, like the shower they took that morning or the warm meal they opted to eat that evening.

And if you hear a new mother fretting over her physique, and you do talk about appearances, remind her that her belly is soft because it has to be. Because, without it, her home would be silent. The late-night coos and cuddles would not exist.

Remind her that her stretch marks are a badge of honor, not shame. Stripes should be worn with pride. And remind her that her hips have widened and thighs have thickened because they need to be strong enough — and grounded enough — to support the weight of her life and that of others

Besides, postpartum mothers, you don’t need to “find” your body because you haven’t lost it. At all. It’s always been with you, and regardless of your shape and size, it always will.

Kimberly Zapata is a mother, writer, and mental health advocate. Her work has appeared on several sites, including the Washington Post, HuffPost, Oprah, Vice, Parents, Health, and Scary Mommy — to name a few — and when her nose isn’t buried in work (or a good book), Kimberly spends her free time running Greater Than: Illness, a nonprofit organization that aims to empower children and young adults struggling with mental health conditions. Follow Kimberly on Facebook or Twitter.