Honest Photo Series Shows The Reality Of Postpartum Body Image

From the stretch marks to the sleepless nights to the pressure to "bounce back."

Maternity photos are an increasingly common part of the pregnancy experience. But once the baby is born, the focus tends to shift to the newborn and we see considerably fewer photos of the postpartum mamas.

Photographer Natalie McCain is counteracting that phenomenon with the latest series in her popular "Honest Body Project." Titled "After the Baby is Born," the new installment features postpartum photos of the seven women she photographed while they were pregnant for her earlier series, "The Beauty in a Mother."

Just three to six weeks after giving birth, the moms posed with their new babies and shared their thoughts about these early postpartum days -- from the stretch marks to the sleepless nights to the pressure to "bounce back."

"Society sends new mothers messages about needing to fix their imperfections, that they need to 'bounce back' and lose the baby weight within weeks," McCain told The Huffington Post, adding that the postpartum period is a time when moms often feel especially insecure about the changes in their bodies.

"Every time you check out at the grocery store you are bombarded with 'miracle' diets and celebrities that have lost all of the weight within weeks, along with images of them which have certainly been photoshopped," she said. "Some women certainly do slim down quickly after birth, but this isn't the norm for most mothers."

While the moms expressed a variety of feelings about their bodies, they are all facing challenges in the first weeks after giving birth. "I hope that new mothers will see these portraits and recognize that the postpartum period is beautiful and to not be harsh on themselves after they give birth," McCain said. "Ignore the messages that society gives you, telling you that your imperfections need to be fixed."

Keep scrolling and visit The Honest Body Project website for a look at these mothers' postpartum portraits and thoughts.

The Honest Body Project/Natalie McCain
"I loved feeling so round and curvy while being pregnant and dressing to accent all those curves. But afterwards it’s a struggle to hide that belly that isn’t flat and those arms that look a little bit flabbier then before and those veiny legs that are still a little swollen."
The Honest Body Project/Natalie McCain
“The other morning I got out of the shower, stood in front of the mirror and really looked at my body. The purple, jagged stretch marks on my stomach struck me so hard that I startled myself with how loud I involuntarily said ‘WOW.’ I never got any with my first son ... I called my husband in to show him. ‘Look at these stretch marks,’ I said. ‘Cool!’ he said. And he genuinely meant it as he ran his finger across them. ‘I used to have amazing, tight abs … do you remember?’ I asked him, realizing that they would never look like I remembered. Without hesitation, he replied ‘Yes, but we didn’t have two amazing sons back then.'”
The Honest Body Project/Natalie McCain
"I love my postpartum belly! I’ve been waiting so long to see what it’d look like and had hoped for some tiger stripes, telling me that my babies grew big and spent that much less time struggling to survive. I will never hide my stripes or mushy mama belly for others' sake; this amazing belly has carried my three kids in two pregnancies, going full-term each time."
The Honest Body Project/Natalie McCain
"I’ve been able to really embrace not 'bouncing back' right away with my last two pregnancies. There’s something really beautiful about the way my newborn’s tiny body molds into my soft, squishy postpartum belly. While rock-hard abs might be something I aspire to someday in the future, I’m really glad that isn’t my reality right now. The body I have is perfect for snuggling my baby!"
The Honest Body Project/Natalie McCain
"I honestly feel more comfortable with the way my body looks when I’m pregnant than when I’m not. I have mixed feelings right now … I am amazed at the way my body is recovering from my second C-section, I am a little sad that I have stretch marks on my stomach this time, although with time I hope to embrace these and feel much differently than I do right now. I feel like a goddess each time I breastfeed my baby. I am in awe at what the female body is capable of."
The Honest Body Project/Natalie McCain
"This time I’m learning to accept any help I can get and admit when I can’t do it by myself. I’m very stubborn and the first baby I wanted to do everything myself, even when I knew I couldn’t, and I burnt myself out by always wanting to it all. It also didn’t give my husband the chance to help out and bond as much."
The Honest Body Project/Natalie McCain
“Even though I have no idea what sleep is anymore, I constantly smell like baby puke, I look a hot mess, my house isn’t as clean as it used to be and my life consists of dirty diapers and getting peed on, I absolutely love the mommy life and couldn’t imagine my life without him.”
The Honest Body Project/Natalie McCain
"The newborn hasn’t been the overwhelming part -- it’s everything else! Newborns just need to be snuggled and nursed all the time, which is honestly a joy, but it makes doing anything else -- taking care of her older siblings, keeping the house from descending into chaos, spending time with my husband -- a challenge."
The Honest Body Project/Natalie McCain
"The emotional ups and downs can be overwhelming during the first few weeks. I was sorting through baby clothes a few days after my daughter was born and came across an outfit my son had worn often when he was a baby and started bawling. Remembering him as a tiny, beautiful, needy baby, and looking at him as a tall, beautiful, self-sufficient child, I just broke down crying. It all goes so fast. The newborn stage, especially, is over in the blink of an eye, and although there are many more wonderful moments in mothering a child, there’s something so beautiful and powerful about the time when you are everything to a tiny, helpless human."
The Honest Body Project/Natalie McCain
"Being a plus-size pregnant woman was very challenging in every aspect. From the body shaming to trying to find clothes that fit. Self-confidence was an every day challenge. After having my child I thought that my body would go back to the way it was, which was nowhere near perfect, but I was happy with the way I was. I’m here to say it did not go back to the way it was. I have lost about 26 pounds, I eat healthy, and I try to exercise as much as I can but I’m still not happy with the way I look. I don’t want to be skinny. I just want to be healthy for me, my family, and my son, but it is hard. It’s hard to feel beautiful with all of the tiger stripes across my body and all the extra weight I’ve gained."
The Honest Body Project/Natalie McCain
“I think everyone thinks what if they stayed at home longer, walked further or opted for or didn’t get the epidural. But really we can’t change it and some of us didn’t really get to choose how our babies came in to world, but we can choose how we raise them.”
The Honest Body Project/Natalie McCain
"I felt so supported and loved before, during and after my daughter’s birth. The day before she was born, a group of dear friends met me for breakfast and made me a bracelet to wear during labor, with beads that reminded them of me or of their wishes for her birth. Friends helped me fill my freezer with meals during the last few weeks of my pregnancy, and brought food after my daughter was born. My mom came and took care of my older children –- and me! –- while I recovered. My husband has been a better support after the birth of each of our three children. I’ve been incredibly blessed with the support I received this time around."
The Honest Body Project/Natalie McCain
"Everyone says how easy your second delivery will be. I just want to clarify that no matter how many babies you have, they are not easier, just different. I felt more in charge and connected with my body this time, but it was not easier. Labor may have happened quicker and I was able to cope with it better, but pushing was actually harder."
The Honest Body Project/Natalie McCain
"The hardest thing I’ve had to cope with during postpartum is maintaining patience. Overall I will say I’ve done an excellent job, but it has taken a lot of awareness and intention. Most of the time it is a minute-to-minute self-regulation exercise. Patience with myself as I go through the physical recovery and limitations from my elective repeat C-section. Patience with myself as I learn to parent two children. Patience with my toddler as he approaches three-years-old and adjusts to having a new baby in the house. Patience with those helping out around my home with tasks I’m so used to doing on my own."
The Honest Body Project/Natalie McCain
"I believe it was day four or five that we were home from the hospital and I was still adjusting to becoming a new mother and to the pain that I felt down under. I remember sitting in the dark crying as Bradley was crying. It seems like all day he was crying and he would not stop. He wouldn’t sleep, my boobs were killing me from breastfeeding all day, my hair was a mess, my house was a mess, my dogs needed to be fed and I felt like a failure. I remember thinking, 'How am I ever going to do this? This is not how I pictured it.' As I was trying to get him to latch, I looked down at him and I swear he looked right up at me into my eyes and smiled. I know it was an involuntary smile, but that moment of clarity right there just made me feel so complete, happy, and nothing else mattered."
The Honest Body Project/Natalie McCain
"It’s hard being touched all the time. My toddler, understandably, has been needier than usual since her sister was born. I’m nursing one or both of them almost constantly, and as much as I really do love it, I feel really touched out sometimes."
The Honest Body Project/Natalie McCain
"For me, the hardest part about this whole experience is that I’ve always been so independent. I’ve always been able to do everything I set my mind to and never had to ask for help. What I’ve learned is that having a newborn, or a child in general, is tough and I’ve had to learn to ask for help when I need it. At first I didn’t ask for any help, even in the hospital. I didn’t want help putting him to sleep, changing him, feeding him … nothing. I just wanted to do it all myself because I thought I could. Literally three days after I had a breakdown because I couldn’t do it by myself. I realized I never had to do it by myself, and I don’t know why I felt I needed to."
The Honest Body Project/Natalie McCain
"One of my poor babies' crying gets to me. I love being able to tend to her needs most of the time ... that’s really fulfilling! What is really challenging and overwhelming, though, is when she’s sad and I don’t know how to help and nothing seems to meet her needs. Sometimes she’s just sad and that’s OK, too. I just have to remind myself that it’s OK to be sad, especially if I’m right there to comfort her through it."
The Honest Body Project/Natalie McCain
"It is so amazing to finally see this little human that has been a part of you for their whole life."
The Honest Body Project/Natalie McCain
"I had a very dark time after my first son was born where I cried daily and just didn’t want to pick him up. I felt extremely guilty about it, but that didn’t change the sadness. I remember middle-of-the-night moments where I would weep for hours and hours while holding my child who slept so little, wondering if it would ever get better. It took months, the support of my husband, encouragement from my sister, and talk therapy to get myself to a happier place."
The Honest Body Project/Natalie McCain
"It’s hard to get used to not being able to rest. Even when he is sleeping, I’m still not fully asleep ... I constantly find myself watching him when he sleeps just to make sure he’s breathing because I’m so paranoid. Even though I know he’s in perfect hands when I leave him with his father so I can get some sleep, I’m still so worried because he’s not with me … my mind is just racing. For me that is the hardest. I love my sleep! And it’s really hard not to be cranky and crabby when you have no sleep."
The Honest Body Project/Natalie McCain
"Once I got home from the hospital -- just a two-night stay -- the real C-section recovery began. It was completely humbling and a bit depressing to be reduced to that state again. The effort and concentration it took to gingerly maneuver myself into a standing position. Needing someone else to physically help me wipe myself after going to the bathroom for over a week because the pain of twisting or bending was so excruciating and brought me to tears in a split second. Cringing anytime someone accidentally bumped my feet or ankles because they were so giant and tight from fluid retention that they looked like something out of a cartoon to me. And basically living on the couch night and day with only short walks within the house here and there. Even now, nearly four weeks postpartum, my stomach is numb from about an inch below my belly button down to the incision. Anyone who thinks having a C-section vs. vaginal delivery is taking the easy route needs to think again. I thought long and hard before deciding this (over attempting a VBAC) was the best choice for me and my baby. And despite the pain of the recovery and all the side effects of it all, I would do it again in a heartbeat."
The Honest Body Project/Natalie McCain
"The hardest part about having a newborn is the fact that I also have a toddler who needs my attention as well, most of the time more when the newborn does. Recently the baby is starting to go through her growth spurts with breastfeeding and that basically means she wants to feed 24/7 and seems unsatisfied, even right after feeding her. It’s been hard to take care of myself, like eating on time, sleeping, or trying to do any cleaning around the house. I basically can’t do anything without having to breastfeed at the same time. Little things are super frustrating but I just have to keep reminding myself to enjoy this stage even when it’s brutal and we’ll be out of it soon."
The Honest Body Project/Natalie McCain
"The newborn stage comes with this most amazing, innate need for mommy. Yes it can be very overwhelming, but it’s simplicity is a beautiful thing."
The Honest Body Project/Natalie McCain
"I had such a feeling of calm and peace when I met him. I laughed with pure delight when I heard the sound of his cry as he took his first breaths. I felt the purest form of love when I saw him and my husband held his face to mine amidst the sea of blue scrubs and surgical masks."
The Honest Body Project/Natalie McCain
"The hardest part about recovery for me both times is the ripping vagina and stitches. I still cringe just thinking about it. Having to pee and use the squirt bottle at the same time, bleeding for a month after and, for some reason, I was way more swollen, bleeding and bruised down there this time. But I recovered at five weeks instead of 6-7 weeks with the first baby."
The Honest Body Project/Natalie McCain
“After this birth, I decided to take care of my sanity proactively, since I knew I could get overwhelmed. I shower daily and change clothes if they get messy, and make sure I’m comfortable before I am 'stuck' for hours, even if it means the baby or babies wait an extra 10 seconds. Practicing this self-care has definitely helped keep my head in a better place than last time.”
The Honest Body Project/Natalie McCain
"My journey around and leading up to the birth was a wild ride! After doing some research and pondering, as well as getting amazing doula support, I decided that I could totally rock an unmedicated VBAC, even if it meant delivering in the OR, risking general anesthesia by not getting an epi (if I needed an emergency cesarean), having constant monitoring of two fetuses, amongst the other potential non-support that the hospital can bring. Fortunately I had a lot of education, support, and was at peace with whatever happened during my birth. Then my daughters decided to take a lot of time, being past their due date with low fluid and I decided the safest option in our situation was to have a repeat cesarean. I was so blessed to be armed with a bubble of peace, a lot of knowledge about how I wanted this cesarean to be better than my first, and my support crew. My birth was my best plan B it could have been. I left with no regrets this time."
The Honest Body Project/Natalie McCain
"I spent my whole pregnancy worrying about how my toddler was going to handle having another baby around, and now I feel like I was worrying for nothing. For the most part I think she really likes having a baby sister and wants to help as much as she can. She even tries to do diaper changes on all her stuffed animals and breastfeed them. It’s pretty entertaining having a toddler around to help out with the normal mundane baby duties throughout the day. The other day she was assisting me with a diaper change and was up front and center to witness the baby spray thick yellow poop ALL OVER ME. We both looked at eachother wide-eyed and then she started laughing at me, so at least I know her sense of humor is perfectly in tact. One day I will get to look back on all of this and be glad my little partner in crime was right there with me through it all this time. I couldn’t feel more blessed."
The Honest Body Project/Natalie McCain
"The hardest thing I have to cope with postpartum is finding a balance between the new baby and my 2-year-old."

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