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I'm so thankful for my daughter but I wish someone had prepared me for the physical toll of childbirth | Elicia O'Reilly

Recently, my daughter chipped my front tooth. It was an accident. She was simply being joyous and irrepressible, as three-year-olds are. She came u

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Recently, my daughter chipped my front tooth. It was an accident. She was simply being joyous and irrepressible, as three-year-olds are. She came up and cracked me on the chin, and now that lovely smooth ridge at the back of my eye tooth is gone, leaving a jagged edge that stabs my tongue and scrapes my bottom lip. There’s friction when my teeth meet. Weird pressure on one tooth. Chewing feels strange.

As I contemplate the new reality in my mouth, a few things come to mind. I think about Brad Pitt, who reportedly once had a front tooth surgically chipped for a role. Did he struggle with the new reality too? I also think about other changes to my body that are related to motherhood, and that I’ve worked hard to overcome or come to terms with: weight struggles, poor posture, carpal tunnel flare-ups, incontinence, a hip problem which limits the exercise I can do. This is yet another example of collateral damage to add to that list, testament to the ever-growing list of new realities I associate with motherhood.

Of these, the tooth is one of the most visible. But it’s the more invisible changes that have been hardest to come to terms with. And of these, incontinence was the worst.

It began in the delivery ward. I’d not long given birth to a beautiful big healthy baby after an induced labour and with no drugs. The midwife helped me up off the bed and led me to the bathroom for a much-needed shower. The warm water hit my skin, and bam, out it streamed. I felt terrible.

A midwife later explained that immediate post-partum incontinence is basically par for the course with vaginal births, and many mothers continue to experience ongoing issues for months, if not years, afterward. Beyond this, while things may slowly improve for some with time and hard work, many others have to learn to live with some form of it for the rest of their lives.

Statistics show that incontinence is widespread among women. In Australia, 80% of all people affected by urinary incontinence (the most common form) are women, numbering up to 38% of those of reproductive age and above. Further, more than half the women living with incontinence in the community are under the age of 50. Evidence also shows that urinary incontinence doubles the risk of postnatal depression. In light of these statistics, the invisibility of this problem is astounding.

I vaguely recall one prenatal care doctor mentioning the possibility of incontinence in passing. Perhaps I should have paid more attention but no other health professionals brought it up, so amid all of the preoccupations of being a first-time expectant mum, I must have brushed it off. And why not? No mothers I had spoken to during my pregnancy – or before, for that matter – had shared experiences of post-partum incontinence, and very few openly discussed other childbirth-related dysfunctions (although I was quietly warned about post-partum haemorrhoids, thankfully). It wasn’t until a physiotherapist in the natal ward handed me a brochure – “one in three women who have ever had a baby wet themselves” – that I realised just how common it was.

Why do mothers tend to be silent about the physical toll of childbirth? They’ve been there, nipples cracked and wrists aching from cradling a tiny new infant, sleepless and shell-shocked at the state of their bodies, wondering at just what they’d really signed up for. Possibly feeling guilt because they’re supposed to be glowing with the joy of new motherhood, when instead they’re struggling with the fatigue of labour, maybe a tapestry of stitches, a strangely changed relationship with the toilet and the jarring separation from circadian rhythm.

The question answers itself in multiple ways. Perhaps the silence exists because mothers don’t want to take the shine off the excitement, anticipation and joy of being pregnant. Perhaps they don’t want to add to the possible burdens of pregnancy either. Or perhaps it would just be plain awkward for all concerned.

All of these reasons are understandable, but the fact remains that the transition to a postnatal body, with all of its curious and sometimes distressing frailties, is just as much an inextricable part of motherhood as it is an invisible one.

We routinely make life choices that involve mistreating our bodies: sedentary lifestyles, poor ergonomics, sleep deficits, regular fixes of alcohol and caffeine. For women, perhaps this might also include childbearing and pregnancy. Because while pregnancy is not a “mistreatment” of the body per se, the fact that pregnancy and childbirth are natural lulls us into believing that our bodies will easily cope with it, which is not always the case.

The female body goes through such significant change over the course of pregnancy and childbirth, it’s unfair to expect it to just bounce back. But in the absence of realistic representations of motherhood in the popular media we consume, and with the dearth of discussion about the postnatal body in professional and personal spheres, it’s easy to understand why we might.

Since giving birth to my daughter, conversations with other mothers about the loss of bodily function are not uncommon. Does this mean that we regret becoming mothers? For my part, not at all. My daughter gives me more joy than I had ever thought possible. I’m so thankful that she’s in my life, and I wouldn’t change that for the world.

But I write this because I wonder how my first days, months and years with her might have been different if I’d had as much understanding of what to expect from my own body as I did of what to expect from my baby. The information about newborns that I amassed during pregnancy were certainly no match for lived experience, but there’s no doubt that it helped.

I have no illusions that a map can ever fully prepare you for the territory, and motherhood is no exception. Even so, more visibility in multiple spheres for the postnatal body and its frailties (as well as its incredible resilience) may help mothers to better navigate the new realities of their bodies after birth, and give them comfort in the knowledge that they are not alone.

• Elicia O’Reilly is a journal editor and event programmer working in the culture and education space

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