“Getting work done” is no longer the secret it once was. But if you're considering going under the knife or needle, you deserve to be informed. In our series Life in Plastic, we're breaking down everything you need to know, from injectables to invasive treatments. Choose to change your looks or don’t—the point is, the choice is yours.
Before I had children, I was an athlete—the kind who wakes up at 5 a.m. to get 10 miles in before work and counts calories, carbs, and grams of protein. My first pregnancy, at 35, arrived after a series of running injuries, forcing my athletic life on hold. Still, the 40 pounds I gained during pregnancy came off in mere months postpartum, with the assistance of a jogging stroller.
Life after my second son, who arrived last year, when I was 38, was different. He was nearly three pounds larger than my first, and a series of life-threatening complications changed the path of my recovery. After a prolonged postnatal hospital stay, which included a C-section recovery, a uterine artery rupture, emergency surgery, pneumonia, and an intestinal blockage, I was left depleted. Caring for a far more challenging infant, who, unlike my first son, nursed constantly, left no time for even the most casual run.
My son’s sheer size forced my tired abdominal muscles apart. Even after I had dropped 25 pounds, I looked second-trimester pregnant, the result of a common (though in my case severe) condition known as diastasis recti. Sit-ups could not put the Humpty Dumpty of my withered body together again, and now looking down the very real barrel of 40, I found that my previously elastic body wasn’t snapping back into place the way it once had.
The miracle of freelancing means that I often work from home, which is a gentle way of saying my work largely permits a uniform of pajamas and sweatpants. In the months after my second son arrived, on the rare occasion I was called out of the comfort of my home, I scoured my wardrobe for things that still fit—overwhelmed with the paralyzing dread that comes with getting ready when your reflection brings you misery. For most of my two pregnancies, I wore normal clothes, switching over to maternity wear only at the bitter end. But now my postpregnancy phase had morphed into a sagging reminder of a truth inherent: I was always going to look this way.
Some believe that plastic surgery is a reflection of one’s vanity, but I have never felt that way. My first-ever consultation with a plastic surgeon in 2005 resulted in a breast reduction that changed my life and helped me become an athlete to begin with. Large breasts had impeded me through high school and college. Once I was set free from their burden, I began to do things I had never done before. That experience led me to another plastic surgeon, where, in early May, I underwent a second breast reduction along with an abdominoplasty (or tummy tuck).
What landed me on a surgeon’s table for what is colloquially referred to as a “mommy makeover” was an attempt at empowerment. I wanted to be a better mother, to feel free again to take my kids to the park, minus the persistent anxiety of concealing my body. I wanted to be able to look in the mirror again and see the woman I was before I had children. That woman was fearless. That woman didn’t need Spanx to go out in public.
It wasn’t as if I was a shut-in. I did go out, sometimes. And to most people I probably looked like any mother in the throes of postpartum life. But instead of bathing in my toddler’s joy of being unleashed in the world—because to him everything is exciting—I focused on my fellow moms. How were they all so impossibly fit? How was it that pregnancy had barely left its mark on them? I felt like a failure not only because my body had morphed into something unrecognizable, but also because I couldn’t get out of my own way. The blame we harbor as mothers is mostly internal. No one sees it but us. But that doesn't make it any less real. It was never my intention to be a sideline parent, but seduced by the safety of my sweatpants, there I was, riding the sidelines.
The term mommy makeover is misleading; there is no single surgery that reconstructs the body of a mother. Instead, with the help of a board-certified plastic surgeon, a woman can customize a series of operations specific to her body. For many women who have breastfed, a mommy makeover will mean breast augmentation rather than breast reduction—a less expensive and less invasive surgery. But a mommy makeover nearly always includes a tummy tuck, a surgical procedure designed to eliminate the loose skin and excess fat apparent after childbirth.
As anyone still reeling from a cesarean can confirm, abdominal surgery forces a slow, painful recovery—and a tummy tuck is abdominal surgery at its very worst. Part of the procedure involves tightening the abdominal wall by suturing together the musculature. For the first few weeks after my surgery, I could neither lie supine nor stand up straight. My sore body existed in the limbo of a permanent forward-leaning crouch. In the shower I sat on a library stool, unable to stand fully.
For one week there were drains and plastic tubes running through my lymphatic system and routed outward into egg-shaped containers I had to empty of blood and fluid daily. There were daily self-administered shots of Lovenox, a blood thinner used to prevent postsurgical patients from developing deadly blood clots.
There were compression garments, required for anyone undergoing large-scale skin or fat removal. Patients should expect to wear them for up to six weeks, day and night. For the first few weeks, I couldn’t pick up my children because heavy lifting can impair the healing of the breast and stomach tissue, and the anchor-shaped suture line at the base of my breast is particularly prone to pressure. As someone accustomed to caring for my children and cooking their meals, the concession of forced relaxation felt like imprisonment. I wanted to have my house clean. I wanted quality dinner with my children at night. Most of all, I wanted to pick my toddler up when he came to me, arms outstretched. If you can’t comfort your child when he comes to you in need, are you doing your best as a parent? I hoped that, in the broader sense, the answer to that question was yes.
Like all plastic surgery, the mommy makeover—no matter its iteration—comes at a cost. In my case, insurance covered the majority of my surgery, owing to several medical conditions that required attention (severe muscle separation, an umbilical hernia, large breasts that were coverable under my insurance’s necessity provision). That meant that the expenses for which I was responsible were far less than the average woman’s. I paid for medications out of pocket, as well as the negotiated rate ($1,000) for a required hospital stay, the result of severe anemia.
But for most women, the cost of a mommy makeover hovers around $20,000 for outpatient surgery. Many plastic surgeons can help with financing plans, and certain credit cards, such as Care Credit and Alphaeon, have 6-, 12-, and 24-month offers at zero percent APR. Still, the surgery is admittedly not cheap—and as is often the case, this brand of empowerment can be prohibitive. Forget for a moment the sheer cost, which could easily impoverish a family. Surgery like this, a massive undertaking, requires help in the form of sick leave, child care assistance, and a partner willing and able to up the ante on domestic duties. Not every household can accommodate these needs; in fact, most cannot.
The hard-fought reward? I have reclaimed myself. My weight has not changed (that was never the point), but my body has. The sweatpants that signified my prison are back in the drawer. I’m not consumed with dread when I look in the mirror. Best of all, I can be a fearless, fun mother, which is an immeasurable gift. I haven’t started running again yet; most patients aren’t cleared for rigorous exercise until six weeks after surgery. I have dusted off my double-jogger, though, and I hope to take my children, and my newish body, out on the pavement again for a 5k in July. The road ahead seems bright.
Originally Appeared on Glamour