Your body changes during pregnancy, everyone knows that. But for many women, some of those changes are permanent. You may be carrying some extra pounds, boast some new stretch marks -- maybe even your shoe size went up a notch. Of course, your baby is worth the battle scars, but it sure helps to know in advance about some of the physical changes motherhood brings. Mom and writer Lain Chroust Ehmann tells you what she and other mothers have learned.

Facing facts
I cleaned out my closet yesterday, and it threw me into a major fit of depression. Why? Because I had to admit that never, ever again am I going to fit into those tiny little Ann Taylor skirts. It doesn't matter that I am within a few pounds of my pre-pregnancy weight. It doesn't matter that I recently completed my first (and last) half-marathon run. It doesn't matter that "nine months on, nine months off" has come and gone. And it definitely doesn't matter that virtually every childbirth book I read while pregnant promised me that I'd lose a ton of weight by breastfeeding.

I held onto these fantasies long enough, and now it's time to face facts. And the facts are, no matter what the books tell you, your body will probably not look the same after giving birth.

Things get rearranged a bit after having a baby. Some things get bigger -- and others, smaller. But don't run shrieking out of the house yet; some of these changes aren't all that bad. And everyone's experiences are different. Just because every woman you know got stretch marks doesn't mean you necessarily will, too.

Following is a guide to the most common changes pregnant women notice, and some straight talk from real moms about their experiences.

Worth the weight?
The first question virtually every pregnant mom wants to know is, how long will it take me to lose all these extra pounds? The answer is, it depends. Some women, like Massachusetts mom Nadia Tucker were unpleasantly surprised to realize that the weight wasn't going to just disappear. "I expected my body to return to normal as I had been very healthy before my pregnancy," says Tucker, who finds herself with an extra 10 pounds, two years after her son's birth.

On the other extreme, though, are women like Jill Gilbert of Colorado, who admits to being apprehensive about her 42-pound pregnancy gain. "I should not have been worried," she reports seven months after giving birth. "I lost 35 pounds in the first three weeks, and the last seven pounds within the first three months." Gilbert and many other women credit nursing with helping them to lose their baby weight. "I eat like a horse and still maintain my weight, even eating desserts and fatty foods," she says.

While nursing can help burn calories, don't look to it to melt away all your excess poundage. Tucker nursed her son for five months and still didn't lose all the weight she would have liked to, though she does say it helped her lose weight more quickly.

Shifting sands
One thing that moms agree on almost unanimously is that even when your weight is back to "normal," there's a good chance your body has rearranged itself. "Nothing went back to the way it was," laments Tucker. "Due to pregnancy hormones, the loosening of joints, and my water retention, my body remained 'looser' post-pregnancy. I can button my former clothes at the waist, and my jeans still fit, but my business skirts are way too tight across the hips."

Mother of two Karen Hiscott of Manitoba, Canada, says that her hips are wider, and she's inherited a "small tummy" that wasn't there before. "A lot of exercise and careful eating took off a lot of the weight I had accumulated, but there are permanent changes I doubt anything apart from surgery will change," she says.

Other moms cite changes such as larger feet, bigger rib cages, larger thighs and rear ends as their legacy from their pregnancies -- and repeat moms say that things can continue their migration with subsequent children.

The breast of us
There's no doubt that breastfeeding is the best thing for your child. Unfortunately, pregnancy is not always the best thing for the physical appearance of your breasts. Moms across the board report that their chests are flatter, more saggy and less full than they were before they had a child. "My breasts are not the same," claims two-time mom Giselle Zapata-Garcia of Seattle. "There's no more of the perky fullness I used to have."

It's not just nursing that can cause these changes; the hormones that cause your breasts to grow larger during pregnancy also cause stretching and tugging, which can result in loss of elasticity. "I really don't know if it was the nursing that caused my breasts to start their journey south, or if it was simply the result of two pregnancies and childbirth experiences," ponders Hiscott. In either case, though, she feels that the benefits of nursing far outweigh any of the "negative" body changes. In the end...
What any mom will tell you -- even one in the midst of toting her favorite DKNY suit to the Goodwill -- is that being a mommy is worth the bodily changes. Women need to look at their bodies not only with an eye to how slim and trim they are, but also -- and more importantly -- for their strength and for what they can accomplish. "Pregnancy and childbirth put a lot of strain on my body," says Hiscott. "But the end results -- my children -- more than make up for any physical discomfort or change."

Yes, it's tough to admit you may not look as good as you once did. But "good" is a relative term, and just knowing that you have the capability to sustain a life and bring a new human into the world makes any woman beautiful -- stretch marks and all.

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