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Feel Better About Your Post-Baby Body

So you're toting a few extra pounds and sagging in some places you weren't before. So what? Your body is still sexy and incredible. Here's how to believe it!

"Mushy tushy, mushy tushy!" I remember giggling as I jiggled my mom's cottage-cheesy butt. I couldn't have been more than 3, because her rear end was at my eye level as she dressed in front of the bedroom mirror. "You just wait until you have kids. You won't think it's so funny then," she said, tickling me.

In case you doubt karma's power, when my twin girls, Sasha and Vivian, were 4, they adored sitting on my thighs, kneading my none-too-taut tummy, and screaming, "Wiggle, wiggle! Mommy's belly's in the Wiggles!" Damn the Disney Channel.

My daughters were too young to realize that a squishy front or behind is often considered a curse, not a plaything (and at age 7 now, they thankfully still are). But the truth is, all kids -- myself included -- see their moms as dazzling goddesses, and in no way can a little cellulite detract from that. It's high time we took their cue and made peace with our post-kid shapes.

It's not easy

But unless you're one of the .00073 percent of women who can't wait to pose in a bikini on the cover of a national magazine a month after giving birth, you may be miserably refusing to accept your new figure, even stopping short of buying clothes to fit your current shape or of shedding them in front of your mate. It's disheartening that so few of us can revel in our bodies' life-bearing capabilities, but it's also not surprising. Most women aren't happy with their looks in the first place. So it's not like the physical changes wrought by pregnancy, delivery, and just getting a little older -- weight gain, stretch marks, spider veins, belly overhang, among others -- are going to make us feel better.

These insecurities can become cemented when we're thrown into the often out-of-control first year of parenthood. Tack on another child (or a third), and the stress of it all can make any mom feel vulnerable in lots of areas. "Times of transition are when negative feelings about your body tend to bubble up," says Margo Maine, Ph.D., author of The Body Myth. When it's too complicated to deal with the new emotions that having a child makes you face, you focus on old complaints.

"After giving birth, I thought, I'd walk out in my prepregnancy jeans, but I wound up leaving the hospital in pants I wore when I was six months pregnant," says Melissa Rickey, a mom of two in Russellville, OH. (Looking six months pregnant postpartum is totally normal and to be expected, by the way.) "It was somehow easier for me to deal with being upset about that than the fact that I now had to care for a little, fragile person I knew nothing about."

If you're working outside the home during these tumultuous times, it can be even harder to accept your new figure, says Maine. When you're at home, it might be that few people besides your husband, your baby, and some mom friends see your body, but at work, it's on display for all of your coworkers. They may not actually be scrutinizing you, but it's harder to feel good about your shape when there are thin non-moms around and you're busting the buttons on your shirts every a.m., trying to fit back into your work clothes.

Then there's Heidi Klum, the fembot mom who turned the post-pregnancy figure into a cottage industry -- and sparked an insane game of one-upmanship when it comes to "getting your body back." Even if you've got a highly tuned bullsh*t meter and you know that Angelina Jolie's apparent two-day bounce-back after a twin delivery isn't normal or necessary, it's hard not to feel like you should be able to wear low-rise jeans to the two-week pediatrician appointment. "I had my baby a week after Denise Richards had hers," says Tiffany Haller, a mom of two in Santa Barbara, CA. "Six weeks postpartum, she looked great -- and I still looked pregnant."

Embracing your shape

But wouldn't it be nice if we didn't care? After all, Denise Richards might look good in a bathing suit, but I highly doubt any of us would want Charlie Sheen for a baby daddy. For real, though: Having a positive self-image affects so many aspects of your mom life -- from being able to take charge in chaotic situations to teaching your children to love their own bodies -- that your whole family stands to benefit from your body confidence. The happy news is that it really is possible to feel good about the way you look.

And while I'm loath to launch into the dreaded diet-and-exercise spiel, exercise can do wonders for improving one's body image and mood. (And if it helps you lose some weight, which in turn makes you like your body better, dandy.) The key is not to let exercise be as much of a bludgeon to body image as it is a booster. I sometimes force myself to do Abs of Steel after everyone else has gone to bed, even though I'm sleepy, too. "I'm just taking care of myself," I reason. While the workout may be good for my body, doing another tedious chore after a long day isn't good for my spirit. Instead of a punishing workout during which I "feel the burn," as the perky lady in the video urges me to do, I think I'd be better off curling up on the couch to watch Mad Men DVDs. It would be a nice reward for all my hard work, even nicer, perhaps, than firmer abs.

Another trick: Set goals you can accomplish ("Take a brisk walk with the baby this week"), instead of ones that doom you to failure ("Get back to my college weight by my class reunion"). And cut yourself some slack for a while. "Just like you've had to slow down the rest of your life because you've had kids, you need to slow down your expectations for your body," says Maine. If you eat relatively right and gradually begin exercising, your body will get to where it should be again. Plus, even everyday activities can help you burn calories. Drop the notion that "where your body should be" is where Victoria Beckham's is -- or even where yours was prebaby -- and you'll make life easier on yourself. Gently work up to exercising for a half hour five times a week, which is recommended for your health, not just your figure.

Appreciating our assets

More than what we do, though, it's what we think that makes the biggest difference when it comes to enjoying our mom bods. My friend Kate Miller, who lives in Providence, RI, loved every second of being pregnant and enjoys a Dalai Lama -- like serenity with her body now. "I'm about ten pounds heavier than I was, but my shape fits me and reflects my maturity as a forty-year-old mother of two," she says. "Having kids gives you a pass. I've been through the war twice and nobody can tell me that I need to do this or that with my body. I don't care what your societal expectations are!"

While rare, she's not the only woman to find that motherhood can destroy a negative body image. "Some women are so ready for this life stage that they feel the battle with their bodies is over," says Maine. "They love being moms so much that it over-shadows the angst about not looking exactly how they'd like."

"I'm sexier and more curvaceous now," says Stacey Koutroubinis of Fort Lee, NJ. "Yes, there are stretch marks that weren't there before, but I have confidence now that I never had before, and I enjoy sex much more."

As for me, I'm thinking of asking Kate to make me an inspirational tape that I can play whenever I catch myself berating my body, which most often happens when I'm getting dressed for work: My underwear doesn't fit and my girls are flinging oatmeal at each other, using my butt as a shield to hide behind. But when things are calmer (and I'm fully dressed!), I think I look pretty good. I guess I'm like many moms -- too busy and too tired to devote too much time to inch-pinching and calorie counting.

And it's difficult not to laugh just as hard as my daughters do when they watch their little fingers disappear into my belly fat. My girls keep me honest. If I so much as think, "Ugh, your butt didn't used to droop down the back of your thighs like that!" I issue a reminder to treat myself as I do Vivian and Sasha -- with kindness, love, and acceptance. If I wouldn't make such a comment to them, I try not to think it about myself.

Ping-Pong Counts!

You may not be getting to the gym and your hand weights may be collecting dust, but lugging kids around is no small feat, Mama! In fact, carrying an infant for half an hour burns 126 calories.

Find out the number of calories you burn going about your everyday business.