Three weeks after my daughter was born, I left her at home with her doting dad and headed out to my local mall to buy an outfit to wear on Christmas Day.
I chose an extra-large top with a floaty, forgiving style. I took it to the cash register and thought how good it felt to get out of the house and indulge in a bit of retail therapy. As I tapped my card onto the payment reader, the shop assistant smiled and said, "So when are you due?"
I blushed and said that I'd given birth a few weeks earlier. She apologised, and I told her not to worry – and I meant it. I mean, her comment didn't make me feel great, but I figured it was to be expected.
I didn't have unrealistic expectations about how long it would take to get my pre-pregnancy body back. Even Meghan Markle still looked pregnant a few weeks after giving birth to Archie, as I would later note with comfort.
Three months later, I returned to the same mall, once again without my baby in tow. My first stop was to a jewellery store, where I collected my wedding ring after its periodic cleaning. The shop assistant handed my sparkling ring back to me and said, "When are you due?"
I wanted the ground to swallow me up. I stammered vaguely that I had recently given birth, even though it was a lie, and left the store as quickly as I could. What hurt most was that the woman didn't ask whether I was pregnant, but when I was due. Her certainty that I had a baby inside me was pretty devastating.
I went straight to Target and bought a few sets of spanx. I wore them every day, even though they were uncomfortable. I figured they made me less uncomfortable than being asked when I was due.
I also turned to my online friends on Baby Center. I told them what happened and shared my despair over my postnatal body. Turns out, a few other women had the same experience. One said she was still offered seats on the train two years after giving birth to her first child.
I blamed myself for the way I looked. I had gained a massive 30 kilos during pregnancy because I ate everything in sight. I was constantly ravenous and had major sugar cravings, which I satisfied with countless blocks of Top Deck, Krispy Kreme donuts and tubs of Ben & Jerry ice cream. I have to admit, it was glorious.
But I was determined to undo the damage after giving birth. I went to the gym five times a week and did successive rounds of the Michelle Bridges 12WBT weight loss program. By the time the second person asked me when I was due, I had lost half my weight. So why did my stomach area still look like a car crash?
It occurred to me that while I was pregnant, I hoped that people wouldn't think I was fat, and now that I was fat, I hoped that people wouldn't think I was pregnant. And I certainly didn't want anyone to ask me when I was due. I don't think it's ever worth asking a woman that question, because getting it wrong creates a very awkward situation. If a pregnant woman wants to talk about being pregnant, she will bring it up herself.
I googled 'Why do I still look pregnant' and discovered a condition called diastasis recti. It's also known as 'mummy tummy' because it causes a noticeable stomach pooch. As many as two-thirds of mums have the condition and like me, most are unaware they have it.
Diastasis recti is most commonly caused by pregnancy, and those most susceptible to it include women who are petite, carried twins, are older or have poor muscle tone. The growing uterus puts a lot of pressure on the abdominal muscles, causing them to stretch and separate. This in turn allows the intestines to push through the muscles and form a bulge. Gross or what?
It's not just mums who get it, though. Obese men and women can also appear pregnant, as abdominal separation can be caused by sudden fluctuations in weight, and by some types of weight lifting. It can even occur in newborn babies, and especially premature ones. Fortunately, in babies it usually gets better without treatment. =
I went to see a women's physio called BPS Tensegrity in Sydney, and was told that I did indeed have a moderate case of diastasis recti. The gap in my abdominal muscles was two-and-a-half fingers wide.
"Feeling through a muscle with a hole in it is very different from having some excess adipose [fat] tissue. It's a bit disconcerting – it's like you're feeling your insides," says Lana Johnson, a physiotherapist, mum, and the owner of BPS Tensegrity.
A severe case, says Lana, would be a separation that is five fingers' wide. There would probably be other symptoms, such as back pain, and surgery may be needed to fix it.
She said that I had actually come to her sooner than most women do. Due to low awareness about the condition, the majority of women don't realise they have it.
"Quite often, it goes undiagnosed," says Lana. "It's not until there's something symptomatic such as back pain, or it's 12 months down the track and a woman thinks, 'I'm doing all the right things. I'm eating well and exercising – so why do I still have this pregnant-looking belly?'"
The culprit: crunches
Lana says that most often, diastasis recti gets worse because women rush back into doing abdominal exercises, such as crunches. She says these types of exercises should be avoided for the first six to 12 weeks after giving birth.
"There's a lot of pressure on mums to return to a flat stomach two weeks after giving birth, which often isn't anatomically or physiologically possible. As a result, many women are doing a lot of abdominal work, which is putting extra strain on these muscles and essentially tearing them."
Surprisingly, tearing the muscle usually isn't painful.
"It's quite thin postnatally anyway, so often it's not the tear that you notice. It's the fact that now you have a bulging, pregnant-looking tummy," explains Lana.
She says it's really important to appreciate that it took your body nine months to stretch into position before birth, so it will likely take nine months to stretch back.
I began an exercise program and within a few months, the gap in my ab muscles had closed. I was elated, as it finally meant that I could start really getting myself into shape with planking and crunches.
At the same time, I slowly and steadily kept losing weight. As my daughter's first birthday drew near, I made a conscious effort to double down and make healthy choices. I was thrilled when I got within just a couple of kilos of my pre-pregnancy weight. I was starting to feel terrific, as all my old clothes fit me again.
But then Olivia's birthday party took place, and I binged on rainbow cake, sausage rolls and afterwards, the leftover sweets. I was cross with myself when I realised I'd gained a couple of kilos. I resolved to be extra strict in the lead up to Christmas, and yet I couldn't seem to help myself.
As it turns out, those tell-tale pregnancy cravings had returned. I'm due with my second child in August.
Although I was completely thrilled, I was also disappointed with myself for failing to achieve my weight loss goal before falling pregnant with baby number two. So I can't tell you how happy I was with the reaction from my four-year-old nephew Archie when I told him my news.
He smiled shyly, said nothing and walked away. A minute later, he circled back to me.
"But how can there be a baby in your tummy, Auntie Jessica?" he asked me. "You don't look pregnant."
I promised him that I was.
Take a look at this simple self-test to see if you have diastasis recti. If you are concerned, please see your GP or a women's physio.