What words do you associate with motherhood: Exhaustion? Martyrdom? A complete lack of time and energy? For Strong Like Mum founder, Shakira Akabusi, this was the bleak picture painted for her during her first pregnancy, six years ago.
From being told she would never going to have time to exercise, or be body confident, or sleep – ever again, the general consensus was that motherhood was a one way ticket to losing everything she felt was intrinsically “her”.
‘To me, that was like telling me I couldn’t be who I was,’ pre- and postnatal health expert Akabusi shares, chatting just before the birth of her twins earlier this summer. ‘I love being in touch with my physical body and everyone was telling me, “you can’t do this”.’
Fortunately, this only spurred Akabusi to share her journey, documenting her first and second pregnancies online, picking up a host of support along the way, and eventually founding Strong Like Mum: An online campaign created to give women the tools to stay physically and mentally well in pregnancy and beyond.
‘The second you say the word “mum”, it has all of these archaic connotations – it can sound frumpy, tired and exhausting,’ Akabusi describes.
She finishes, explaining that she sees her role as helping women create healthy attachments to exercise and mental wellbeing.
Since its initial debut, Strong Like Mum has become a online platform for women to find shared experience and share their own – bridging the gap between reality and what’s “normally” seen on the grid.
‘I really struggled in the first trimester of this pregnancy,’ Akabusi explains, ‘and I was open about the mental health issues I faced during that time, online. Recently, a woman in her third trimester reached out and described that in her first trimester she had been scared and overwhelmed and wasn’t sure if she was going to be able to do it, but finding my account and connecting with how honest it was had pulled her through. That was an amazing feeling,’ she says.
A key part of her approach, honesty and language have been the cornerstones of how Akabusi hopes to shatter the stereotypes presented to her as how she should approach pregnancy, and postnatal fitness.
‘It’s about helping women build confidence by using words like “powerful”, “mobile”, “energised”, “positive”, “connected”, “strong”, “flexible”, “active”.’
She explains that her approach is always rooted in supporting women in their long term health and wellness journeys, rather than selling quick fixes and unrealistic programmes.
But, how easy is it really to find that balance in motherhood, when there are little ones who require attention and near-constant tending to? As a primarily physical programme, Akabusi admits that taking time for yourself can be a daunting task, something that needs to remain flexible and in harmony with each individual life.
‘It’s all in the approach,’ she explains. ‘If you approach fitness negatively, trying to get that bikini or revenge or pre-baby body, it’s probably going to be less sustainable. It’s about creating positive change that’s sustainable for you and your family. It’s a challenge to find that balance but I’m never afraid to ask for help.’
‘You can be a dedicated mum and love your kids, but you also need a break,’ she says. ‘You need to be able to give yourself some love and attention because it’s, ultimately, going to help you build a much more positive approach to parenting.’
Now a mum of four, Akabusi stays open to her experience informing her work and vice versa. Within reason.
‘For so many, pregnancy can be one of the only times they think about fitness,’ she says. And, as someone who’s always been in the fitness world, this pregnancy [referring to her then-current pregnancy’] has taught me a lot about connecting with anyone who would consider themselves a beginner. It’s been so incredibly different to the other two: I haven’t felt as energetic or been able to do the same workouts.’
However, Akabusi strives to never meld her experience with the women she trains, she tells me. Just because she suffered with morning sickness, doesn’t mean everyone will. Maintaining this understanding that every woman and every pregnancy is an unique experience is a crucial touchpoint to sharing her expertise in the way that’s best suited to each individual.
‘You learn a lot of technical stuff but when you live it, it really gives you an insight as to how it feels,’ she describes. ‘I have clients who come to me in their 40s and 50s who have to be trained as postnatal clients because they never did the rehabilitation work after having children thirty years ago and are still suffering from backache or pelvic instability.’
However, it’s not just the big moments – when she or her clients or followers smash goals and personal bests – that bring Akabusi joy. ‘I have women who say they never thought they’d be able to exercise three times a week for twenty minutes or who say they took their baby on a thirty minute walk,’ she beams.
‘It can be a small amount but make a real impact.’
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