Michelle Stanek – Muscle Is a Beautiful Disaster

Michelle 35.5 weeks pregnant. Ten days before giving birth. Photo by Fiona Aboud

“The entire journey was especially tumultuous, but in hindsight, it was a beautiful disaster that ended in magic – funny how that happens.”

Michelle Stanek

Activities: Pole dancing, Beach body coach

Social Media: @michellestanek

Career: Professional Pole Instructor, Art History Prof., MOM

Life Accomplishments: 2010 PFA Pole Drama Winner, Polesque 2010 Winner, 2011 Pole Universe Champion, 2011 USPDF Pro: Amateur Winner, 2012 US Pole Champion, 2019 Rocco’s Mom

Song: Superpower by Beyonce

Before quarantine began, I personally knew thirteen women who were pregnant. As the months have gone by, many have had healthy deliveries, with only one suffering a tragic end. Childbirth, is a mysterious miracle, that under the best conditions and circumstance, leaves new mothers reeling in an intertwined gaggle of emotions. I wanted to do an interview covering the gamut of pregnancy because in knowing these thirteen women, along with many others who are currently or have been pregnant, I realize society as a whole is often unaware and aloof to the different stages of fertility and the true aftermath of birth.

Everyone’s story is different, every experience is different, some pregnancies and deliveries are “uneventful” or healthy, others are not as lucky. I asked Michelle Stanek, to share her pregnancy story because I had a bit of a sideline seat to most of it, and there are three women whom I dearly love who are currently going through the different stages of Michelle’s journey.

I had the pleasure of working with Michelle, for five years. Prior to working with her, I knew who she was because she had made quite a name for herself in the pole dancing industry. When I first met her, I was surprised at how kind and down to earth she was, because in the pole world, she was, and still is, a big deal. I was also shocked to find out we had something, other than pole, in common. We both love art history! Over the years, I have watched the highs and lows, the hurt, frustration, and being at the edge of defeat. I’ve seen her rebound and conquer, only to be knocked down again, so she could rise higher.

She’s a mom now to a beautiful baby boy named Rocco. The struggles, pain, and heartbreak, “a test of will” some may say, to see if she has what it takes to love and fiercely protect the gift that is her son. There is no question in my mind she does. Thank you Michelle for sharing your story so open and honestly. I believe, it will strike chords, touch, and inspire so many.

Q:  In your own words, define motherhood?

Motherhood is an overwhelming and terrifying responsibility beneath a warm blanket of bliss that transcends you into a different dimension of love so intense you could burst.

Q:   Prior to having your son, do you think your definition was different? If so, in what way?

Before Rocco I saw motherhood as equally the most beautiful, and the most disruptive thing. 

Q:   Is being a mom something you always wanted? If not, when did your mind change?

I think so. I was never the person with those types of plans – “I never wanted to be married by 27; three kids by 32, a house with a white picket fence by 35.” Life has thrown me some amazing and surprising curveballs, so I’ve enjoyed shifting with the wind and taking the road less traveled over setting conventional plans. But I think deep down, yes, I knew I always wanted to be a mom and one day a grandma. However, for some reason being a grandma, was a clearer vision than being a mom! Like, can you believe when grandma was young she was a pole dancer?! 

Q:   Talk about your  pregnancy journey. Was getting pregnant easy? If not what measures did you take? 

Oh f*%k NO! It was not easy. It was actually impossible. It was the darkest four years of my life.

Q:   Was there a difficult time during the journey?

How much space do I have? I could write a novel. The entire journey was especially tumultuous, but in hindsight, it was a beautiful disaster that ended in magic – funny how that happens.

We tried for six months to get pregnant naturally and when that didn’t happen I had a hunch we would need help. A fortune teller in New Orleans, also told me this would be the case. We started IVF at Columbia in Fall 2015. We did an egg retrieval and implanted twp embryos, and it worked. I became pregnant!  We bought books! Discussed names! I felt so relieved that the grossness that was IVF paid off. In January of 2016, at nine weeks, there was no heartbeat, and I had to have a D&C procedure.  This was the moment something inside me broke, forever. We did this two more times at Columbia – all fails. We switched clinics, got a new doctor, and did the procedure, two more times, all resulting in the same outcome, so we switched again. we did it one more time, culminating in the same results. Through these years we both had surgeries on our reproductive parts, tried an experimental stem cell treatment, changed diets and used supplements. Everything! We tried everything, and everything left us childless, with depleted savings. Goodbye financially set future, goodbye home buying. I hit rock bottom. I was underwater. I was living in a murky fog of sadness, confusion, bitterness, jealousy, anger, resentment, with a constant and piercing pain that this will likely never happen. 

I took a break. I just could not go down this same path again – the money, expectation, hope, disappointment, pain. I took almost a year to heal. I worked with a clairvoyant/energy healer named Tori Quisling. We went to her place in Long Island for a session. Then I did a six month course with her over Skype. It was called “Calling in Your Baby.” It sounds ridiculous but whatever. I needed healing on a different level. She taught me how to meditate, balance my chakras, commune with the Universe, manifest, access my spiritual guide, experience my astral realm body, and find my Akashic records. It was a trip! Literally! But it healed me. The most important transformation was that I moved away from “hoping” to +knowing.” “Knowing” that we would have our baby. We absolutely would, and that made all the difference. I can’t really explain it. But during IVF there’s so much hope, but often that’s layered with desperation, and that kind of energy is dark and oppressive. I was able to let that go. No more doubting or wondering. I was able to finally get above the water again, and I knew it would happen.

So, what next? We met with an adoption attorney. Before this meeting I was 100% hyped for this adventure! But after that meeting I was at a full stop. It was insanely overwhelming, and I thought I would still want the experience of pregnancy, childbirth, and breastfeeding. If we are OK with adoption why don’t we think about donors. So after a lot of research we found an egg donor, fertilized the eggs, implanted them, and voila! That is how Rocco came to be. He is the result of dreams, a lot of people’s hard work, intelligence, generosity, and a perfect alignment of the universe. I knew it would work, and he is my whole heart.

Q    Once you got pregnant, how did the changing of your body during that time affect you? 

Terribly. I hated it. One of my biggest fears was, that I would become a big swollen, shapeless, heavy, square-shaped person and not recognize myself at all, and I did get big and swollen. It was hard for me to look at myself in the mirror. I wanted to be one of those cute pregnant women with skinny arms and a big belly., but that did not happen and I hated it. I wanted to hide. I did not want to be seen.

2012 US Pole Dance Champion

Q:  From the view of a dancer, talk about changes in strength, balance, and mobility.

I hated losing ability and mobility. My arm strength disappeared quickly. I couldn’t do any type of back bending because it stretched my stomach muscles and that felt horrible. I developed pubic symphysis separation which made lunging movements painful. My flexibility decreased significantly. I had carpal tunnel so it made holding a pole or a piece of equipment difficult. 

It’s so hard to feel your body’s abilities disappear especially as a pole dance teacher when everyone looks to you as a role model. Not being able to demonstrate simple moves like a pull up that I’d been doing effortlessly for 10 years was demoralizing. I know I am being too hard on myself., but that’s how it felt. And I wondered when or if I’d ever get it back.

Q:  Did you enjoy being pregnant? 

No. Not at all. The only cool thing was feeling him kick.

Q:  Women never talk about hating what it does to their body, why do you think that is?

I think it’s because we know it’s vain and selfish to complain about our bodies in that way, and motherhood is utter selflessness. How can we reconcile the two? You don’t want to sour such a beautiful thing with such vanity. Plus, society has become such a visual and superficial existence and we are all victims, so we swallow it.

Q:  What did you incorporate into your routine (prenatal) to feel good physically and mentally?

I worked with my personal trainer Joanna Castro at Body Space Fitness. I went twice a week and did mostly weight training and mobility. I also worked with an amazing yoga teacher Natalia Arango. We did several one-on-one sessions toward the end when my mobility was extremely low and my discomfort was extremely high. We focused on very simple movement, breath, and affirmations. She was wonderful.

Photo by Cecilia De Bucourt September 2019

Q:  Some women know that they will have to have a C-section. Was that the case with you? If not what occurred to cause it? What was your feeling on having to go through that?

Yes, mine was planned. Rocco was breach and never turned head down. I could have done the turning procedure but I wanted the least amount of time in the hospital as possible. To turn babies, they prep you for an emergency c-section with the spinal block and everything just in case and it’s a 50/50 chance it would work. No thanks! 

I did not like the idea of a c-section at all. I wanted the whole labor experience – the excitement of my water breaking and counting contractions and being able to use my muscles to go through labor. But I also liked the idea of not destroying my vagina! And I really trusted my doctor so I knew I was in good hands. But let me tell you the c-section was TRAUMATIC, and I thought I was “prepared” for it. But I was not prepared at all. 

I convulsed. I saw blood splatter on the floor. The paralyzed feeling from my waist down was a nightmare. Feeling them shuffle my organs around but not really feeling anything was horrendous. The pain for the next three days was the worst I’ve ever felt- 10 of 10  on the scale. It took two people to get me out of bed and to the bathroom. I couldn’t move my legs or sit up on my own. It’s major, major surgery – slicing you open and pulling a small human out of your body. There is just NOT enough preparation or post-op help available for women. 

Michelle and Rocco

Q;  After giving birth how did you feel? Compare that to a few weeks into being a mom, did you feel better, like you were getting the hang of it, or worse? Where was your mind in all of it?

I was a mess. I was an unstable, completely overwhelmed mess. I cried all the time. I was afraid of everything – changing the baby, bathing the baby. I wasn’t sure if my milk was enough. I didn’t know what to do if he kept crying. I couldn’t understand how to put on my baby carrier or open the stroller. I was still in pain from the c-section. It got better but it took a long time. I had some postpartum anxiety as well and I still do. But as we grew with Rocco our confidence built up and now I finally feel like I’m doing a good job! Now it’s fun!

Dad and Rocco

Q:  How much help were your husband, family, and friends? Do you think you would have been able to handle recovery, and caring for a newborn, without them?

My husband is gold. For the first month I think I changed 1 diaper. He definitely picked up the slack when I was a mess. He is the strength and glue that holds me and us together. He cooks dinner every night while I am putting Rocco to bed. He’s just the best. We didn’t and don’t have any family help, a nanny, or any additional care-takers. It’s just us figuring it all out.

Michelle and Rocco

Q: What does your new normal look like now with a baby, how much has changed?

We wake up at 5:30 am when Rocco tells us it’s time to get up, so I am often in bed by 8:30 pm. I take care of Rocco all day while Tommy works from home. It that has been such a blessing to have Tommy home to help when he can. I don’t even know what normal is anymore though. This is a really bizarre time. 

Q:  What part did activity play in your recovery?

Activity was important, but not as important as rest. I hated when people would tell me “take it easy” or “it takes time.” I wanted to get back to my physical abilities asap, but you just can’t. Your body needs time to recover. 

The first class I took right after I got the “ok” from my doctor at 6 weeks was MELT. I think all postpartum women should take this class! It was so nice to my body. It was 90 mins of self care that I really needed. Plus, it put some imbalances back into alignment. Then I started to take some flexibility and core aerial classes. The one pole class I took was a disaster! I could barely do a simple spin. 

I actually did a Body Art certification and taught one class on my own and I had just started teaching pole again and then … shutdown. So all my physical activity came to a screeching halt. That was extremely depressing. I did nothing for weeks. I taught one online class and did one online performance but I just don’t have the space for more in my apartment. 

The best thing I did recently was join Beachbody – unfortunate name, yes, but it was exactly what I needed. I started to workout everyday during morning nap time for 30 minutes. I am part of a support/accountability group that keeps me motivated and entertained. It is this community that helps me the most. I think we have all missed our communities so finding one again gave me an extra boost to keep going. And now I am a coach! I am so drinking this kool-aid! It has just helped me so much. I never ever thought I’d be doing burpees and deadlifts at the foot of my bed everyday, but thank God I am. 

(l-r) Close to delivery, 6 mons. postpartum, 9 mons. postpartum

I finally feel like I am back to myself. And I actually like to look at my body in the mirror. I was very afraid for a very long time that I would never feel that way again. 

Q:  Do you feel like you had preconceived notions about pregnancy and delivery, because of articles that you read or things you were told, that were not true to your experience?

“It will be love at first sight.” Nope. I was terrified. How do I do this? I have a baby now?! WHAT.

“Once you have your baby in your arms you’ll forget all about labor.” I will never forget that experience. Those memories did not just magically disappear from my brain.

“Your abs will be ruined.” My abdominal strength returned quicker than arm strength, which surprised me.

“You’ll never get your pre-baby body back.” I actually think I am on my way to looking and feeling better than I did pre-pregnancy. 

Q:  Speaking open and honestly to women, what would you tell them about the entire process that you wish someone would have told you?

I would tell them:

  • Don’t be afraid to talk openly to your mama friends about the dark feelings and scary thoughts you are experiencing. Chances are they have them too.
  • I bled for 9 weeks.
  • My period returned 7 months postpartum.
  • I have postpartum anxiety and so do a lot of women and it’s normal.
  • Learn how to use your breast pump before the baby comes.
  • Breast-feeding is an ongoing mystery. You’ll always have questions. Find a breastfeeding support group. Formula is not poison. 
  • There is a lot of sitting in being a new mom.
  • You will surprise yourself at how great you feel after a solid 3 hours sleep and at how adaptable you will be. 
Michelle 10 mons. postpartum

Q: How long ago did you have Rocco and where are you now in feeling like yourself? What helped you progress?

October 22, 2019 – 10 months ago. I do feel like myself again. I feel even better physically than I did pre-pregnancy. Emotionally however, that’s a different story. I’ve struggled with postpartum anxiety. Then being stuck in quarantine in a small apartment, no escapes, no socialization, no work, then systemic racism, George Floyd, compounded with family losses and changes in the past year, my mental health suffered. I recently found a new psychiatrist and started an anti anxiety medication, finally. I haven’t had an epic meltdown in a month so that’s good news! I needed help. My gratitude, keeping a journal, working out, and meditating wasn’t enough.

It’s a lot right now. It’s a lot, mamas. If you need help – mentally, physically – reach out. 

Q:  Looking back over everything, is there anything you would do differently?

Eyebrow check

I would have had many answers to this a year ago. But now that Rocco is here, I wouldn’t do anything differently because I wouldn’t want this outcome to be any different. 

I think I recognized my postpartum anxiety early but didn’t do anything about it for several months. I would have talked to someone earlier. 

… and maybe looked into moving into a bigger apartment?!

Q:  Why did you agree to be a part of MCBMI?

If this helps one woman find strength, comfort, or inspiration then I have done something good. I’m an open book. I am not a refined, edited, polished fitness-mom-influencer presenting a lovely image of motherhood with a glossy filter, and I think that’s important. Women struggle. They are struggling right now as they scroll through IG seeing pregnant women and moms and they  wonder,  “Why can’t that be me? Why can all these women become moms so easily?” I was one of them, and this is my story. It’s ugly and beautiful and real.

Q:  Do you have a quick healthy recipe you would like to share?

Put some wine in a glass. Drink it! Relax!