For Mother’s Day I thought I’d share an essay I wrote for a collection of stories about the first year after giving birth that never came to fruition because…motherhood. My own body has continued to change in the nearly three years since giving birth but this captures what was going on in my body, mind, and heart in those early days. Whether you are a mother in a traditional or non-traditional sense (I believe we are all mothers), your body is there with you every step of the way. At any moment you can choose to turn toward it with open arms.
The clock started ticking at 7:20 the morning of July 27th. After a 40-hour labor, the little nugget had shifted, descended, rotated, and made his long-awaited appearance, leaving my enormous, taut belly empty and flaccid. Until that moment, people had said, “You’re carrying beautifully.” Crossing the streets of New York, strangers would fix their eyes on my midsection and congratulate me because of how my baby bump grew out instead of wide, “It’s a boy, right?”
Now the comments would shift to how my body should change. Come to think of it, that began long before I gave birth: a countdown to the moment I could shrink my belly and lose the baby weight. With months still to go in my pregnancy, I heard well-meaning quips like “You’ll get your body back soon” and “You’re going to breastfeed, right? The pounds will melt away.”
Years ago, this would have caused great concern. The story of my body and my relationship with that body had many chapters. In high school I was part awkward nerd, part stocky athlete, comforting myself with deep bowls of buttered pasta. As a nutrition graduate student, I measured day-to-day success by my ability to eat less than 1200 calories. When I was a single working girl in my early 30s, I assuaged my insecurity by drinking too much wine, at times compensating by restricting calories and others giving in to inevitable weight gain. Throughout each of these chapters, I was aware of my body as ‘object,’ a changeable thing to be manipulated depending on who was doing the looking.
More recently, I had become the sober and gradually more self-accepting nutritionist, counseling my clients on positive body image and a non-diet approach to eating and exercise. In the years leading up to my pregnancy, I’d more fully embraced my body as it wanted to be – eating what I craved when I was hungry, stopping when I felt satisfied, and leaning into all the uncomfortable emotions that had driven me to manipulate food and my body in the past. A month before I got pregnant, at my body’s natural weight that included some new curves, my aunt thought I was already expecting.
So, interestingly, when pregnancy took the control over my body out of my hands, I was mostly able to enjoy the ride. For 40 weeks to the day, my body changed to accommodate the tiny human I carried and nourished from the inside, and each day I watched with wonder. Many mornings I stood naked in front of the bathroom mirror caressing the profile of my growing tummy, staring at newly brown nipples on heavy breasts, noticing the pads of fat that accumulated on my upper arms and outer thighs, and tracing the brown magic marker line from my breastbone down my stomach.
Even as time ground to a halt during my extended labor, I continued to watch as my body began the next stage of its brilliant metamorphosis. I marveled at how this vessel could continually adapt to the constant stream of changes: ultimately growing and nourishing a baby from the outside, reorganizing internal organs that had shifted to make room for him, and healing from the physical trauma birth.
My stomach in particular held my fascination: from the early breastfeeding cramps that felt a lot like labor as my uterus resumed its original size, to the days and nights of feeding my son as he rested comfortably on the soft ledge of my belly. Again I observed myself from all angles, first in the hospital bathroom and later at home during now-rare moments alone. I ran my hands down and around the calligraphic curves of my belly that swung out to match the broadened lines of my breasts and hips. I wore my postpartum belly with pride on the walk home from the hospital in a fitted maxi dress. In the midst of August’s swelter, I dressed for easy breastfeeding and to manage hormonal temperature fluctuations, not to minimize my prominent paunch. And when muscle memory brought my right hand to the place where I’d carried my son, I smiled to feel how its fullness endured though he no longer lived there.
Unfortunately this pure affection for my postpartum belly didn’t last long. My partner joked about awaiting the birth of our son’s twin and two male acquaintances commented that I still looked pregnant. Meanwhile my inbox swelled with tips on how to lose the baby weight. These jabs to my gut made me flush with shame and self-consciousness. I tried to suck it in, unsuccessfully, as it were, thanks to muscles that had stretched to their limit. I recalled with hot rage the common belief that women’s bodies are supposed to snap back into place like rubber bands after birth. Those judgments – first from others and then again from myself – awakened something I thought I’d put to rest.
For the first few weeks of my son’s life, whenever I awoke in the middle of the night to feed him, I was surprised to look down and see how the streetlights illuminated that broad, soft belly. If I fed him around other people, I tried to cover it with a burping cloth. Pushing the stroller, unearthing my pre-pregnancy clothes, having sex – there it was, not to be ignored. Though I could barely keep up with the caloric needs of breastfeeding and my body dropped below my pre-pregnancy weight, my mom-belly persisted.
One day, as I was walking with my son along the East River, I listened to an episode of the parenting podcast The Longest Shortest Time called “The new you…it’ll do.” I was struck by a comment from one of the guests, something like “You can’t grow a human being in your body and not be permanently changed by it.” My immediate thought was “of course I couldn’t!”
Meanwhile, my son grew stronger. Sometimes after eating, he would stretch his legs and try to stand using my belly as support. When he’d take a break and we’d gaze lovingly into each other’s eyes, I’d squish his tiny belly to see how it wrinkled and creased and engulfed the hollow of his navel. Then looking down at my own belly, I realized how similarly it moved. How could I love one and not the other?
I began to see my belly through different eyes: beautiful and perfect. An instrument to be used to move and play and live my life, not an object to be chiseled and critiqued. Again my hands found my belly and touched it with a sense of gratitude and love. I stopped sucking it in, got rid of the clothes that made it feel uncomfortable, and embraced how other clothes accommodated this new curve.
As ever, the one constant is change. As I gradually stop breastfeeding and adopt new ways of caring for my son, as I go from carrying him to simply holding his hand as he walks beside me, my body will continue evolve in unforeseen ways. What I can do for myself is to make room for that uncertainty and to open loving arms to myself as I naturally do for him.