5 Years After Birth, I'm Still Learning To Love My Postpartum Body
I’ve been trying to sort out how I think it makes sense to write about my body, because my relationship with my body has never been simple, but learning to love my post-baby body has been especially hard. And the way we talk about women’s bodies in general is never simple. Scrutiny and shaming of women’s bodies is par for the course. Frankly, part of me chafes at the idea of writing about my body at all. But also? It seems important to do, because the fact remains that for most of my life I have disliked my body, and I don’t want to anymore. I have hidden my body, belittled it, and, at times, reviled it even when it was the closest it would be to the physical standards I saw in magazines. Actually, I’d wager, I reviled it most at those times.
My body is different now, for all kinds of reasons. The most obvious is that just over five years ago I had a beautiful little girl. Being pregnant changed my body in all kinds of ways. And what came after — the terrifying medical emergencies with my daughter, lengthy hospital stays, and the stress of her medical fragility — also had an effect on my body.
I nibbled candies in the middle of the night, in order to keep myself awake on seizure watch. I spent days in bed with her. And I had little time for taking care of even the most basic needs of my own body. And so my immediately post-baby body pretty much settled into place year one, year two, and year three. I didn’t mind terribly much, most of the time, but I did feel disconnected from my body, as if it belonged to someone else.
Almost a year ago, I decided to try an experiment. I decided to try to be more mindful of my body. I set small goals for myself, starting with a step goal…achievable as I pushed my smiling daughter in her little red wheelchair around the mall. And I moved on from there. I started going to the gym regularly. Then I decided to try a boxing class, and during one of my first classes I almost hurled on the shoes of the instructor. Now, I go twice a week. I can throw a half decent punch and do 30 proper pushups in a row — two things I never thought I would be able to do (or care to do, in truth).
Watching my daughter’s struggle with an uncooperative body that cannot move, eat, or communicate in the ways so many of us take for granted has made me realize all the ways that I hadn’t appreciated what my body did, and the ease it did it with.
I feel like learning to love my own body has to do with seeing and honoring all bodies, my own included, with respect, acceptance, and love. For me, and I can only speak for me, better loving my own body has had a lot to do with striking a difficult balance between acceptance of my body and curious, healthy testing my body’s limits. This balance has not always been easy to find, as I’ve struggled to see my body as it is, understand the changes it has been through, and to try to honor it. There were a few moments that felt like turning points along my path to beginning to love my body. I’d like to share them, not because they are necessarily big and meaningful, but because they are little moments I think that many of us experience, each in our own way — moments when we have the chance to choose to love and accept ourselves.
I was met with those insidious little denial comments, like “Oh, you’re not fat," suggesting that my extra weight was a side effect of my status as new mother of a medically-fragile child to be denied at all costs.
Almost a full year after having my daughter — a year that was spent leap frogging between my daughter’s terrifying hospital stays — I must have weighed as much as I did 30 weeks pregnant. I say I must have, because I don’t have a clue. I knew I was voluptuous, round, soft. When I mentioned that fact, I was met with those insidious little denial comments, like “Oh, you’re not fat," suggesting that my extra weight was a side effect of my status as new mother of a medically-fragile child to be denied at all costs.
She took one look at me, gave me a hug, and then said, patting me, “Sweetheart, my goodness you are big. You look good big.” I thought, God, finally someone is acknowledging that I look different.
When my daughter was coming up on 1 year old, one evening I walked into my sister’s house and was met by her mother-in-law, Barbara, who was up from Philadelphia. She took one look at me, gave me a hug, and then said, patting me, “Sweetheart, my goodness you are big. You look good big.” I thought, God, finally someone is acknowledging that I look different. And, also? Barbara reminded me that there is absolutely nothing wrong with looking the way I looked. It stuck with me: I look good big.
Watching my daughter’s struggle with an uncooperative body that cannot move, eat, or communicate in the ways so many of us take for granted has made me realize all the ways that I hadn’t appreciated what my body did, and the ease it did it with. Seeing how hard my daughter works everyday for the smallest gains made me realize that I wasn’t challenging my body in the ways it could be challenged. Also? Realizing that I would have to provide life-long care to my daughter has also made me worry that I hadn’t taken my own health seriously enough. These realizations made me feel guilty, which is never helpful.
But, so what if I wasn’t pushing my body? Does that make my body less valuable? Does my body being less capable make it less lovable? No, and it certainly doesn’t make the bodies that struggle so hard, like the body of my daughter, less worthy of love, compassion, and awe.
So, I started to notice the carefully tuned ways I spoke to my daughter about her body so that she knew it was just as wonderful as anyone else’s. I’d say things to her like, “I love how you keep trying to stand even when you fall,” and “Your toes are so good at balancing that toy over your head” (yes, you read that right). And I started to tell myself about the things my body could do in a similarly praising manner: “I love how you picked up that toy with your toes while balancing your floppy 3 year old on your hip,” and “Your body is good at sitting still for hours so your sick child can sleep safely on you.”
In October of last year I decided I was ready to lose weight. So, like I explained, I started counting steps. Then I started counting calories. Paying attention to my calorie intake made me want to work out harder. Soon that wasn’t enough, so I started restricting calories. And, as I saw the weight reduce, compulsively weighing myself multiple times a day, I thought I was achieving a goal. I thought I was honoring my body. People stopped me and said, “You look great, have you lost weight?”
I thought, I love this body. I snapped a picture of myself standing there. I wanted to remember that feeling of looking at me, accepting me — the me in that moment.
But, you know what? I didn’t feel great. I felt obsessed and confined… and, somehow, more judged than ever. That’s when I started going to that boxing gym I mentioned. It changed everything.
One day I was talking with an instructor while training and I said, “I’m really mad. That’s why I needed to come here. I am really, really angry.” I said it with a smile, but, honestly, it scared me. As I said it I felt a lot of the pain and uncertainty of my daughter’s short life overwhelmed me. Clearly, I thought, I needed to deal with that. So I kept going to boxing, and I focused my anger there. I stopped weighing myself. I put on a few pounds but my abilities, strength, and endurance all improved.
And, I felt better. A bit less angry, I suppose, although still have a lot I’m angry about. I just have somewhere to put it, so I’m not carrying it around with me everywhere I go.
One day I found myself running around half dressed, and I caught a good glimpse of myself in the mirror. I saw my strong arms and the way my skin glows next to the dark lace of my bra. I turned myself around, looking from all angles. I saw my cleavage, the curve of my butt meeting the back of my leg, the place where my thighs touch. I saw my stretch marks, my scars.
I stood there for a few minutes, just looking at myself. Like really, really looking. And I thought, I love this body. I snapped a picture of myself standing there. I wanted to remember that feeling of looking at me, accepting me — the me in that moment. Not because I had reached some goal or looked a certain way, but because my body made me feel good. And because I was deserving of being seen and loved right then, even if it was just by me.
The way I feel about my body has, for the first time in my life, nothing to do with the way it looks in any kind of objective way.
Currently, I find myself fascinated by my body. I admire the soft rounded bits that stick out a bit above the top of my underwear. I run my hands over the muscles that have formed in my forearms from punching the heavy bag and mitts. I find it funny that no matter how many squats I do my legs are soft and curving. And I love taking photos of myself, so that I know that the me I am accepting is me in that moment — not the me of my imagination.
Five years after having my daughter, I can honestly say I am better than ever at loving my body. Here’s the thing though: The way I feel about my body has, for the first time in my life, nothing to do with the way it looks in any kind of objective way. For me, learning to love my body has to do with the way I feel in my body. I now know that what I've learned about my body can, with mindfulness, stay with me no matter what shape this body takes.
I am still learning what it means to love my body, and it has not come easily or naturally to me. Deciding to love my body for what it is still feels like a radical act. But it's an important radical act because loving myself is how I show others how to love me. It's how I best show love to the people around me. And, it's how I'll teach my daughter that her own body is beautiful and worthy, exactly as it is... because everything I do? She's watching.