I thought I knew my body pretty well by the time I started having babies. I knew what to predict each month when it came to my menstrual cycle, and how my sleep was affected by work stress. But I didn’t appreciate my body. I never looked down at myself and thought, “Damn, body, you work great! Keep on killin' it, madam!” I was mostly just annoyed that it didn’t conform to the sizing of certain jean brands. I hated my thighs, my upper arms, my cellulite. The list of what didn’t work for me was long. I had spent decades lambasting my body instead of giving it props for not getting sick very often. I was convinced I’d be happier if I were thinner, smoother, or more proportionate.
Getting pregnant caused a seismic shift in my body image. It didn’t happen right away — you’re talking about a lifetime of viewing my body one way, and that didn’t get undone overnight — but by my fifth month of pregnancy, when my belly became more pronounced and I saw myself as actually pregnant, and not just puffy, I was no longer interested in hating myself so much. I was beginning to be amazed by what was happening now that my body was now conforming to a whole new set of rules in order to grow a healthy baby. I had to let it do its thing, and in doing so, I stopped being annoyed by what my body “failed” to be — I was too preoccupied with being amazed by what it could do.
After living with this body that morphed for nine months before successfully birthing a perfect child, I walked away a new respect for it, and a lot of lessons.
I am a classic Type A person. If something needs to be done, I. must. do. it. myself. I plan, organize, re-organize, and execute. Learning to delegate has been a challenge, but I’ve come a long way. Getting pregnant was a wake-up call in relinquishing control. My body was going to do what it needed to do to grow a healthy baby, with an assist from me in the basic caretaking department: eat, sleep, avoid toxins and stress. This, as it turned out, was probably the most useful lesson I could’ve spent my pregnancy learning, because when that baby showed up, I had very little say in the run of things. Babies are bosses. Obviously parents are “in charge,” but in terms of planning, I had to learn to be flexible. Spit-up, diaper blow-outs, and teething didn’t adhere to any schedule. I had to dial my control issues back, and learn how to roll with it.
My body took more than 40 weeks to grow a baby. When that many little changes are occurring over such a long period of time, it’s hard to notice all of them as they’re happening. I was so grateful to be immediately rid of the puffiness and fatigue and lower back discomfort I experienced towards the end of my pregnancy. But other kinds of pain took a while to fade: I experienced postpartum bleeding for six weeks after both of my kids were born; My boobs felt like flaming cannonballs if my pumping or baby’s feeding session was only slightly delayed; My fear and anxiety would skyrocket, and then plummet, over the first month or so of my babies’ lives. Those were symptoms of giving birth I couldn’t fix right away. I needed to give it all time. One minute I was pregnant, the next I was not. But my body needed longer to adjust to not being pregnant. And doing so took almost as long as the pregnancy itself.
Part of my body’s adjustment to no longer being pregnant was its refusal to be fertile for a while. My daughter was one week shy of turning a year old when my period returned. I had practically forgotten I would have to deal with that again, since I had been about two years off the rag. I was really enjoying not dealing with PMS and the fact that tampons are never on sale. In hindsight, I realized my body knew, better than my brain did, that I was not ready to get pregnant during that time.
I remember when Britney Spears’s second pregnancy was announced in the tabloids about three months after her first son was born. I was scared for her. But I guess her body knew what she was capable of. We’re all built to handle our unique set of circumstances. My kids are two-and-a-half years apart. That worked for us. This is just another case of being amazed that my body is often smarter and more on top of its needs than my brain could ever be.
I was a chubby kid who continued to battle body issues through adulthood. When I became willingly pregnant, I finally stopped focusing on achieving some arbitrary, socially conditioned, physical ideal. I continued to work out vigorously, but safely, giving up step class by my sixth month, but continuing to spin and strength train. I wasn’t exercising to lose weight, but to stay strong and fit. For the first time in my life, I felt like my body was doing what it was meant to: growing a healthy baby and giving me the energy to nurture her, and myself. My kids gave me a new, and surprisingly long list of standards by which to measure the “success” of my body, other than my bathing suit size.
For most of my life, I never had a healthy relationship with food. I was a binge eater, and compensated by being an over-exerciser. I never ate a sweet without tasting guilt, like I had to make up for the fact that I had a cookie (or six). I was raised in a “clean your plate” household, where dessert was withheld until I ate all my dinner. When I got to college and no one was policing my eating habits, I was unhinged: a second supper of pizza at 2 a.m., all the sugar cereal my campus job could buy, and lots and lots of beer. Never did I look at food as an ally; it was only a tool I employed to deal with stress, sadness, anxiety, and self-hatred. But getting pregnant changed my relationship with food. Someone other than me was demanding that I take care of myself. For the first time, I was really listening to my body. I gave it what it needed, in the amounts it needed. When I craved candy corn, I had some. When I was repulsed by raw spinach, I sought the steamed variety. I was no longer feeding my feelings — I was feeding a new part of me that was growing inside.
I hadn’t read up on the “fourth trimester” before giving birth. I just knew that I was still wearing my maternity clothes for a couple of months after my daughter was born. It’s frustrating to still look pregnant when you’re not, but luckily I had no reason to try to squeeze myself into my pre-pregnancy clothes. For twelve weeks, I never went anywhere that required me to wear something other than old t-shirts and elastic-waist pants. I was with my baby, and she just wanted to be held. I think new moms are supposed to be squishy — the ideal cuddlers for newborns. (Of course now, at age seven, my daughter would much prefer me to wear cocktail dresses daily, but that’s a whole other struggle.)
Of course, I was in a hurry to lose the extra weight I gained during my pregnancies. This, to be clear, is not because I think that women should feel obligated at all to hastily try to erase all physical signs that their bodies created a new human life, or that a woman's "success" at having a baby is defined how much quickly and completely she's able to go back to her body looking exactly how it did before she gave birth. That's some rabidly sexist bullsh*t, in addition to simply not being realistic for most women's bodies, and I'm not here for it.
For me, "losing the baby weight" simply meant getting my body to a place after giving birth that felt healthy and strong and comfortable for me. Because while women shouldn't feel like they need to look forever-21-and-baby-free, they also don't need to pretend to ~love~ the way their bodies look and feel immediately following birth. Like, you might be a hot mess. You might feel like a hot mess. And it's completely fine to want to change that.
The first twenty pounds got knocked off pretty easily, but it took a while for the last ten to go away. In a way, being a bit heavier made me feel more substantial, and like I could be a better guardian for my new tiny charge. I wanted to be strong for my baby. I wanted to be able to defend her, to be heard, and I can’t help but think that the reason we get bigger growing babies is not only to properly nourish them as they gestate, but to give ourselves a visible way to actually see ourselves become this mama bear figure, protecting our helpless cubs. Women are always taught to take up as little space as possible, so there’s something almost life-changing about starting to embrace the amount of physical room you can occupy.
With both pregnancies, my labor was medically induced. And when you’re on Pitocin, those contractions go from zero to eighty faster than you can say, "FORGET WHAT I SAID; I WANT THE EPIDURAL." It can be pretty brutal. So yes, I had epidurals, but they started wearing off when it was time to push. I read about the “ring of fire” and I have to say, I take issue with how tame an expression that it. Nope. Just hardcore, total body, rip-roaring pain. There is no backing down from that. The baby must. get. out. There is no greater accomplishment I could imagine than using my own muscles and determination to push a baby out into the world. After that, everything in life has been cake. (And on this note, I’m certain that c-section moms endure their own equally real, equally challenging physical aspects of completing and recovering from birth. This is not a lesson reserved solely for vaginally delivering moms, but for me, it's what I know.)
My hips and boobs shot out pretty fast when I was a tween, and those stretch marks have never left. I thought for sure my stomach would be lined with them when I was pregnant with my first baby, so I was shocked when none appeared. With my second baby, a single, one-inch stretch mark appeared on my lower abdomen. I thought it was a bruise until I examined it carefully. I kind of like it; a permanent scar to remind me of what an awesome job I did growing a baby. While I can blame more gray hair and my forehead’s worry lines on my kids, I look at that one stretch mark with pride. And I look at other women’s stretched skin with new respect. Whatever they went through to earn them makes them that much more badass. It’s proof we all went through some sh*t, and came out the other side.
Images: Fabrizio Morroia/Flickr; Giphy(5)