When you’re pregnant, your body stops being totally yours. I’m not just talking about the fact that you are sharing your blood supply and nutrients and your belly with your baby; I’m talking about the fact that people suddenly feel like your body is their business. Just think of how pregnant celebrities are treated. (Or worse, celebrities who put on a couple pounds in their belly and suddenly the speculation that it’s a “baby bump” is frenzied.) Magazines in the check-out line at the grocery store are constantly touting “So-and-so got her pre-baby body back in just six weeks!” and really, it makes me sick.
So when I had my two babies, I made the conscious choice to embrace the postpartum body I was inhabiting. It’s not always easy. I remember when I was 36-weeks pregnant with my first and I woke up one morning to the dotted Morse code of stretch marks all over my stomach. The dots soon turned to lines. I’d almost made it to the end of the pregnancy with an unblemished belly and I suddenly wished I’d given birth early just so the stretch marks wouldn’t get bigger.
Thinking back, this was not my rational self. My rational self wanted my baby to cook as long as he needed, but I was overcome with the permanence of the stretch marks. My body would never be the same.
But then I achieved some clarity: Nothing in my life would ever be the same after I gave birth, so why would I expect my body to somehow be exempt from that? If I was going to accept the emotional changes and the changes to my lifestyle, why shouldn’t I accept the changes to my body, too?
There’s a lot of pressure on moms today to not have their lives completely compromised by their new addition(s). Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad women are not relegated only to hearth and home. I, for one, am a rubbish housewife, and if I didn’t have writing to keep my brain engaged, I’m sure I’d be a miserable, miserable person. But I think there is a lot of pressure on working moms to return to work quickly and to have all the same priorities that they had before. And moms often feel like they should get right back to a busy social schedule and right back into sex, though really, at least in my case, all I wanted to do was snuggle my new baby and nurse.
And one way in which new moms are insidiously expected to erase the transformative experience they’ve just lived through is the pressure to get their pre-baby bodies back.
During my second pregnancy, I let a lot of the body stress go. When new stretch marks appeared, I just thought I’d earned new stripes to point to and tell my daughter: “This is where I grew to make room for you.” I didn’t care as much when the numbers on the scale got higher every week. Because I had confidence that my body knew what it was doing. I had been through it before. I had seen how my body grew and shrank and stretched and changed. I knew that I added some extra fat to my body, and that I would hold onto that fat until I started breastfeeding. I knew that the fat would come off as the baby got bigger and nursed more.
Maybe it’s cheesy, but I really started to see this transformation as miraculous. As a kid, I had been fascinated by the process of pregnancy and birth. I saw my mother when she was pregnant with my younger sibling. I saw her body grow and I felt my little brother kick. I pored over the picture books that discussed pregnancy in great length. My mother was a Lamaze teacher. Her passion for birth was passed on to me. And I loved playing with her baby doll, which came with its own umbilical cord, placenta, and pelvis. It amazed me.
When I entered into my own childbearing, I suddenly remembered how awesome I thought it all was, and just how lucky I was to have been exposed to my own mother’s positive attitudes toward pregnancy and birth.
My mother always emphasized that pregnancy is not a state of illness or weakness or bad health. It’s just part of the spectrum of healthy womanhood. I might have felt tired or ill, but there was nothing actually wrong with what my body was doing.
This attitude helped me realize that there’s nothing wrong with this new body. I’m not deficient in any way. I’m glad for my stretch marks. They helped my skin accommodate a growing womb. They’ve stuck around to remind me just how big I got. I didn’t feel huge when I was pregnant – perhaps because the change is gradual – but whenever I go back and look at the pictures of my pregnancies, I am impressed with how much my belly grew. And perhaps more impressive, that it shrank back down again, even if it never gets back to the way it was.Another thing that amazes me: the pregnant uterus is incredibly strong. Without ever doing anything to strengthen it, it has the strength to push a baby out. In fact, I felt really powerful during labor, because of how strong my contractions were. And the uterus shrinks back down to the size of a fist very quickly after delivery. With my second baby especially, every time she nursed, I had powerful, uncomfortable afterpains. And even though these cramps were intense and unpleasant, it was pretty awesome to know the work my body was doing.
The changes in my breasts were incredible to witness too. They grew somewhat during pregnancy, and the areolas became a dark plum color where before they were a pale pink. Nothing quite prepared me for how big they would get when my milk came in. They were engorged and full to the point that they were hard to the touch. Uncomfortable, yes, but amazing that my body had gotten the message: I had a baby to feed. And, yes, they lost some of their tautness and some of their bounce when they went back to a normal size. But still, I’m very impressed with the work these breasts have done.
When I had a newborn photoshoot for my daughter, I remember asking the photographer to try to capture my postpartum body. I actually loved it. I thought I looked like some fertility goddess. I felt that way during pregnancy, but I was pleasantly surprised when those positive body images continued for the weeks and months after the birth. Pregnancy and childbirth have had a lasting positive effect on my self-worth and body image. I suddenly appreciated all that my body could do. I felt confident in my ability to nurture a baby. There’s something very primal about that.
Not all mothers are going to feel this way. And that’s OK, too. Cut yourself some slack if you find yourself hating your wider hips. But I also hope new moms give themselves permission to live in and love the body they have today.
My body is not the only thing that changed. My mind and my heart changed as well. I didn’t mind my soft postpartum belly, because my baby loved to rest there. I didn’t bemoan the fact that my jeans didn’t fit, because my womb and my abdominal wall were still shrinking and knitting back together.
When I put the focus on being healthy, on eating well and exercising, I could let the more superficial stuff go. And on days when the superficial stuff bugged me, because I’m only human, I tried to see myself through my kids’ eyes. They’ve never known the pre-baby me. They’ve only known this marked body that has become a little softer and little more lived in. And, you know what? They love me. They love this body.
So I just do my best to honor my body. To soak up the good feelings and let the bad ones go. I don’t want to go back to a time before I had my babies. I wouldn’t trade them for the perfect bikini body, whatever that means.
Images: Couresty of Olivia Hinebaugh (2); Lauren Preti Photography (1)