On mothering, body image, and acceptance with joy
How’s that for a title?
Oh, but there it is. The agony and the ecstasy of being able to carry new life within your body and then, also, nurture new life with that same body. It’s incredible.
It’s also so hard.
Pregnancy has been, for me at least, a 10 month mental and physical endurance event with a very clearly marked finish line.
If only I can make it to d-day. Just wait till this baby comes out and I can sleep on my stomach again. I can’t wait to burn all my maternity jeans.
And so on.
There’s kind of a never ending list of “can’t waits,” built up in my mind, but the crazy thing is that at no point does life ever, ever actually go back to the way things were, pre baby.
Every baby changes you into a completely new mother. Whether you carry that baby to term or say goodbye too early.
(And before we go any further in this meditation on vanity and temporal suffering, let me all caps this for you NOT CURRENTLY PREGNANT)
I’ll be 33 years old tomorrow. And I’ve had 4 children in 5 years. My body does not look – nor will it ever again look – like it did when it, when I, was 27. Oddly enough, however, I recall being very certain that I was a little on the fat side about 6 years and 40 pounds ago.
C’est la vie, amiright?
My sisters and I were remarking to one another a week or so ago that, actually, right now, even this fluffy juncture in time, at 12 months and 12 months and 4 months postpartum, respectively, will one day in the not-too-distant future be a “before” shot we will look back upon with fondness.
What is my point?
I don’t know. I do tend to get awfully introspective around the holidays. And I haven’t slept in 4 days, to be honest. Because children. And while I wouldn’t trade them for all the world, I never could have envisioned how all-consuming motherhood would be. How my heart would swell and break and it would be painful, every single day, to see the ways I fall short in loving them and meeting their needs.
I never could have predicted that a tiny 5-year-old male version of myself could make me so angry and so proud, by turns. That I’d feel such fierce annoyance with a 3-year-old for being, well, a three year old. And that more nights than I’d like to admit, I crawl sheepishly into his toddler bed after he’s asleep and stroke his soft hair, whispering apologies and prayers and vowing to start over again in the morning. I would never have thought myself capable of engaging in verbal fisticuffs with a 2-year-old. And I definitely couldn’t have foreseen the incredible emotional tug of war that is breastfeeding, or the feeing of existential dread one might experience when confronted with the cries of a 4-month-old at 3 am, just 90 minutes after the last feeding.
I am not one of those lucky ladies who lactate and lose weight. I am in the (perhaps statistically significant, according to a casual Instagram survey?) pool of mammalian mothers who hold onto baby weight for dear life while nursing.
At least until solids come on the scene at month six.
Even then, I’m never back in my “normal” jeans before baby blows out that first candle. And by then I look so good that there’s a younger sibling on the way.
It’s an immense blessing to be the mother to these children, and to be married to a man who loves them and wants them, too. I pray that I never forget that, and that gratitude for the incredible gifts inherent to my vocation overshadows every other emotion I process on a daily basis.
It’s also very, very hard. Particularly living in a contraceptive and intensely materialistic and perfectionistic culture.
And I cannot blame the culture. I am a part of the culture, and a product of the culture, to a certain extent.
I’m not using contraceptives, but I contracept in my heart when I recoil in fear at the thought of another pregnancy in the future, all the hard-won effort at the gym and all the restored self-image dashed upon the alter of another 12-24 months of gestation and lactation.
I’m not choosing nicer cars and a house of our own over the 4 precious lives entrusted to us in rapid succession, but I do cast an envious eye over my neighbor’s brand-new Suburban and her 5 bedroom house. I would choose my kids over an HOA if I had to make the call, but I still pine for quartz counter tops and dark hardwood floors and a mudroom designed by Joanna Gaines.
What am I saying? I guess that I’m still working on the concept of acceptance with joy.
That as beautiful as my life is, for as reckless and foolish as we look in the eyes of the world, sometimes I feel that way in my own eyes, too.
Sometimes I look at my crew of kids rolling deep in the double cart at Costco and I see myself through the eyes of a stranger, stretched out Old Navy activewear doing absolutely nothing for me and not enough makeup to hide the bags from sleepless nights and I wonder if it is worth it.
I know with all my heart it’s worth it on an intellectual level. But overweight and sleep deprivation do funny things to a person, and there are definitely dark-night-of-the-soul moments in this vocation when I see the mess I feel I must look, and I want to reach out and grab myself by the shoulder and say “you don’t have to do this.”
And it’s true. I don’t.
And I make a hundred little choices every day that range along the spectrum from graceful surrender to stubborn rejection.
It’s a refining process. And it’s gradual and it’s painful and it’s – please God – effective. But not all at once.
Over a lifetime.
And like I’ve reflected before about wrecked bodies and changed hearts, it is inevitable in the fullest sense of the word.
Time marches on, ravaging us all. I am perhaps just coming to grips with it a decade or three sooner than I might otherwise, were we making other choices with our bodies and with our hearts.
But my God, the struggle in the accepting of it.
Maybe a mother grows continuously alongside her children. Maybe, over the lifespan of the enormous task of forming and raising human beings, I myself will become molded and chiseled into something more significant. And dare I say, more beautiful?
I’m thinking Mother Teresa here, though I sound like Mommy Dearest. But then, I’m just getting started with this work still. There’s time for me yet.
Yes! Yes! 200 times yes! I am was just looking at my wedding picture tonight, and I am amazed the changes and the toll life and children have taken. Once again your post makes us all feel less alone in our struggle and journey. Well done.
Thank you, Jenny. I so enjoy your writing. It is neither sanctimonious nor crude, but truthful and helpful to those of us trying to work out our salvation along these same lines. I am pregnant with #5, after a four year break and being told we couldn’t have more. So naturally, a week after I started a part-time job, we found out about this new, wonderful, beautiful life. But it is still hard, and I don’t do pregnancy or post-partum well. So thanks for this, really and truly. Sincerely,
-a sister right there with you.
I love you, Jenny, just the way you are.
Thank you! Thank you! Thank you! This is exactly what I needed to hear as it is exactly how I feel so much of the time.
It is awesome knowing that I’m not alone. This mothering thing is no joke but if I can accept it and not run kicking and screaming away it will purify me and hopefully make me holy!
Seriously though the whole ‘with joy’ part is where I really struggle. Sometimes I feel like a crazy lady with a smile plastered to my face and my brain is screaming, ‘This is insane!’ And sometimes it’s not just my brain screaming…
Anyway, thank you!
Wow, thank you for this reflection. It’s just what I need right now (at 4 a.m. nursing my 3 month old especially!). I know what you mean about knowing intellectually that motherhood is good and can be joyous, but I’ve had many moments in my 9 months of “morning” sickness and 3 months of postpartum sleepless nights where I’ve found myself pining for those simple days pre-baby. And then my husband reminds me that they were not so simple (oh how our perspectives differ sometimes!), and I remind myself that the devil wants me to give into this thinking, to be too scared to have more children, to desire a relatively selfish life again. Motherhood sure is a journey to holiness (hopefully!), full of joys, but also those crosses that, as you say, refine us. Here’s to joyful acceptance.
I woke up today and threw on my workout clothes wondering what the heck I’ve been doing 8 months post partum. I mean I am still not down to my pre-pregnancy weight or the weight before that, x2. In a way I’ve just allowed myself to enjoy and be me. I took the pressure off “to be the old me.” Don’t get me wrong, I still have “plans” for the new year because 15 pounds of unhealthy is still what it is. But like my pre-conversion self, I don’t want to be that person ever again. So when I look in the mirror, 7 kids later, I’ve come to also not want that because my gosh a rockin body over these lovelies could never fullill. And I think its just 15 pounds and my husband still thinks I’m hot even though my skin hangs and my thighs rub. But the temptation, oh the temptation, you’re right, Jenny, it’s so real!
Thank-you…so true even though many cant articulate it like that!
I was uploading pictures from this weekend last night and showing them to my hubby, first thing he said was “We look old.” 🙂 And we’re 27. I think he intended ‘grown up.’
Regardless, I’ve been struggling more with body issues this second pregnancy than with my first. The novelty of being pregnant has worn off and the baby showers have ended. And I know how big I’ll be getting, and I can already see differences in my body from this second time around.
We all feel this way Jenny. It’s hard. When the world tells us every.single.day to stop having babies and look like we’re 23 years old. Society shudders at the sacrifice of another baby,… But maybe it’s in these tiny actions, of us embracing our extra 40lbs cross, that we grow closer to becoming saints. St. Terese of Liseaux..? Let’s offer up these daily sacrifices as little flowers to Jesus. 🙂
Still, it’s easier said than done.
Thanks for sharing! Xoxo
Mary @ Better Than Eden
Learning right along with you <3
every word. Except the breastfeeding part- right down to children’s personalities and the expression of them. Every word. YeS.
Oh Jenny. Oh Jenny, Jenny, Jenny. I’ve never wanted to jump through my iPad and hug and cry on someone’s shoulder as much as I wanted to while reading this. You wrote out my soul on every level. Such a beautiful reflection and so timely for so many of us in this boat. Thank you so, so much.
Thank you for your honesty, Jenny. If any mother hasn’t felt or thought these things, they are lying to themselves. For my part (eight kids and two C-sections later), I’ve stopped looking in the mirror. 🙂 And it helps, for two reasons. One, because then the vanity of “looking good” isn’t as in my face and two, because then my focus is outward, not inward.
I truly believe that God understands these struggles of ours and He is OK with our less-than-holy actions and reactions. AS LONG AS we continue to try for the Holiness–apologize, confess, love, pray, (beg!), and just keep going.
It’s too soon to tell if my kids will have an impact on the world, (they range from 22-4) but right now I can see THEIR own striving for Holiness, for knowing, loving and serving God. We have planted the seed of faith and I am seeing that they are nurturing it. This is what keeps me going. Focused on Heaven, I can see the light at the end of the tunnel. 🙂
This post made me cry. (I think it is the lack of sleep.) I also had baby #4 a few months ago (my oldest is in Kindergarten). I have stretch marks everywhere and one c-section scar to boot. I work so hard after each baby to be able to stop wearing my maternity clothes (because let’s face it, they just fit better for a while postpartum), that when I start looking good again, another pregnancy soon follows. I want to look good and feel sexy for my husband, but the idea of being pregnant again makes me want to cry. It is too much right now (in six months, it might be another story). I know I should be happy with the body I am in (there are more important things to be concerned about – four little souls in my care), but I am not sure how to get there.
Jessica, sleep deprivation on top of hormonal fluctuations (tidal waves, really) do take a toll on a woman. I remember sitting in the rocking chair in the kitchen nursing my baby at 3 a.m. having cluster fed since 8 the previous night and thinking my life was in shambles. I’d felt that way with my previous baby, too, somehow it’s difficult to imagine a time when you can get a full night’s sleep and awake refreshed and empowered to take on the day’s challenges.
As for body image, I, too, was shocked by my stretch marks and the fact I couldn’t get into my going home clothes from the hospital. Having given my husband my maternity clothes to take home the day before I ended up having to sit in a wheel chair on the way down to the car because I couldn’t carry the baby with just one arm while holding up my pants with the other! My husband was carrying the flowers and my suitcase so couldn’t take the baby safely. No one told me I’d take so long to get back in shape.
But, more to the point, I think our society fills our heads with images of how we “should” look, svelte, well dressed, slim. Other cultures are far more forgiving and see excess padding as a blessing. Life will get easier, all the exhaustion will become a distant memory. I know, been there, done that. I’ll keep you and all sleep deprived moms on my beads through these days leading up to Christmas.
To clarify what I’d written about holding up my pants/not being able to get into my regular clothes – I couldn’t even come close to getting the zipper done up, hence the need to hang onto the waistband.
Thank-you for this beautiful reflection.
I’m 28 and just had my third baby in four years. I do not look like other 28 year-olds. It gets hard.
I just posted something about body image and pregnancy on my blog. How incredibly hard it is for me. I never realize how vain I am, how much I care about what I look like, until becoming pregnant again.
Currently pregnant with #5 and this post resonates with me so much. We give up so much and say ‘it’s worth it’ and it is but it doesn’t always feel like that day to day. Hugs and prayers and just know you aren’t alone.
Nine kids here. All I can say in response is there is a lot more where that came from. More questions and more failure. And more grace and more acceptance. I always feel that there is more to this “women will be saved in childbearing” than we’ll ever know.
Oh, how I feel you! My last pregnancy (twins and my first c-section) has changed my body so much more dramatically than my previous ones. The other night I found myself scoffing at my 25-year-old newlywed self for having body image issues.
I so needed to read this morning. I’ve been pregnant or nursing for 4 years (a drop in the bucket compared to some!) and some days I just feel like I’m losing the battle to embrace joy, to respect and nurture my new, different body and to love and care for my little ones with gentleness and deliberateness. You spoke to my soul this morning. Thank you.
Oh my. I am with you on every single word of this. It is so so hard. I know what I should be like in this mothering and raising little ones but struggle daily with the reality that is my rebellious thoughts, a battle in my mind…..
Thank you for writing so beautifully and honestly. I love to read what you write.
God Bless you and your honesty! This touched me.
Let me tell you how I feel about my body, and how my friends of the same vintage feel also (we’re all grandmas). When we were young we agonized over how our bodies had stretched out of shape with pregnancies. We focused on our families but tried out various diets, exercise routines, longed to be able to wear those clothes gathering dust at the back of our cupboards “One day…”.
Well, let me tell you, one day doesn’t count for much. All we ever had and have now is today. For those of us who lost the weight, eventually, discovered those clothes were so out of style we’d put them in the donation bin. Time and age saw us stretch more out of shape, even our feet not fitting into those dress shoes. We felt like Cinderalla’s ugly stepsisters, our feet only going half way in before we gave up in disgust and despair.
But you know what? We’re still here, while some of us have passed. Those of us still here have separated the wheat from the chaff in our lives and now see more clearly through the lens of age that it’s OK to let go of the “what if” and “if only” and live in the moment. Our bodies, through the miracle of birth and advancing age will never be what they were when we were younger, but that’s OK. THIS is NORMAL. Plastic surgery, magazine covers are not. Had God wanted us to look eternally 18 He would have designed us that way, but He did not. He loves us all, young, older, skinny, fat, toned, flabby more than we could ever imagine. Tap into that love and love yourselves and be gentle with yourselves as you live out your vocation as mothers and God willing, grandmothers. Life is a precious gift meant for us to savor. You, the younger generation of mothers are beautiful in our (grandmas) eyes and we give thanks to God for your saying “yes” to new life.
This went straight to my heart, Jenny. You are right – babies aren’t meant to leave us the same, neither inside nor out. And, the more you grow on the inside, the less important the exterior becomes. I am thankful to my children for that. As one who has struggled severely with body image and self-confidence since childhood motherhood has set my heart and mind straight. Only God can work something so wonderful through something so difficult.
It’s crazy and true. Even with the ups and downs on the scale and the days where I feel at my worst, I’m still overall more at peace with my body than I was growing up, which is crazy. Pregnancy has been healing in that way, even if the work isn’t totally done.
I know that this is going to sound insensitive, and perhaps some will be offended at my lack of understanding- but do we ever stop to think how fortunate we are to have enough food to eat so that we are not going to bed hungry? That our children have enough to eat? That we have a roof over our heads, and that we are not in constant danger or living in a country at war? If we only went to bed at night and said “Thank you God, that we are safe tonight, and that we are not hungry”. We are coddled and have so much in this country, yet we still feel unhappy or disgruntled. I guess it’s all relative.
Yes, mothering is hard, but it’s difficult to think of something that is truly worthwhile that isn’t hard. It is a day by day struggle, and thank God that we have Him to hold onto.
You’re so, so right. Especially in light of what is happening a world away, babies washing up on shore and families torn apart and fleeing horror.
Ain’t nothing worthwhile that isn’t hard.
True. It’s also hard to wake up childless and go to work everyday, wishing you could be stay-at-home mom.
Caroline, I think it’s possible to be very thankful for all we have while still mourning what we’ve lost. A woman’s body is forever changed by pregnancy and age, and while we remain grateful for all that we’ve lived through and our standard of living in the west there’s no denying something has been lost in the process.
A few years ago I developed a serious eye problem and risked losing my vision in that eye. I can’t tell you how many people told me “Well at least you have TWO eyes. You can be thankful for that!” Of course I was thankful God gave me two eyes, but that didn’t mean I would have been receptive to losing my eyesight in the affected eye nor did having two eyes diminish my concern for what was at risk.
You didn’t sound insensitive or offensive, I just think that a sense of loss over what was is a normal human reaction.
As I said, it’s all relative. We deal with the problems set before us, and some have it easier, some harder, than others. I wasn’t disputing the complaints and struggles we mothers have, I was just putting things in perspective. Things can always be worse, things could always be better- but I need to always be grateful for what I have and where I live. Every day is a gift, and I must try to accept it with a smile. I agree with you; of course we can be thankful at the same time as we deal with our struggles. This life is always changing, our bodies will always change as we age, regardless of giving birth or not. I don’t have the same skin I had when I was seventeen. Nor will I ever again fit into a size four… Or six… probably…unless I get myself motivated to do so- and frankly, with little kids running around, I’m grateful if I can have five minutes uninterrupted so that I may drink my morning cup of coffee. But oh! What a great cup of coffee!
This life we live now, here, it is all but a little stroll- a short little walk- in time compared with eternity.
How I remember that morning chaos, Caroline, and never a shower uninterrupted, always a little person banging on the door or barging in. At the time those days seemed endless until one day I realized it had been quite some time since there had been sand under the kitchen table – they had outgrown the sandbox and life was on the brink of change.
Oh! That is so sad!!! (not having sand under the kitchen table)… even with all the madness and noise, I am so glad my kids are STILL LITTLE! Your reply made me all at once sad and glad- sad to think of the decreased noise that growing up will bring, and glad that it hasn’t happened yet. I can still pick up little ones and throw them up in the air, and various young voices greet me each morning with a smile on their faces- they are happy to see me each and every day. Thank heaven for little girls…. and boys!
True. Nightly /daily gratitude list can be so helpful!
“Maybe a mother grows continuously alongside her children. Maybe, over the lifespan of the enormous task of forming and raising human beings, I myself will become molded and chiseled into something more significant. And dare I say, more beautiful?”
Yes, this is how it goes. But to tell the truth, I think in raising your children it has a far more lasting effect. You really will be changed because you are saying yes to these changes all along, whether sinful or saintly. so be careful! It is the holiness you are really after, but sometimes you endure your own ugly sinfulness to get there.
As for the kids, you are forming them, but you also have to accept that it is a foundation for them. Others will add to, or even undermine that foundation. So realize, they are affecting you in ways beyond your ability to affect them. They are not really your “life work” as much as you are. In time, they will become their own “life work” and it only builds upon what you laid down (and you cannot get too shocked someday when the foundation seems nowhere in sight). Keep focused on your own personal call to holiness, and allow what God accomplishes within your soul to radiate out to others, your children included.
As for the body thing, I adopted, so can’t relate at all. But, age, hormones, and lifestyle have their own effect anyhow. No matter how many children you have. My oldest sister had 6 kids and never really gained any weight until she was in her 50s. My mom had seven kids and always looked gorgeous in her figure and posture (my youngest sister and I took a picture with her on the beach in Hawaii when she was 68 years old–I gave her my best bathing suit and guess who looked most awesome of the three of us!). So, it’s not how many babies you have, really. Your body just wants to do what it wants to do. When I was 35, my body suddenly put 20 lbs on for hormonal reasons. It never left me. I had to go out and buy new clothes right away, because my jeans didn’t fit either. My daughter looked at my graduation picture and said I looked like a model. Well, I don’t look like a model anymore! Not worried, I don’t want to look 18 forever.
Happy Birthday, Jenny. I love you just as you area and wouldn’t change a thing about you. And nothing that you can physically change would even make you a better person. And don’t think about your body during advent and Christmas. It’s the ultimate time to just feel loved by our savior, Jesus. No matter what we look like. Besides, your beauty transcends. There’s literally no Christmas card on my “clothesline” that radiates more LOVE than yours. Truth.
And no one ever told me I’d be a different mother every time. I’m not sure there’s a way to know that beforehand but it’s true. My kids keep getting a different mother. Maybe more than every baby, even.
Thank you from the bottom of my heart for writing this. It’s exactly what I needed to hear today. I am so glad I’m not alone in this! It helps so much to know there are others out there fighting the same battles day in and day out. At the end of all this, I truly just want my kids to know that they were so special to me, so loved by me, and that they made me happier than I ever could be without them. It would be embarrassing if all they remember about me is how much I went to the gym or how clear my skin was. I guess what I’m saying is that if it’s a choice between physical beauty and inner beauty , I’m going to choose to work on compassion and empathy and all the things that will make my heart beautiful. 🙂
I’ll chime in with more “yes”s! Favorite line: “by then I look so good there’s another sibling on the way” Thank you for sharing your pathos so to let me feel like SOMEONE can empathize. May you be blessed …. especially with the ever elusive “me” time that can help keep away the ever lurking “mom burnout”!
Did not know boobs can get stretch marks too. Jenny, tell me your weight loss secrets because I’ve also discovered the breastfeeding myth. I eat as much as a 17 year old boy, though I try to make it healthy stuff.
I was one of those who lost weight with breastfeeding and I don’t know why some do and others don’t. Made copious amounts of milk and froze for preemies at the children’s hospital in the city where we were living at the time. I’d gone from a A cup to a D and foolishly believed that was my reward for gestating, birthing and nursing. Upon weaning they deflated to their original size, but worse, sagged, what was left of them. Yes, stretch marks and all!
Beautiful, from-the-heart post. Merry Christmas & happy birthday
Hi jenny this post was just what I needed to hear today because.. misery loves company? But seriously – I don’t know if it’s the overwhelming nature of the holidays or the sleepless, teething nights I’ve been having with my youngest baby (9 Months old today), but I have caught myself silently pleading apologies over my children after they have gone off to sleep, as well, as I cringe at the horrible ways I may have failed them that day by letting my patience wear threadbare. And then there are some days recently that I’ve looked around and instead of seeing the beauty in a warm house with three young, healthy children – I’ve felt out of control and unable to see passed the glaring messy and intense side of this life. Here’s to hoping I will break out of this “funk” soon. Strength to you, fellow mama, during this season of life. Thanks for shedding some realness (not a word? lol) on motherhoods struggles . Merry Christmas and peace in the new year.
Yes to all of this.. Not only to all of what you said but just in general getting older and all the changes that happen to your body once you get closer to 40.. I will be 40 in January and it’s crazy how much my body is changing just because that’s part of life…. Acceptance with joy ! Very true and very challenging..
I had my first four children in 4 1/2 years, and there is not enough money in the world to induce me to go back to those early years. (Total of 6 living children, 4 in heaven, 10 pregnancies in 10 1/2 years). I felt like such a failure because I was really, truly miserable during that time of my life, and I could only hide so much of it. It was HARD. No, it was not a joyful time. When people told me back then that one day I would wish I could go back, I thought to myself they were full of it, and they were. Some of us are just not happy mothers of little babies and toddlers.
The good news is that some of us are better mothers of older children. My husband kept telling me that life would get easier, and I held onto his belief. It’s really what got me through. It DID get easier. And the advantage of looking so overweight, out-of-shape, and exhausted in my 20s and early 30s is that I look so much better now, in my mid-40s. I look positively fabulous comparatively. LOL It’s all relative, I suppose!
I survived. And if I did (not a naturally maternal bone in this body), so can just about anybody. This, too, shall pass.