Some thoughts on body image during pregnancy and postpartum, and the ego-shattering expense of motherhood
December 28, 2019
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…
Seriously, though, it was the worst of times for about the last 3 weeks of Benedict’s pregnancy, which seemed to stretch interminably out over major holidays and multiple trips to labor and delivery for additional monitoring. Dave can vouch for my extra special attitude during this season of anticipation and antacids.
At some point during the final week, the fortieth, much to my astonishment, I begged God specifically that I’d not have to face another Sunday Mass “still pregnant” because a. our church is being renovated and the basement is hot as hell and b. I wanted to crawl violently out of my own skin while doing the extreme walk of shame back and forth to the restrooms escorting yet another weak bladdered offspring and offering the entire parish an eyeful courtesy of the single remaining body con maternity dress that still “fit.”
Mostly I just wept, sat up at night timing contractions, and cycled through every heartburn medication on the market in a desperate bid to emancipate my esophagus from the fires of hell. And that’s pretty much how all of November went.
(N.B. He has lots of hair! Enough to braid, practically. Old wives tale confirmed.)
About 5 days before Ben was finally born, I finally hit the right combination of google terms and discovered a secret subculture of kindred spirits: other women, most of them multiparous, also plagued by unrelenting and utterly unproductive contractions night after night for days and weeks and even months of pregnancy.
Weeping with relief, I initiated myself honorarily into the sisterhood of the “irritable uterus,” devouring post after post of other women’s stories about contractions lasting 10, 12, 15 minutes at a time for hours on end, their uteri locked into rock solid basketballs of tension pretty much 24/7.
It’s not Braxton Hicks, it’s not prodromal labor, and it’s not actual, baby-bringing contractions. The answer is d., Alex, none of the above. And the reason for it is … elusive. Age? Fatigue? Number of prior pregnancies? Physical condition? Probably a little bit of everything. At any rate, it was a long November and there’s reason to believe maybe this year will be better than the last. If for no other reason then we’re definitely on a procreative hiatus and even the most broken night of newborn sleep beats the hell that was my uterus versus somnolence.
November 2019 was not my best work.
I would be remiss, however, to fail to share the silver lining of Ben’s pregnancy. Other than the sheer physical hell of that final 4 weeks, I honestly felt good. Maybe not physically so good (raises eyebrow at total spent on physical therapy copays and massage) but emotionally and spiritually, pretty great.
This pregnancy was healing and transformative in a lot of ways. I was able to receive more of God’s grace for my vocation as a wife and mother, was able to see His version of myself more and more clearly, and most shockingly of all, for me, was able to let go of (or at least table, more on that in a future post) a lot of my deeply held and longstanding issues with food and weight and body image.
And guess what? I didn’t magically have a celebrity pregnancy because I stopped obsessing about food and how I looked. I still got huge, I still felt pretty awful by the end, and I am still struggling now, 4 weeks postpartum, with the fallout of crafting and carrying another human being under my heart for the better part of a year. My kids are simultaneously asking “so mom, when will you be skinny again?” and also “can we have another baby pretty soon?” so it’s pretty much every woman’s dream.
Here’s the thing though: for much of the past 10 months, I was at peace.
I was at peace with having a sixth baby (which felt – and still feels – shocking. Not the half dozen children so much as the being at peace part); I was (mostly) at peace with what was happening to and through my body, and I was at peace with how I looked.
None of that should have been possible. All of that is miraculous. I can only credit a well-timed introduction to the concept of intuitive eating, working with a wonderfully gifted RD, and God’s perfect timing.
Pregnancy has always been pretty terrible for me in the self image department. Blame the decades of disordered eating and the short stature, but I’m not a cute pregnant woman, and I don’t “wear it well.” The baby wears me. I am all baby and also the baby is all over, and we are both of us huge.
I was cradling Ben at his 2 week well child visit waiting for my turn to place him on the scale and the mom ahead of me looked back at us, eyes popping out of her head and cried out “another one? Again? So soon?!” I looked around and realized she was talking to me and politely asked “what?” knowing full well what was about to happen…
“How old is your baby?” She jabbed a finger towards Ben’s carseat, her eyes widening when I replied “12 days;”
“And you’re pregnant again???”
I stared at her with dead, sleep deprived eyes for a full count of 3 before calmly replying that no, I’d just had the baby 12 days ago. Her eyes goggled at my Kate Middleton-esque midsection and her cheeks had the decency to flush slightly as she stumbled over her words and I brushed past her to hoist my 10 pound baby onto the scale.
I wish I could say I was more incensed over the profound failure of our educational system to transmit the most basic fundamentals of human biology to a seemingly card carrying adult female, but alas, my pride was wounded deeper than my intellect. Though I do still wish I’d been able to slip her a little something to explain how ovulation works. Maybe just like 2 pages ripped from a high school biology textbook?
I’m not bitter.
I was talking with a friend earlier this week about how the newfound confidence I discovered during pregnancy is starting to wear thin as the hormones continue to come down and the baby weight…doesn’t. She pointed out I was less than a month postpartum, Christmas was only just happened, and perhaps I hadn’t been sleeping much? Not exactly a recipe for weight loss and wellness.
Here’s the thing, though. All that new peace and acceptance I found while Benny was on the inside? Now I get to fight to keep it. Now I get to experience the freedom and the terror of having the training wheels kicked off, of being at peace in my body just as it is, no baby on board to shield me from my own expectations or those of the world.
Because the acceptance and freedom I found during Ben’s pregnancy were a little bit conditional, it turns out, and dependent upon my “producing” something, having some sort of excuse for my body being less than perfect.
Now that I’m not growing a baby? Or nursing one? It is so, so tempting to get sucked back into the belief that my body is only as good as what it can do, as how it looks. As how well it performs.
I’m not actively “trying” to lose weight right now. I’m not doing a 30 day cleanse or a 4 week reset or trying a new diet of any kind. I’m not signing up for boot camp or pledging a certain number of trips to the gym per week for 2020. I’m not readily identifiable as an athlete of any kind, at the moment. And ironically, I’m not able to fit into any of my old clothes that don’t involve lots and lots of spandex, so living in running tights though I may be, no actual running is taking place.
For now, for the moment, in this uncomfortable in between season of sweet baby cuddles and scary parenting meltdowns and the whole-house post holiday hangover, I’m just me. I’m just a tired mom with a new baby and gross stains on most of her shirts and I don’t look or feel very cute, but I am happy.
And I’m starting to think I might be on track to find deeper, truer happiness than what I was hoping to find via the keto brick road or whatever other previous promises I’d clung to about finally being satisfied “when”.
As I sat down with my (dusty) laptop to write what this turned out to be, I happened to lock eyes with my bridal self in a wedding picture that hangs near my desk.
“I used to look like that. Look how beautiful I was.” I indulged the self pity for about 4 seconds and then shook myself with the rueful knowledge that however beautiful 26 year old Jenny had been, 37 year old Jenny would still look different. That there was no way I’d still be that girl in the picture, 6 kids or no.
And I recognize that I could easily, easily spend the rest of my 30s, my 40s, and beyond chasing that elusive image of who I used to be. Of trying to freeze time and keep her eternally present, if only from certain angles or through Instagram filters.
Or I could eat the pizza. Have the baby. Drink the beer.
This is less an “I give up” manifesto than an “I surrender” explanation. And in this season of lots and lots and lots of surrender (cough cough emergency c section + team no sleep) I’m figuring out that happiness lies less in what the mirror is reflecting back to me and more in what I’m able to reflect out to the world.
(And hey, lest we end this on an overly pious note, it must be said that I had the temerity to scream “what is wrong with you???” at a 7 year old child today for the heinous crime of crushing chocolate sprinkles into the dining room table with the back of a spoon, so please know that I am an all around ideal and uniformly excellent mother who is all done with spiritual growth and development, and I definitely did not get caught earlier in the day by the 9 year old muttering “good God I CANNOT WAIT for school to start” while bent over rehoming clean laundry found strewn across a closet floor.)