March 23, 2007

Shape of a Mother

So, I am getting some exercise! A little. A few things have helped prod me from my postpartum inertia. The weather is warmer. My back is doing poorly, and I know that if I don't start taking better care of my mid-section muscles it will only get worse. And also, we've got about twenty-seven weddings to go to this summer and I want...what?

Here's the kicker, friends. I kinda want to look as though I did not just have a baby.

Now. I know that I had just been sorting through some ambivalence about parenthood. That's true. But it's also true that my pregnancy and labor are on the very short list of things in my life that I am really proud of: I just did my best, and I did pretty well. I paid attention to myself, did a good job of taking care of myself while also being open to the newness of it all. I wanted to feel, as Sharon Olds has written, that I was accomplishing an "exceptional act." And I did feel that way.

And yet, here I am on the other side, with a vague sense that my job now is to erase the experience of pregnancy from my body. The softness, the excess: that all needs to go. I was thinking about this while I was jogging today, and about how I wouldn't really be comfortable outside in just a sports top, now. I have these little rolls that seem inappropriate to display. I still have my linea negra. Who wants to see that? Who wants to show it?

It strikes me also that women, postpartum, are stuck in a weird double-bind. We still feel the pressures of beauty that effect all women. I think there's an attitude--I know I felt this, earlier in life--that if a woman changed too much during pregnancy, it was somehow her fault, like she was lazy or something. Why didn't she avoid those stretch marks? Those extra pounds? As though either of those things, at base, could be avoided: stretch marks particularly, I've learned, are basically genetics, and there's not much you can do about them.

But at the same time, we live in a world (at least, I do) that looks down a bit on mothers who spend too much time worrying about appearance. I myself have taken part in many a conversation making fun of Evanston (an affluent suburb where I go to school) "jogging stroller moms," and the way their jogging displays their privilege (what a gift! to have a baby, and also have the time and energy to jog) and also, somehow, their superficiality (they have a baby! Why should they be worrying so much about their appearance?). It's like they're all some new "Desperate Housewives" characters we can love to hate.

So here I am. I'm not saying that the lesson to learn is that women should not exercise, or not feel entitled and encouraged to reclaim a sense of their own beauty, or not feel attached to a vision of themselves in their prematernal form.

But I guess I do think it's a shame that the solution to the double-bind of post-partum life that most women take is to cover up. If our bodies have changed, we hide them. We throw away the bikinis, and we look at our stretch marks in the mirror, and--I suspect--we spend a lot of time feeling ashamed, and embarrassed.

I don't know if it's totally reasonable to hope for us to feel proud of these changes, though I like that idea: I like the idea that we could see our postpartum bodies as bearing tattoos, or battlescars, or tribal markings. As signs of the fact that we have done something good, rather than signs of our failure--our imagined physical neglect.

But I would like it if at least if we could all realize that we were normal. And to that end, I would like to recommend the photos and experiences captured here:

It's a little shocking, and then, it's a little shocking that it's so shocking. It's like women's bodies all around us have been living these secret lives.

I still totally want to look hot around all my college friends at all these weddings. It is true. But I guess I also hope that, at least secretly, I can get to a place where, when I look at the mirror, I honestly feel more accomplished than ashamed.

(with thanks to whitney who sent me this website several months ago, while we were discussing our movement into what she described as a "lumpy but loving" tribe.)


sarah said...

it occurred to me after I posted this that pregnancy is sort of like a weird sprint on the path to aging in general, and so what I'm saying is not particular to pregnancy itself. Lots of things in life change your body. and I guess pregnancy has the advantage of having a solid result at the end of it, which eases the transition a bit.

Henrie Family said...

This is a difficult issue. My goal with recovery both times was to loose the extra weight by the time I stopped nursing. With both pregnancies I gained over 40 pounds. To those of you who have not been pregnant this is somewhat above ideal, but with my build the Doctor was not worried.

The first time the weight come off easily within 7 or 8 months. This time it has been much harder. Lira just turned 1. I have stopped nursing, and I still have an extra 10 pounds...

My hips also changed permenantly during the second labor. I have thrown away almost every pair of pants I had pre-pregnancy.

With my fair skin I too had an impressive dark line. In fact the nurses at my doctors office said it was the best example they had ever seen. This is not what I wanted to hear. Luckily, it is gone now.

Even when you do start to get your body back having a baby with you is like man repelant. Not that I am in the market, but it is nice to know if you are still attractive or not. Jason takes the kids out and the women flock to him.

I hope you look very sexy for all of the weddings! Try to remember that you are still more beautiful after having a baby than a lot of people who never had children. Sorry if that is too rude, but it makes me feel better to think things like that...

MAC said...

The body image thing is a serious matter, and I really appreciate the subject.

Weight? You can lose weight..and get yourself retoned and fit. But if a woman gets horrible stretchmarks/an extra flap of belly skin, no amount of diet and exercise will fix that, and there is really nothing one can do about it (if genetically prone to such things). I can honestly say if that happens to me during the rest of our baby making lives, when we are done I will be getting some work done. I am pretty sure I would never get to a healthy place looking at a sagging, scarred flab hanging of my abdomen (especially after having spent my entire life fairly thin). Vain and superficial?? Maybe. Realistic? Absolutely.

I can hope that after successive pregnancies my body will be as unravaged (except my little breastfeeding belly donut, which I can live with) as it is now-after having a baby 10 weeks early and skipping out on the stretchmark danger zone (though I did gain 35 lbs), but if not, I have an option-a tummytuck. Not for anyone else and their judgements-for me and my desire to be happy when I look in the mirror.

Amy E said...

Hopefully the reason the women are jogging in the park is not for the sake of being attractive only, but PRIMARILY TO BE PHYSICALLY HEALTHY. As the daughter of increasingly obese parents, I understand first-hand how it feels to have parents who are out-of-shape: dangerous. I worry A LOT that my parents will die prematurely because of their obesity.

I continue to train myself not to welcome overworking, overeating, and under-exercising habits into my life like they do. I love my parents dearly but in this arena I wish they had set a better example.

Be healthy so you can encourage your child to be healthy for life. Be healthy so you can live to meet your grandchildren. All of that supercedes the value of "looking good."

My stomach looks worse than the woman's on that website and I never had a baby. At least you have a reason besides overeating and genetics. I will pay for the rest of my life for a few years of overeating, no matter how little I eat now or how much I exercise.

At least you got married before your stomach looked like that; the message I receive directly from the mouths of men I date is that I won't get married with my stretch-marked, streched-out skin. I'm not fat any more. But that doesn't mean my stomach will ever look good: it won't. I've been told by trainers and doctors. And no way do I want cosmetic surgery and more scars.

WHAT I DO WANT IS TO BE HEALTHY INSIDE, to keep physically active, to enjoy athleticism.

And I do. And for that I am grateful! Please do the same, for your sake and the sake of your family that you are working so consciously on.

Brandon said...

The tattoo comment prompted me to wonder what sort of gesture it would be to reclaim something -- something like the linea negra -- with a tattoo that makes it permanent.

w said...

I've been ruminating on this post for a while, since it's hard for me to be overweight again post-baby. I just want to say that Amy expressed what I think in the best possible, most positive way. Hooray for Amy!

Part of the problem lies in the fact that pregnant women are cooed over- then suddenly you are "weirdly fat" (as Sarah put it to me) and invisible. That transition sucks.

Camera Crazy said...

Sarah, I just read your incredible post, and I found it so insightful. I was one of those who got minimal stretch marks, only on the side of my hips. It does go to show that it is pretty much genetics as I carried twins. Your thoughts interest me because it is nearly the same with getting older. At 53, I'm still very slim, however, since I have been ill, I have lost all my muscle tone in not only my arms, but my thighs as well. I look in the mirror, and wonder who is that woman. Because we live in Florida,k and have a pool, I swim a lot. I am wondering if I will be able to wear my bikini as confidently, or maybe it is time to switch to a tankini. I know it sounds crazy that I was stillwearing one , but as I mentioned, I have a very slender build which hides my age! It just goes to show that women never change as they age--a pleasing appearance is expected.

Henrie Family said...


I have the feeling that you brought up the tatoo to generate some discussion. I will take the bait. To me pregnancy is a specific time in your life, and it should be enjoyed while you are experiencing it. I don't need any more reminders of it.

Amy E said...

Wow, I never new about the linea negro before this blog entry. Weird. My mom didn't get one when my brother was born. This might be the only benefit to being pale skinned: unlikely to develop said line.