My soul would sing of metamorphoses.
But since, o gods, you were the source of these
bodies becoming other bodies, breathe
your breath into my book of changes…
~ Ovid, The Metamorphoses
My abdomen is probably the only part of my body I’ve never felt insecure about. Everything else has, at one time or another, been overrun by pudge, pimples, stretch marks, or, the most likely culprit in my case, unwanted body hair. When I gain weight, I tend to pack it on around the hips, thighs, chest, but, thanks to the crapshoot of genetics, I have never really had a flabby stomach.
That, however, is no longer the case. My abdomen is a fleshy pillow now. I can sink my fingers into it like bread dough.
My body has gone through many permutations over the past ten months, but this one is the most engrossing to me so far, because, well, I kind of like it. It’s just so soft. If I were a baby, I’d much rather curl up on my fleshy belly pillow than, say, a washboard.
This fascination with my post-partum belly started literally right after labor. I kept my eyes covered with a washcloth while I was pushing, because my senses were so overloaded I couldn’t process visual stimuli, but at the moment of Julian’s birth my mom pulled the cloth away and the first thing I saw was my rounded belly, free now of baby and jiggling like a unstable tower of Jell-O. And then Julian was there, warm and perfect and covered in goo, and I welcomed him onto the soft cushion of my torso, an ideal place to land when first entering the world.
Sure, my shallow, neurotic, appearance-conscious self loathes the Belly Pillow, but part of me feels affection and protectiveness toward it, similar to the way I get defensive of my obese cat, Little Tubbers, when people comment on her girth. (I prefer to think she’s just “fluffy.”)
As recounted in a previous post, my breasts have undergone the biggest changes (emphasis on “biggest”). When I look in the mirror, I still can’t help but think, “Geez, whose breasts are these?” I didn’t get many stretch marks on my belly, just a few purple commas around my hips, but my breasts, on the other hand, with their deep blue veins and violet squiggles pinwheeling out from the aereola, have bloomed into something almost otherworldly.
Sometimes I look at this new body of mine and feeling a twinge of despair, thinking of the suitcase stashed in the attic that I masochistically labeled “skinny clothes,” a suitcase filled with the trappings of my former body, including one beloved pair of jeans that I hope to be reunited with one day.
Other times I look at myself and just feel raw fascination. Our bodies are constantly undergoing minute changes, but the processes of pregnancy and childbirth wreak such hurried transformations – it’s like watching one of those time lapse nature videos of seeds sprouting and flowering, while the sun skims repeatedly across the sky, marking days like seconds. Only instead of a seed, it’s my own body expanding and unfurling before my eyes.
The moments when I feel love (or at least not-hate) toward this new body of mine are healthy moments, I think – but they are too few and fleeting. I would guess most, if not all, women in our culture feel some level of anxiety about their bodies at any given moment; it’s like a constant hum in the background, a white noise we’ve grown so used to hearing that we live by its rhythm.
This body anxiety, and body awareness in general, was certainly amplified for me during pregnancy. I gained forty pounds – maybe even more, because my final pregnancy weigh-in at the hospital flashed up in kilograms, and I told the nurse not to translate that into pounds for me. I had enough to worry about without that last little blow. By that time I was fed up with being weighed regularly at the midwife’s office, watching the numbers climb at a rate often exceeding the “pound per week” rule. (I once mentioned to a male colleague over lunch that I’d gained almost five pounds in the previous two-week period and he responded by gaping at me in disbelief and horror – not cool, bro.) Thanks to Google and those pastel pamphlets from the doctor’s office, I had it burned in my brain that the optimal pregnancy weight gain is between 25-35 pounds – and to go beyond that range surely meant that I was a careless fatty with no self-control.
Well, I blew past those markers fairly early into my third trimester, much to my dismay and puzzlement. I wasn’t sure where all that weight was coming from or going. After all, I vomited almost daily for the first twenty-two weeks of my pregnancy and didn’t get a healthy appetite back until the seventh month or so. I had also gone off sweets almost entirely and had delusions of making that change permanent (sweets are a weak spot of mine); I thought I’d finally broken the stranglehold of cupcakes and hot tamales over my life. But, of course, when my appetite didreturn, so did my hankering for all things baked and sugared. Still, I didn’t go totally overboard. Most days.
As it turns out, most of my pregnancy weight was fluid retention, and it was distributed so evenly all over my body that it was hard to tell it was happening. My mom bought me a nice pair of zip up boots during my third trimester, and I had to struggle to zip them up over my calves. I remember railing against the boot makers in my mind, cursing their obvious prejudice for model-types with unrealistically skinny legs – but lo and behold, those boots zip up easily now, with room to spare. Toward the very end of the pregnancy, I even began to suspect that my nose was getting wider. When I asked Michael to verify this, he said I was just being paranoid, but he has since confessed that yes, my nose did indeed flatten out, but he wasn’t about to admit that to my (distended) face.
So everywhere from my calves, to my nose, to my eyeballs, my body was absorbing enough fluid to make my weight skyrocket, but distributing the fluid so seamlessly all over that I was starting to worry I’d have a elephantine infant, or that my pregnant belly was creating some optical illusion that somehow slimmed the rest of my body in comparison – and after labor I’d suddenly realize that, shit, I had totally porked out.
Now I realize that all that anxiety, all that weight-watching, was for naught. One midwife told me early on that, as long as I ate well and don’t become a total slug, my body would gain however much weight it needed to. Even though I didn’t really listen to her at the time, I now know she was right, and I’m a little embarrassed about how much worry I wasted over those weigh-ins. I gained 40+ pounds without trying and a week after giving birth I’d lost 30 of them – again, without trying, because my body is just gonna do its thang.
And that “thang” is actually astonishing. When I think about what I have endured physically over the last ten months, I am awed by what my body has been up to. It’s infuriating to me that women who’ve just given birth are exhorted to “get our bodies back” – as if our bodies have disappeared somewhere, as if they’re on the run and we have to track them down like Dog the Bounty Hunter and wrangle them into submission.
Our bodies haven’t absconded; they’ve been here all along, accomplishing miraculous feats of nature. The maternal body is capable of incredible metamorphosis, wondrous creation. Give me a little genetic material and, in under a year, I will grow you a human being, and my body will split itself open to bring that being into the world and then make milk for it, ex nihilo.
Yet our distorting culture wants to hide the wonder of metamorphosis, instead demanding that the female body be static and plastic and ornamental, demanding that we conceal our changeability, our capacity for creation, growth, transformation.
I had worried, prior to giving birth, about what my body would look like afterwards, and contemplated the maneuvers I could take to erase all physical traces of pregnancy and childbirth – but now that feels wrong, like a betrayal. My abdomen is doughy because it grew and housed my son, keeping him warm and cushioned in his water world. Scrambling to maintain the illusion that life does not etch itself into our cells and skin – this seems not only futile but disrespectful to me now.
In reality, I will never “get my body back.” Maybe I’ll get back into those beloved jeans, maybe I won’t, but either way, my body will remain permanently marked, physically and emotionally, by motherhood. And I want to love this incredible, life-giving flesh I inhabit – even the pillowy bits. I want to love it whole.
(And, every once in awhile, I do.)
I grew up with a fairly utopian view of breastfeeding. My mom nursed me until I was three, long enough for me to creatively name her breasts “Nippy” and “Nipple.” She was a La Leche League member and always talked openly about the physical and emotional benefits of breastfeeding for both baby and mama. My mom describes her “perfect moment” as the day I was born, mid-November 1983. She was the only patient in the tiny small-town hospital in Idaho and spent the day nursing me as the first snowfall of winter drifted down outside, insulating us from the world. Apparently I was an eager eater from day one. That image of us, skin to skin in snow-muffled silence, has taken root – and even though it’s a story that’s been told to me, not an active memory, I trace the narrative of my life back to that moment.
Of course, the beatific picture of breastfeeding has been countered by less romantic experiences gleaned from other women, stories about cracked nipples, chronic pain, engorged breasts – and, perhaps most horrifically, one friend who had mastitis and looked down during a nursing session to see her baby choking on a mouthful of blood.
I went into labor with these two extremes in mind – either I was going to be one of those lucky women who entered seamlessly and painlessly into breastfeeding, or I was going to have to suffer through it, teeth gritted, for the good of The Child. Of course, like most things in life, reality runs between these poles. At this point, one month in, I am beginning to genuinely enjoy breastfeeding – but those teeth-gritting, expletive-muttering moments have not yet completely vanished.
So, here is my candid assessment of breastfeeding thus far: the good, bad, and ugly.
Breastfeeding was a total rollercoaster at first. I’m not someone who has very, um, hardy nipples, so the first couple of weeks were like boot camp for my boobs – my nipples needed to toughen the hell up. Left Boob was a quick study; I had some soreness and a milk blister on that side that healed quickly, and nursing was pretty painless after a week or two. But Right Boob… well, Right Boob is lagging. Right Boob will not be recruited for Special Forces. Right Boob will be cleaning the latrines.
Sometime in the first week, my right nipple cracked, and the lovely fissure that formed there has yet to disappear. It keeps almost healing, taunting me with its progress, only to suddenly gape open and begin hurting again, especially after Julian has one of those squirmy feeds where he goes after my breast like a frantic little lap dog with a squeaky toy. I’ve tried copious amounts of lanolin, expressing a bit of milk on the nipple after each feeding, those “soothie” gel pads – pretty much anything you can google, I’ve given a shot. Most recently, I’ve been doing these saline soaks after breastfeeding, followed by a little Neosporin and some Monistat, to make sure I don’t get a fungal infection (yum!). This seems to be helping, so I’m hopeful. Maybe Right Boob will finally pony up.
Googling about breastfeeding gets annoying, though, as most websites proclaim that breastfeeding should be “absolutely painless” only a few days in, or you’re doing something wrong dum-dum. Well, I’ve met with two lactation consultants who have told me Julian has a good latch. One of them was a little purple lactation pixie (purple hair, purple earrings, purple scrubs, purple glasses, purple shoes) who said that, with the amount Julian was nursing, if we didn’thave a good latch my nipples would look like raw hamburger. Oy vey. So, it’s a little frustrating to have the internet gods constantly tweaking my new-mom insecurities. Maybe they just have a different definition of “painless.”
Aside from that doggedly persistent fissure, the other worst part about breastfeeding is thankfully over: engorgement. A few days after giving birth, my milk came in with a vengeance, transforming my breasts into giant, rock-hard torpedoes. My last day in the hospital, I took a few slow waddle-walks around the ward, and I noticed that it was suddenly difficult to breath deeply. Of course, my mind initially jumped to worst case scenario land and wondered if something was wrong with my circulation or my heart – until I finally figured out that it was just because my breasts were so damn heavy. My lungs were having to do battle with the boulders on my chest in order to inflate.
That hardness made it difficult for Julian’s tiny little mouth to latch on, so I spent a couple of incredibly frustrating days trying to feed my hungry baby from breasts that were too full to function correctly. Those were the worst moments: Julian wailing with his hunger cry, confused by the aching brick I was trying, unsuccessfully, to maneuver into his mouth – and then I’d lose it, too, and just start sobbing, feeling utterly inept and desperate. (It doesn’t help that engorgement coincides with the sudden hormonal abyss that women careen into a few days post-partum.)
But, like I said, that part is over, and Julian latches like a champ now, most of the time – except when he gets all dainty on me, puckering his mouth in a small “O” as if he expects to be served tea and ladyfingers. I much prefer when he claps both fists around my breast and goes to town like he’s chowing down on a giant hoagie.
I’ve always had a bit of a boob complex – at least since puberty, anyway. I was one of those lucky ones that “developed early.” I was certainly the first in my female circle to deal with armpit hair and probably the only girl in the entire sixth grade who needed to wear a bra. And, just so you know, it’s not cool to have breasts when you’re the only one. (Luckily, in seventh grade, boobs starting sprouting around me willy nilly, some even larger than mine, so I could breath a sigh of relief.)
Complicating my early admittance to puberty was the fact that I grew up in a religious context where boobs are basically seen as tantalizing bags of sin that should be concealed at all costs. I must have internalized that mindset to some extent, because I always wished I had the small, discrete breasts of a long-distance runner than, well, the ones that I’ve got. So, as you can imagine, it’s been unsettling to see my breasts double (triple?) in size throughout and after pregnancy. When Julian was first born, his head seemed completely dwarfed by one of my breasts, which just seemed a little excessive on Nature’s part – how could that little guy possibly need that much boob?
Yesterday I went for my first postpartum “run,” which was comical on many levels, most notably my attempt to cram my generous new ta-tas into a pre-pregnancy sports bra.
Of course, although I feel awkward about the sudden tightness of my shirts these days, breastfeeding has awakened a new brazenness within me. I am not shy about feeding Julian in front of people. Modesty? Qu’est-ce que c’est? Sometimes I wonder how many of our neighbors have witnessed my now standard Amazonian attire, as I shuffle around the kitchen in pajama pants, letting injured Right Boob get some air. Answer: No idea and I don’t care.
Even though I’ve spent most of this post kvetching, I have to say: the good of breastfeeding is really good.
I mean, my body is spontaneously producing a miraculous substance that meets all of the nutritional needs of my newborn – how amazing is that? A nasty stomach bug recently made the rounds in my family over the holidays – of the twenty-two relatives who were visiting, only four remained unscathed, including Julian and me. It was a relief to know, as loved ones dropped around us like flies, that my milk was pumping my baby full of all kinds of immunity-boosting goodness. And the fact that my wee snacker needs to eat so frequently meant that I basically spent the holidays in a comfy little nursing bubble, which probably helped keep the sickness at bay.
And the best of the good? My gooiest mama moments happen during breastfeeding. I look down, hypnotized by his face-at-rest, his eyes closed, as he makes little hums with each swallow, those pudgy cheeks earnestly working away — and then he’ll let out this shivery sigh of contentment and I just melt. And stare and stare and stare.