You are interesting. You carry a mystery, an unexplained power, a blessing that gets bigger every day. Do you not see the way you evoke turned heads with that package of life centered right on your body, one that might feel fragile to you, or burdensome with its new demand for constant responsibility and attention?
Have you forgotten (or have you ever really considered what it means) that “a woman’s body is the first environment”?
I tell myself this now…
But almost four years ago as a first-time mother, I couldn’t appreciate the changes in my body during three trimesters’ worth of pregnancy and the fourth trimester postpartum.
I just wasn’t good at being pregnant, I thought. I didn’t enjoy it; I couldn’t allow myself to. Because we’re not really supposed to, are we? There’s the healthy occasional venting of swirling hormones, bemoaning of stretch marks and back pain and girth, mostly with a dose of curiosity and wonder about our changing bodies and an admiration for the universal feminine strength it takes to continue to grow (and effortlessly glow while we’re at it).
More expected is the regular complaining about physical changes being far removed from the non-pregnant ideal, accepted like rite of passage between a Western woman’s era of societal value and that of motherhood, the commence of her diminish.
As if the power of pregnancy is not in reaching new heights, new lengths, new shape and even spiritual being — but a deliverer of regression from which a woman must be prepared to bounce back as quickly as possible. For the sake of her worth as measured by the decided standard — the non-pregnant Western ideal.
I’d sensed the magic of the maternal shift in others who set the example before me, but I was mislead to believe that the harsh self-critic is a reliable motivator.
I’d been taught the inner judge is a woman’s best friend, her secret weapon to discourage perceived ‘flaws’ and weaknesses, her reminder of need to work on changing — but not like the caterpillar-to-butterfly transformation of pregnancy, no. Rather the deconstruction of self to fit a standard, the nit-pickiest of fixes made to guarantee staying the same forever. Eternally young, pre-pregnancy, “you don’t look like you’ve even had babies!”, “you look good for a mom.” This… is known as accomplishment.
I was misled about this need to destroy ourselves for a standard of beauty, youth, and perfection that lies only skin-deep.
I was misled to believe that pregnancy physically destroys a woman, that the look and feel of it is undesirable, both too much and not enough, pitiful, in need of rectifying apology or excuse.
I was misled to believe the state of childbearing could not look or feel perfect, neither to a woman-turned-mother nor to anyone else.
I’ve since learned it builds and builds a woman up ’til she can’t stand it anymore, ’til she bursts forth the result of her complex construction, screaming out a whole new person with a whole new voice from her whole new body.
She’s left raw and anew herself, I’ve seen, better than before in more ways than marked on the surface her flesh.
And now I wonder…
Why isn’t a working, stretching, full uterus the standard for women? Why isn’t a celebrated maternal body an ideal? Why aren’t the physical marks of life-bearing and birthing upon a woman celebrated much the same as scarred men honored in their return from a battle for justice?
These signs of motherhood don’t speak of what is broken and needs fixing; they don’t mandate a stronger dedication to inhibition and self-consciousness; they don’t plead for help (as mothers often don’t).
In reality they assure, perhaps too quietly, of what this body has already done, of what it took to bring the rest of us to life. And with a sympathy induced from such transformation like a lovely former caterpillar to a butterfly just as magnetic in its beauty, this look of maternity says “Now, I’m ready to help” (as mothers always do).
In that first pregnancy, I’d felt the scrutiny of my changing body both from those I knew and from those I didn’t. I’d felt the increasing awareness of my body treated or viewed as public property in a seeming shift overnight.
Questions about what I ate, what I wore, what I weighed, the habits of my baby who lived as deep inside as my heart, my opinion on baby’s life versus mother’s life, whether I thought it cute to feel unsolicited hands rubbing my midsection — these became perfectly acceptable conversation starters. Perfectly personal, perfectly violating ones.
But I wasn’t merely a vessel for a little person. I was myself a person. Outsiders forget this when a woman’s womb becomes a self-sustaining world for one (or more).
Many of them count down to meeting a woman’s unborn baby but they try to convince her to keep an eye on a goal of her own: counting down to ‘getting her body back’ after birth.
They don’t mean the desired, empowered feeling of oneness with her body finally free of internal company after birth. In fact, the desire for this feeling isn’t nearly as encouraged as is the rule that a woman must suffer in her pregnant body and must suffer in her birthing body and in her forever postpartum one, too.
What they mean by ‘getting her body back’ is returning to what they’re used to. Pregnancy is but a phase. It has a time and a place — or so it goes. Get through it and get over it — or so they say. The pressure (from society, media, acquaintances, family, the harsh self-critic) to follow the rules, to stop looking too-pregnant or still-pregnant, to fit right, to give up all of yourself while somehow getting back to ‘the real you’ (the old you) immediately after… is not slight by any means.
During a woman’s pregnancy, people she knows will tell her:
“You’re so big!… so tiny!… all belly!… looking rounder!… looking busty!… looking better!… looking tired!… ready to pop!… big as a house!…”
And society will tell her:
“Get your body back!”
(Back from where? I still have it… it’s right here…).
“Lose the baby weight!”
(I will… by birthing the weight of the baby).
“Get back to your pre-baby body!”
(Only a post-baby body can possibly meet all the needs of a baby).
“Real men like curves.”
(A woman’s body is not for men. Real babies like curves though, that is true. They are conceived, grown, and born from an increasingly expanding curve. A little planet of their own suspended in a protected, private universe).
“Hourglass skinny is in! Get fit! Tone up! Tighten up! Maintain, maintain!”
(A woman’s body is not for fashion. For everything else, life-bearing health is “in”).
So, what are you telling yourself?
See yourself beyond your baby. See your protruding button of a navel, reminding of its own experience attached to a coiled cord once upon a time. See your areolas darkening like New Moons. See your lower belly widen like the Full Moon. See your hair thicken and nails smooth out. See your silhouette soften, a welcoming outline that promises comfort and the sensual feminine. See all the veins beneath your skin, shuttling nutrients to a brand new person living from you, with you.
If that doesn’t help you see the full scope of your beauty, try the opposite: see your baby beyond yourself. See beyond the stuck-out belly button that you were advised to hide with a Band-Aid. See beyond the mature and ready areolas that give away your ability to sustain life outside yourself — your status of a maidenhood forever gone. See beyond the widening, thickening, softening, busy shuttling of so many purposeful, functional things within.
“Men take it for granted that their sexual organs can greatly increase in size and then become small again without being ruined.” – Ina May Gaskin
Consider by contrast the amount of physical recovery and time required for female genitalia to stretch much bigger during childbirth than when at rest and return to original shape afterward.
Then consider how the inhabited uterus grows 500 times its original size by full-term and restores its original shape relatively quickly (nine months to stretch, about six weeks to shrink).
Both sexes are made to grow beyond their familiar or relaxed states in order to bring children into the world. This is a skill that begins as physical but in continued parenthood becomes a test of emotions; the ability to expand beyond one’s normal habits and comfort zone to take care of their children’s many and constant needs.
It really is okay to enjoy your pregnant body. You may default to disagree just as I would’ve during my first pregnancy, but I invite you to dig deeper.
You may be surprised to find a desperate part of you wishing for a hint of permission to celebrate not just the child you’ve grown, but also the growth of your new body, reflecting the breadth of your capabilities and amplified intuitions as a life-giver.
You may be surprised to find that the guilt or shame you feel about changing, about embarking on a path removed from the pre-partum ideal, did not originate from any natural cell of your own.
Your body deserves your trust. It was made just for you, and during your pregnancy it changes in every possible way just to make another person. Remember your body would find ways to substantially change with age and time whether or not you had ever been pregnant.
How much do you love your baby? Are there no words?
This is exactly how much your baby loves your body.
It is enough… you are enough… soon you will see.
*All photos without caption are credited to Anel Lestage, portrait photographer for Tender Nest Portraits.*