The Secrets of Postpartum Bodies

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The power of transformation is an inherent gift of woman. The spider, snake, and butterfly are just a few of many creatures regarded as manifestations of feminine energy and universal symbols of shape-shifting. A master of creation, woman’s body is the original 3D printer. When she nurses a child, as Mark Twain once said, “she has no equal among men.”

Somehow still, many of us know discontent with or hatred for our bodies, whether transient or persistent. What’s worse is we believe it’s normal. Accepted to the point of expectation. This is especially true at the moment we inherit our mothering bodies. Through literally all forms of media and outlets for opinion, we are told before anything else that mothering bodies are not sexy, therefore not valuable, therefore invisible.

It’s a dangerous trajectory for the postpartum woman who is vulnerable, open, and recovering — she is brainwashed to confuse these things with weakness, brokenness, incapability, and decreased desirability.

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She’s not often told the truth: that these are the days she claims the greatest strengths her biological sex has to offer. Could she possibly nurture and raise children and exemplify self-love for them if she were so weak, broken, incapable, unattractive?

Should we love our bodies we may be called indulgent, and should we declare this love aloud we may called attention-seeking. Should we pose bare in a photograph, with a body that has birthed, we may be called inappropriate (“She’s too old to wear that bathing suit”; “She’s a mother now, she should cover up”; “A nude photo sends a confusing message”).

Should we accept our bodies as they are, perfectly healthy and perfectly postpartum, we may be convinced our time would be better spent treating our bodies like a home improvement project with never-ending renovations (apparently good mothers do squats while folding cloth diapers, and mothers who are content with moderate, realistic exercise regimes are challenged to answer to sales pitches like Maria Kang’s “What’s Your Excuse?“).

In this Postpartum Bodies photography project, mothers appeared alongside their children — happy, unaffected, together in various states of undress. “Confused” was not a spoken word that day. We showed up as we are in the often unseen moments of young childhood and motherhood. What we look like when we get dressed together, bathe together, when the little ones can’t help but interrupt Mommy’s time in the bathroom with all the Seussian chatter.

Real moments were reflected in these photographs. Some of these mothers cried for the power they felt, spotlighted here in all their intimate glory. Tiger stripes and battle scars and love pouches. With these children for whom many of them had fought long and hard to bring to their side. Yes, we do get to be proud.

So then what are we really, if not indulgent, inappropriate, weak and broken?

We are empowered. We are healers. We are healing, and in hindsight we’ll realize it was somewhere along this postpartum journey that we were in fact healed.

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After my first pregnancy, my body almost did that rubber band thing the magazines tell us should be our marker for postpartum success. It ‘bounced back.’ Though I was frightened by the feeling of my empty belly folded up like an overused accordion, I was relieved to otherwise fit in my old jeans much sooner than I’d expected.

Then postpartum depression and anxiety hit… hard. I quickly lost my physical and emotional enthusiasm, my strength, my shape. Just bones and breast milk. I felt like little else but a food processing and storage unit, a diaper changer, a cradle, a vessel of uncried-tears that presumably poured out my breasts instead. Self-consciousness and self-hatred, old friends we were, and it was the most unwelcome reunion.

After the darkest haze of my postnatal illness I was able to become more proactive about restoring my sense of self-appreciation. I finally saw the last fading evidence of my linea nigra, like the last stripe of color above the horizon before sunset fades. I completed a special exercise program to heal my diastasis recti, which closed the gap in more ways than simply physical. My son’s nursing demands slowed so my energy was slowly but surely replenished. I could almost recognize ‘myself’ again, sometimes.

Then two and a half years postpartum, I was blessed with another pregnancy. This baby sat heavier in my womb than my older child had and I could feel the greater wear and tear on my body. I needed a change in outlook, the kind I wish someone had been able to lead by example for my younger self, the ‘pre-baby’ girl I admittedly grieved who now felt so pitifully far away in flesh and spirit.

It’s okay, I thought. This is my last pregnancy, so I’ll enjoy it and I’ll embrace these changes for better or worse. (And what a difference this outlook made!).

I never felt like I ever ‘got back’ to my pre- babies body. I only eventually grew used to the body I currently reside within. We had to get acquainted a bit too quickly for comfort, but here we are now.

I can’t help but notice… My skin is looser. My muscles are weaker. My hips are wider. My breasts are unwieldy and larger; they hang lower. Silver stretch marks in more conspicuous places than those few etched into my thighs by puberty. My hair isn’t quite finished with postpartum shedding. Between my abdominals is a canyon I can stick my fingers between. If I flex just right some deeper softness pops out to herniate my navel, a place it was never meant to go. And where did all these moles come from?

A few changes here, a few there… pregnancy and childbirth is as disorienting a process as it is a natural one. But I am only weaker, wider, and more unwieldy when compared to another version of myself who the passage of time might as well have made into a stranger.

Even without the trigger of reproduction, change is inevitable. With age my skin may continue to grow looser (and it’ll even start to wrinkle). By carrying my growing children in my arms my muscles will get stronger. My abdominals might settle where they are or will find themselves back home, connected as they had once been. Parts of me will fall back into a semblance of harmony and others will remain a shifting jigsaw puzzle.

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The same magic that transforms a woman’s egg into a new developing body also gifts her with a new, seasoned body to live in. If her babies can thrive within this body, perhaps she can too. She is lived-in. She now requires a body that can contain all she’s done and learned.

Change is scary, yes. But it is the most powerful tool we have. The ability to not only withstand but also generate change is the secret weapon of a mother. This is a wonderful, fascinating thing. How amazing to have a body that surprises us, refuses to remain static, is always working for our greatest happiness, health, and wellbeing?

Like a marriage, my body and I disagree and we get frustrated with each other sometimes, but it continues to work successfully if every day I keep choosing love. Our relationship with our bodies is the most important, most vital relationship in our lives — so we must  keep choosing love.

This body has held itself together even when I put it through hell, criticized it, allowed its abuse by others, puppeteered and groomed it to the quality control standards of society’s worthiness scale.

This body informed me of an attraction to my soul mate. This body created a flourishing environment for twenty months in which my babies felt so safe, protected, at ease — feelings I hadn’t experienced in my own body for too long, perhaps even since my own womb life once upon a time. This body opened up in sensational, unique transcendence to bring these new people into the world.

My body is all of its incarnations that ever were, with potential for those yet to come. A remarkable accumulation of stories and secrets, struggles survived, evidence of countless joys. It has been and is both young and older, life-giving and infertile, girlish and maternal and postpartum and the past of a crone, decorated and bare, a whisper of modesty and a statement of exhibition, learning and wise, delicate like a female but tough like a, well, like a female.

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It’s time we accept the postpartum body as one that experiences a very special and revealing era of a woman’s life, instead of a broken, unsightly, or inappropriate one that requires a do-over, makeover, or censor. Our bodies should not be controversial, nor should the stories they tell.

We need to be reminded that, though we devoted our bodies to pregnancy, birth, nursing, and many days and nights being as physically available to others as possible, we are more than our bodies. Likewise our bodies are far more than we give them credit for.

As women, perhaps especially as newest mothers, we tend to look for approval in all the wrong places. It’s a tough lesson to learn and it won’t be realized by scrutinizing one’s mirror reflection. That unbrushed hair, those dark sleep-weary eyes, the love pouch that refuses to sit quiet and behaved beneath the jeans that should still fit — none of it will tell us the truth. Fact of the matter is, the only person we need approval from is ourselves.

We may finally understand the importance of an intact system of self-approval when we gaze down at a reverential, cooing nursling, or when a toddler signals his complete trust with a meaningful hand squeeze as we cross the street in unison.

If we can be infinitely, unconditionally adored by such perfect, honest beings, then maybe we deserve to look at our mirror reflections and celebrate what we see, after all. Because impressive, inspiring, beautiful transformation and the postpartum period are not mutually exclusive.

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All photos credited to Blue Fitzcarraldo, Houston area photographer.

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