Saturday, August 15, 2015

An Apology to Myself (Thoughts on a post-baby body)

My second daughter is 15 months old. While my pregnancy with her was relatively easy, waiting for her to arrive tested my patience. I felt huge and uncomfortable, which was not helped by her transverse positioning and being (supposedly) late. When she finally came, it was with a breath of fresh air. The waiting was over, and she was lying soundly next to me, nursing in her sleep as I curled my forearm around her tiny body with room to spare. It was beautiful and messy and challenging and wonderful, just as it was meant to be.

Her first year went by way too fast, overshadowed by the demands of her older sister. But she is strong and loving, silly and sweet. The year was full of the laughter of little girls and late night cuddle sessions. I have been tested, and often, I have failed. Some days I struggle to put together coherent sentences, let alone string up words of grace and encouragement for my children. Other days, I gather up the two little girls who exploded into my heart and we have great adventures, conquering leafy monsters in the woods or dancing like butterflies with rags from the kitchen.

Unfortunately, in the middle of this messy turmoil called motherhood, I wasted significant emotional and mental energy on something which robbed me of the joy of my little one's first year, and I see many other new moms dwelling on it as well: the state of our post-partem bodies.

Tess's birth coincided with a sudden health and fitness surge that spread through my friends. So while I was up in the middle of the night nursing a newborn, she and I both still squishy and soft in all the right places, I was also scrolling through social media and seeing picture after picture of my friends sharing their workouts, healthy meals, and new-and-improved physiques.

**I am going to be very clear about this so there is no confusion: I am thrilled for my friends who have found new life and new hope through their fitness endeavors. This is in no way meant to criticize them or the work they are doing; this is simply a reflection of how my personal feelings about my post-partem body were impacted by exposure to these things on social media. I love these friends and their spirits. I know their intentions are to help motivate others who are also looking to make changes, and I appreciate their enthusiasm for doing so.**

As a brand new mom-times-two, these fit and healthy pictures made me feel miserable. I felt like I wasn't measuring up; that to be a *good* mom, I had to make sure that I was as trim and toned as possible. I have to set the example for my kids! I need to impress my friends with how quickly I can lose the baby weight! My husband should be wowed at how awesome I look! I should feel amazing! (And if I don't, it's because I'm not putting enough work into it and I am making excuses!)

And while obviously these weren't the messages that my well-meaning friends (as well as various media outlets, advertisements, etc.) were intending to put out there, this is how my hormonal, sleep-deprived brain interpreted them.

Of course, the obvious solution would have been to take a break from social media until my brain was sorted out enough to read the messages as they were meant to be (as encouragement, not condemnation), or at least until I could stop comparing myself to every other new mother out there and their suddenly-six-pack-abs and twelve mile runs logged on Runkeeper. But I had a new baby and was spending a lot of time sitting and nursing said baby, and I just didn't have the willpower. Social media was my only outlet to the rest of the world - you know, the planet spinning beyond diapers and naps, where people actually discussed important issues or shared big news or even just silly things that make me laugh when I was so tired tears were just dropping out of my eyes for no reason.

So I didn't take a break from Facebook. Instead, I started exercising. And it was good; it really was. I started running, and when my daughter was a few months old I ran my first 5k. I was in better shape than I had been in years, and it was awesome. Only... it wasn't.

While I certainly benefited from the 30 minutes of "me" time every other day, and the release of endorphins, my spirit still suffered. The truth is, I wasn't exercising because I loved the release, or even because I loved myself. I was exercising because I had started hating myself, and, more specifically, my post-partem body.

We are so quick to dismiss the miracle of a woman's body once her baby is born, aren't we? The focus tends to gravitate quickly from "look how cute you are pregnant!" towards "your baby is cute; you need to get your body back!" As if our bodies went somewhere while we were creating new life within them. As if we are detached from these bodies that still contain curves where our baby slept and grew and kicked for 40 weeks.

I see it everyday on social media. Posts like:
"Only four weeks post-partem and already back in my skinny jeans!"
"First workout post-baby and I killed it!"
"I can't wait until the doctor clears me to exercise! Time to lose this weight!"

I have been guilty of writing similar posts. Sometimes as a horrible "humble brag", but usually as a disclaimer, so the world knows that I am working on it. Yes, I have some extra baby weight, but I am working hard and I will soon be fit and acceptable in polite society again!

Just last month, a full 14 months after my daughter was born, I finally realized why I was so unhappy with myself. I needed to stop hating myself. I needed to stop feeling the need to justify my body's existence. I have stretch marks across my entire stomach and on my chest. My belly button is now a bit of a bottomless pit. And I have a "food baby" that makes me look four months pregnant the moment I even think about eating.

But this - my body - created two beautiful lives. It housed them, fed them, and carried them. It still works nonstop to provide milk for Tess, to cuddle Samantha after a bad dream, and to love these girls fiercely. I am not in the best shape for running a marathon, but I am in the best shape for soft snuggling. And I love everything this body has done for me and my girls. I love it even more when I stop thinking about how I should feel about my form and just embrace it for the beautiful, hard-working, living work of art that it is. These imperfections tell a story. My story. My daughters' stories. The story of the family that my husband and I have built. Our love story.

All bodies are different. Every mother is different. My body is different from my sister's body, which has birthed and nourished eight children. My body is different from my sister-in-law's body, which just birthed a second baby after a difficult pregnancy plagued with hyperemesis gavidarum. My body is different from that of my gym-fanatic friend, who bounced right back to her pre-pregnancy weight without stretch marks. The one thing that makes all of our bodies similar is that each one is a beautiful masterpiece, created by love and tears and laughter and pain.

It has been 15 months since Tess was born, but it has been far longer since I've truly loved and appreciated my body as it is. So today, I am going to embrace my soft, food-baby belly. I am going to stop trying to find clothes that make me look thinner than I am and that hide my imperfections. I am going to stop posturing about exercise. I am going to embrace who I am, embrace what it means for me to be post-partem. I am going to stop feeling guilty over food, or the skipped workout; I am going to stop apologizing to others for the shape of my being. The only apology I owe is to myself, to this vessel that contains my spirit and moves me around and carried my children.

My apology to my body looks something like this:

I am sorry for not loving you the way you deserve to be loved. Thank you for working tirelessly for me and my children. Thank you for movement, for flexibility, for bending and stretching and hugging and jumping and loving extravagantly. From this point forward, I will love you unconditionally, I will accept you without reservation, and I will embrace every imperfection as a work of art.

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