I was eighteen years old when I became pregnant for the first time. I had a teenager’s body. I was thin, and strong, with not a wrinkle or sag in sight. When I reached the other side of the following three years, two pregnancies and births and nurslings, I didn’t recognize myself. Who was this strange woman? She couldn’t be me. She looks tired. She has stretch marks. She’s gained weight. She walks around with her messy hair pulled into a mom-bun, and wears sweat pants in public.
It sounds crazy, expecting myself now, a mother in her mid twenties, to look like I did in high school. But isn’t that what we all do? It’s like we have two identities. Our true self, and our mom self. Our postpartum bodies are just what we look like for now. It isn’t really me. I’m that person with a flat stomach and breasts that don’t leak when I hear a baby cry. It can be hard to process your new reality. You walk into that hospital to have a baby, and you walk back out with a body you’ve never seen before.
Identity is complicated. Womanhood is complicated. Personhood is complicated. Whether or not we consciously believe it, we are all conditioned to believe there’s only one way to have a body. Famous mothers are praised in the media for losing their baby weight. As if we’re all in a race, and the winner is the one to shed evidence of their childbearing years first. A proper woman has tight skin. She has perky breasts. She shaves all the right places bare. She wears makeup, but not too much makeup. She looks rested, but not too rested. She wears just enough makeup to look “natural” but, of course, not too natural.
When I start to assess my priorities, the expectations lose their impact. I think about the little girl watching me. I think about the choices I’ll make that will impact her forever. When she asks about the thick white line snaking jaggedly down from my navel, I want to quickly cover up, and hide my self consciousness. But instead, I tell her the truth. My body did an incredible thing. Twice, it grew an entire, unique, amazing human being. Isn’t it amazing that I could do that, and walk away with only something as small as a stretch mark? When I spend days with unshaven legs, and smudged eyeliner, what will she remember? Will she remember her mother felt prickly? Or will she remember watching me study. Watching me run my own business. Watching me care for her and her brother with love and compassion?
There is no right way to live in your skin. You don’t have to love every bump and sag. But they aren’t imperfections. To be imperfect implies perfection is an option. If a perfect body existed, I’d say the postpartum body defines perfection. My body is perfect because it belongs to me. Because it is not that teenage girl’s body, it’s this grown woman’s body. Because it performed amazing feats of strength, and birthed two human beings. That sounds like perfection to me.
I teach my daughter to measure her body not by aesthetics or numbers on a scale, but by it’s accomplishments. Perhaps I need a reminder of that myself. Perhaps the beauty of the postpartum body isn’t on the surface, but rather in it’s power. In the abdomen that stretched and contracted and displayed amazing strength and resiliency. In the breasts that fed a baby, or acted as their first pillow to rest on. In the arms that hold, and love. If that isn’t beauty, what is?