Last week, when I was waiting outside T.’s school for the doors to click open so I could go inside, a mom ran up, breathless, dressed in a snazzy work-out outfit.
“Are the doors open yet?” she asked me.
“Nope.” I said.
“Whew.” She fanned herself with her hand. “I didn’t have time to shower after working out. I tell you—looking like I did before I had kids is HARD work.”
I really wanted to say something then, about what hard work it is to work full-time and parent, and keep a house, and not have time to exercise much, if at all, and what even harder work it is to remember to not mind so much that the body you had some 10 or 20 years ago is, indeed, a thing of the past. But I also didn’t understand the way she phrased her comment, and why she might feel it shameful or embarrassing to look like a woman who has one or two (or three?) pregnancies behind her, and has the beautiful children to prove it.
I’ll never forget the first time I looked in a full-length mirror after L. was born. For months leading up to his birth, all I saw when I looked in the mirror was my pregnant belly—large and interesting. When your body gets so distorted over a period of nine long months, you tend to lose the ability to focus on anything but the child growing inside (the larger a baby gets in utero, the smaller your brain gets—temporarily, of course), and how he or she is filling you up, pushing out as he or she grows. But after L. was born, I was afraid to look in the mirror. My pregnant body had had such a purpose before, and one of the hardest lessons you have to learn after you give birth is that your body doesn’t magically spring back to its former shape. When you’re pregnant, everyone sees the pregnancy; but after birth...after birth your body is your body without the baby inside—misshapen, a little lumpy here and there, a little unfamiliar (okay—VERY unfamiliar).
Pregnancy books and givers-of-advice often fail to tell new mothers about how hard it might be to fall in love with their bodies again. After all, you live with one body for years and years—watch it grow and change with puberty and adolescence, with pregnancy and birth, and then you have to learn its new contours all over again.
One morning, eight years ago, when Scott was jiggling L. to sleep in the kitchen and I had finished showering, I braved the full-length mirror in our sun-lit Rochester, N.Y. apartment. I let the towel slip from me, took a deep breath, and studied what I saw. It wasn’t unpleasant or shocking at all—I don’t know what I’d thought I would see—but it was different. Since that moment over eight years ago, I have come to love my body for what it is: 12 pounds heavier, fuller at the hips, but still me—the me who carried two babies and nursed them and curled my body around them at night and rocked them and walked them to sleep for hours and hours and hours.
I don’t think there’s anything wrong with wanting to look good and fit, and exercising to maintain that image, but I do think there’s something not quite right with trying to turn back the clock on the good and beautiful work your body has done. I don’t have the body I had when I was 20, and I can’t wear the clothes I wore when I was 20 (it doesn’t help that skinny jeans and shirts that look like they were poured on are all the rage). I can still dress well and feel good about myself, without denying the honest truth: that my 39-year-old body housed and nurtured and protected two very small people for months, pushed them out into the world, nursed them, lost some muscle tone along the way, gained muscle I didn’t know I had (there’s nothing like carting around a toddler all day, or walking a heavy three-year-old to sleep around the room), and, well, just weathered a lot more than it had at 20. And while I sometimes do sigh with nostalgia at the me who shopped with so much ease 10 or 20 years ago, I'm okay with the me I am now; grown to be more than okay, actually—to be proud.