Thursday, August 8, 2013

Echoes of a Friend

It's easy to find a lot of articles about healthy body images. Even chatter about post-partum bodies and motherhood are cropping up around the internet.

And in general, I've always felt I had a healthy body image. I'm still unsure exactly how or why, but I missed out on the body weight and beauty issues many girls struggle with during childhood and adolescence. Later, stunned by the power of pregnancy and birth and the beauty of breastfeeding, I thought motherhood was wonderful, too.

But here's something I let creep up on me, sadly. It slipped into my conscious slowly, became a part of me late at night while listening to the soft rise and fall of my children as they breathed in their sleep and thinking too much. It whispered to me as I read articles and discussed female topics online. It bared itself whenever I chatted with girlfriends.

Looking in the mirror, I can easily pat my big butt and feel fine about the padding. Fat is not a bad word in our house. Fat is like a comfy, lived in home. The stretch marks don't look pretty to me, but they don't define me or depress me. The hard work my body has done brings me satisfaction and security.

But the mirror can't reflect one aspect. It can't reflect the inner meaning and conscious view of my fertility, of how my individual body works. The mirror didn't bounce back an image of a strong mama body or a fecund and loving mother. It was silent, leaving me to stew in a negative mindset about how I return to cycling and fertile cycles almost immediately after birth.

"Defective," the mirror whispered to me one day. Every good naturalist knows that an early return to fertility after pregnancy is defective. Women are biologically intended to have a space after birth without cycling.

"Toxic, broken, polluted," the mirror continued its mantra another time. Clearly my body was burdened and broken, a sign that I wasn't doing enough for my own health.

"Stressed and out of balance with the world," it spoke to me quietly, as if insinuating that mental health and wellness was entirely our responsibility, as if a broken body could be healed by sheer will of mind. Remember that study finding girls menstruate sooner if impoverished or stressed? Clearly I was at fault here for not living a better and more peaceful lifestyle.

"Irresponsible, careless, selfish," the mirror exclaimed, hitting my heart hard. No mama wants to hear that her recklessness or selfishness is hurting her children. As all the hippies point out, you can't care for other children adequately or love them enough or meet their needs enough if you have children closer than the correct 3 year space. What was I thinking?

What had become of my light-hearted way of living? What had happened to my general acceptance and happiness about my body? I'm still not quite sure how I stumbled into such negative thinking in this topic, but I was in it, and deeply. My husband patiently tried to steer me away, his words of affirmation crowding around me, trying to lift me up but only floating away, dismissed as obligatory phrases that any good partner would say. And his words barely held weight against the hundreds of comments and articles I allowed myself to read, the comments clucking, asking if I had checked my thyroid, and had I tried GAPS? And what about going back to 100% grain free living? Or maybe it's my MTHFR defect and I need additional testing and supplementation. Maybe I'm breastfeeding the wrong way. Cluck, cluck, what a terrible disease to have.

Something changed one day. It was a small, imperceptible change. Like a thin crack running along a wall that looks harmless but actually runs all the way through to the other side.

Sitting on a picnic blanket at the park, enjoying the pleasant breeze and sunlight, watching my children run around at the playground, my friend piped up randomly. "Isn't it amazing?"

I turned to look at her. "What?"

She continued on, "Isn't it amazing, your body. That you can care for your children and breastfeed them. And nourish big babies during pregnancy. And have them so close together and it all works out for you."

The crack was rushing along, sliding through a dark mind without much notice from me in the moment. Distracted by the kids and uncomfortable with the topic, I think I mumbled out a basic, "Yeah" and moved on from the discussion. I didn't think about it again for a long time. But during that time, something had changed.

A few days later, I was looking into that mirror to take a baby bump photo. I heard her words all of a sudden. They surprised me, sounding foreign in a mind that had turned negative. I turned this way and that, looking at my bump. And I saw deeper than tiger marks and flab. "I'm so healthy," I said it to myself unexpectedly. The words seemed to well up awkwardly, hesitatingly. Feeling strange, I walked away quickly and tried to stay busy throughout the day.

Days passed, a week maybe. Then one morning I was at the grocery store and my toddler slipped against the cart. He instantly began screaming so I latched him on for a comfort nurse. A lady passed by, stopped, looked. She asked me, "How can you do that while pregnant?" In moments such as these, I would take on an apologetic tone, as if what I was doing represented failure. I heard my friend's words again, circling around and around. "It's cool, isn't it? I can take care of at least 3 at once this way!" I blurted it out with a startled smile. She smiled and walked away.

That crack made it all the way around my mind and heart. It split off into smaller cracks and those cracks fed more lines, spreading through the dark band I had somehow allowed to enclose me, until a wall fell down. It wasn't as overbearing and obvious as I'd expect, but it happened. I'm feeling more like my positive self now and I'm going to be a little more vigilant of what sneaks into my internal dialogue. It just goes to show that working on self-care is a process, not a state of being that remains the same over many years.

These days when I sit at the park, appreciating the soft breeze and the sun, trying to be present for my children, I include myself in the experience.

Photo credit: Kate B.

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