One thing they don’t teach in childbirth classes: the realities of postpartum recovery and the inevitable, indelible changes that childbirth writes onto women’s bodies. Onto my body. I’m not yet sure what to make of it, really. I’ve always thought of my body as a sort of encyclopedia of my experiences, scars, a tattoo; there’s the time I fell into a hole, there’s the attempt I made at flight as a child, there are the wounds, there’s the memory of New Orleans written in ink, the initials of time and place…and now there’s my daughter’s birth.
Make no mistake, we change, sometimes more, sometimes less. I’ve gone back to being small, now with a little softness in the belly. It’s not a bad thing, no need to assign labels to it. It’s just a change. Some of it I love, the new Bardot(ish) curves where before I felt like this skinny kid. I think of Fabienne from Pulp Fiction:
Butch: You want me to have a pot?
Fabienne: No. Pot bellies make a man look either oafish, or like a gorilla. But on a woman, a pot belly is very sexy. The rest of you is normal. Normal face, normal legs, normal hips, normal ass, but with a big, perfectly round pot belly. If I had one, I’d wear a tee-shirt two sizes too small to accentuate it.
Butch: You think guys would find that attractive?
Fabienne: I don’t give a damn what men find attractive. It’s unfortunate what we find pleasing to the touch and pleasing to the eye is seldom the same.
I like the little pot on a girl, too. But I’m also someone who years ago hated my body, did battle with my body, deprived and disciplined my body, so it’s also a little frightening to that teenage me that still hangs out in my heart. The mother-me feels proud, having come home from a different kind of battle empowered. I think sometimes of the photograph that artist Walter Chappell took of his wife’s vagina right after birthing their child, the gate to her womb raw (I can’t find that image online anymore, but here’s a nice, implicitly but not explicitly vaginal one to the right). It reminds me of the ways that women are doors to other unseen worlds, but it’s hard work, labor, making that journey.
So much can happen in pregnancy and birth. We are distended, drawn from, our resources sapped, we become a seeming black hole for sustenance while pregnant and while breastfeeding. Vaginal birth challenges our abdominal and pelvic floor muscles in ways they’ve never been tested. Though they recover, they are marked by it. Some of us are cut, our bellies, our vaginas, and sewn back up. Weird things happen. Unpredictable things happen. We go on with aches and pains, for at least a little while but sometimes longer, sometimes our whole lives. (This doesn’t even touch upon the bleeding, the engorged breasts, the sore battered nipples, those crazy first few weeks. I didn’t even know my body could feel like this).
But we are the canvas for our beautiful struggle. This holds true outside of birth as well, it’s just how we live our lives, changing in increments or in great leaps all the time. It’s good to have someone else tell us that we’re beautiful, not only for our beautiful and strange bodies, but for bearing and wearing those struggles, too. It’s better to be able to tell ourselves, again, not only in appreciation, but out of respect for what we’ve carried.