A close friend of mine from graduate school was in town over the weekend, someone I hadn’t seen since I was midway through my pregnancy.
As we briskly walked toward each other, arms outstretched, brimming with wild enthusiasm about our long-overdue rendezvous, she blurted out from across the toddler-trafficked park:
“Oh my God, look at you! You don’t even look like you had a baby! You’re smaller than you were before.”
I wasn’t sure how I felt as we hugged, in the midst of awkwardly digesting her jubilant, albeit off-the-cuff, comment about the apparent erasure of my pregnancy.
The embrace was cut short as she gently pushed me back to scan every inch of my postpartum body, unable to contain her energized description of how “little” I looked, how “tiny” I was — spilling with what she defined as every woman’s dream.
I want to be marked, in some way, by pregnancy, by the birth of my child.
This is not to say that I would have wanted to maintain all the weight I gained during pregnancy, but I do feel the body, as well as the mind and heart, go through a series of metamorphoses as life is being nourished inside and outside the body.
Women are constantly shamed for their shape. Prepartum, postpartum and never-partum.
All but the smallest sizes are viewed as less than: not disciplined enough to monitor every morsel of food ingested, not vigilant enough to carve out time for rigorous daily workouts.
Even women I know who do embody the cultural ideal , trotting around in the smallest sizes the jeans manufacturers are producing these days—even they don’t feel at home in their bodies.
The endless list of ways women say they “got their bodies back” includes and, sadly, is not limited to:
—“Breastfeeding is definitely what made the baby weight fly off.”
—“I got the food delivery service straight away. I was determined to return to my pre-baby wardrobe as quickly as possible and that way I didn’t have to think about what I was eating. It was done for me.”
—“I started counting calories while in the hospital. I was surprised by how long it took for the weight to come off, but I feel like it’s the only thing I can control right now, so my focus is sharp.”
—“Not even a moment goes into thinking about my food intake. I guess I lost it all while running after my rambunctious toddler. He never gives me a break.”
The friend I reunited with in that park was freshly married, 38, ambivalent about having kids. As she observed me out loud, her words underscored the psychological disconnection and body disenchantment we experience.
My physicality was noticed first.
My size was experienced and discussed in relationship to banishing pregnancy.
The absence of body change was asserted as an enviable compliment.
Meanwhile, my darling toddler was resting on my hip. I looked into his eyes knowing that he grew inside of me and together we altered the feel and shape of my body. And then I thought, Why would we want to erase that?
This interaction provoked me to reflect on hundreds of experiences I’ve had with other women since my baby was born.
Women who are mothers themselves, women dying to get pregnant, women who share their horror of giving birth, “getting fat,” “staying fat,” women who asked me how much weight I gained while pregnant, my own mother reflecting on her speedy loss of baby weight and curious about why mine wasn’t slipping off as quickly.
What women unwittingly do to each other is devastating. Paralyzing. A cultural vestige all too pervasive.
And then, of course, we are inundated with endless magazine images of emaciated post-pregnancy celebrities who “got their bodies back instantly.”
They pontificate about the various ways women must expunge maternity.
The pride taken in shrinking one’s body at any cost is emblematic of a cultural obsession with women not actually being accepted as they are: real women.
The intimacy I experienced with my body and my developing baby during pregnancy was perhaps the most compelling transformation I have ever known.
It became, in a way, a metaphor for how I feel about parenthood: a striking awareness of loss of control, simultaneously surrendering to change on a moment-to-moment basis while experiencing more joy and more fear than the heart can contain.
With pregnancy and parenthood comes an unprecedented heightening of anxiety, an excruciating awareness of vulnerability, altering your perspective on the fragility of life as well as a depth of love that redefines the concept.
Why would we erase all this complexity—the physical and psychological makings and markings of pregnancy and motherhood?
I am not necessarily idealizing the experience of pregnancy.
I’m not saying women must enjoy gaining weight and being tattooed with stretch marks, or relish the postpartum belly jiggle.
I am attempting to call attention to our culture’s requirement that women erase the life-giving process.
As my friend and I made our way through the throngs of sweaty and spirited toddlers and exited the park, she turned to me and reiterated, “You’re so lucky. You look exactly like you did before.”
There’s a pregnant pause.
And I said, “Actually, my body’s changed from having a baby, and that is why I’m lucky.”