Five weeks postpartum, I stood naked in the front of the bathroom mirror feeling like I was staring at a stranger. I assessed my reflection honestly; not with hatred, but with genuine wonderment. Some of the features were recognizable—the deep brown eyes, the slight gap between the front two teeth, the small circular birthmark on the collarbone—but that was where the familiarities ended. Nearly everything else had changed in some way throughout the past ten months, as my body morphed and swelled to accommodate the whole person growing inside it. My breasts were heavier, fuller, with dark green veins traced across them like vines growing beneath my skin. My face was dotted with hormonal acne as was my chest; my stomach bowed out at the waist and a dark line ran from my bellybutton to my pubic bone, cutting me down the middle. Extra weight clung to my thighs and my hands and feet were slightly puffier, like someone had blown a mouthful of air into a surgical glove.
Evaluating myself with such scrutiny, I was surprised to find that no one overwhelming emotion rose to the surface. I felt a mixture of things: awe and pride at what my body had accomplished, unease and discomfort with how much it had changed, regret at my overindulgence during pregnancy and fear that I’d seen the last of my old body. In one breath, I gave myself grace for having just housed and birthed a baby—of course my body wouldn’t look the same immediately—and, in the next, berated myself for not being able to control this one part of my life when so much else had changed. Every time I looked in the mirror for months following my first son’s birth, I experienced this emotional tug-of-war. It was enough to give a person whiplash.
I’d loved my pregnant body. Though I’d always been athletic and exercised off and on for most of my pregnancy, I’d also allowed myself to indulge in a way I hadn’t for probably a decade without feeling an ounce of guilt. I took real pride in watching my body grow; I wanted the world to see the evidence of a life growing inside me and share in the excitement I felt. I didn’t mind strangers touching my belly and I welcomed questions about the baby’s gender, the name we’d picked out, how I was feeling and when I was due (until around 37 weeks, when I was tired of everything.) I got swept up in the magic of it all.
But then I gave birth and it was like the clock struck midnight and I was Cinderella back in her rags, sitting inside a broken down pumpkin surrounded by a bunch of mice. When I left the hospital two days after giving birth, I still looked six months pregnant. My stomach shrunk by the day, but, even months later, I still had a paunch that felt like it was on full display in all my old clothes. I truly didn’t hate my body–I’d weathered many long years of that–but I was decidedly uncomfortable in it.
I want to tell you some beautiful story about how I grew to love and accept my postpartum body exactly the way it was because that’s what I want for you. But that wouldn’t be the truth. The truth is, as much as I respected my body for what it had accomplished, I couldn’t make peace with it until it was more like the body I used to know.
Starting around two months postpartum, I began exercising again. At first, nothing more than a few jumping jacks and squats in my living room while my son played on the floor; then, when I felt strong enough, jogging by myself and, eventually, running with my son in the jogging stroller. In the beginning, it was only about losing the baby weight—a means to an end. Over time, however, I came to see exercising as a reward for long days of mothering, a way for me to retain some part of my old life that I had enjoyed before having a baby. I’d hit the road and feel total relief at being able to do something just for me, even on the occasions when my son was in tow.
I still indulged when the mood struck—chocolate, pasta and red wine will always be staples in my diet—but I was snacking less and eating foods I enjoyed that were also, for the most part, good for me. I was strong and healthy and I was really proud of my body. But in some ways, I felt like I’d cheated the system. I didn’t learn to accept my body in its current state; I just worked to change it until I was comfortable again. While I was happy with where I was, I recognized that maybe I was weaker than the women who did the hard work of learning to love and accept their new bodies.
I still feel like I don’t have the right answer to this whole self love equation, but I’m not quite sure anyone else does either. Everywhere I turn there are people hawking wraps and pills and diet regimens to get us back to our pre-baby bodies, so it stands to reason that the market on postpartum self acceptance hasn’t been cornered just yet. Sure, some women I know felt proud and powerful and at home in their new bodies right away and I’ve wished many times to be more like them. But most of the women I know had at least a slight learning curve, even if they did eventually love their new shape and size. I guess I’m just glad to not be the only one figuring it out as I go.