I stare at the folds of skin around my midsection. I can see my pores there, stretched indentations that line the surface of my stomach like moon craters. I’m some sort of foreign body, circling what it used to be, gravity pulling at it until it wore down. Like tidal waves that splashed but never sucked back in. I turn my eyes to the bathroom mirror and twist sideways. Not too bad. You can’t see the way my stomach sags from this angle, especially when not wearing anything. I flash to how my skin spills over the top of my jeans when I’m sitting on the couch, nursing my newborn. It puddles and drips, lacking substance, searching for somewhere to go.
I face forward again, picking up a sliver and rolling it between my fingertips. I marvel at the texture of it, like dry silly putty, or a deflated balloon after being blown to its breaking point. I gained way too much weight while pregnant. I shouldn’t have let the miscarriage before scare me away from exercise. The doctor told me the running I’d done a week before the bleeding began didn’t cause me to lose the baby. Still, I’d been so afraid to move, to shift something, to scare my body into realizing we were developing a third little human. Three pregnancies, two children. A body not matching my head. I lift that extra skin until it’s crumpled and hidden behind my cupped palm. My belly button itself appears painted, the skin five shades darker than the rest of me. The dark streak continues up my stomach, stopping just beneath my breastbone. Stretch marks arc around it like an abstract painting. The kind you have to pretend is beautiful.
The baby’s muffled squawk reaches me through the bathroom door from where my husband is rocking her in the living room. I turn away from the mirror, trying hard to ignore the way my arm jiggles as I pull back the shower curtain to start the water. Four months post-pregnancy, sixty-five pounds lighter, and still not feeling like myself.
I jump into the warm rush of water as Layla's squawks turn into cries. I hear her six-year-old sister Maya insisting, “You’re okay!!” in a loud singsong tone. Water pulses over my forehead and drowns my ears. It's not that I feel bad about how I look. I'm just not feeling good.
Waiting on my DVR are episodes of My 600 lb. Life and Skin Tight. Tomorrow while Maya is at kindergarten and my husband is at work, I will sit and watch these people trying to lose extreme amounts of weight or getting surgery to remove excess skin after losing whole persons from their frame, while my baby clings to my boob. And I'll reach around her to pluck at my wreck of a stomach after two breech babies and think how it would take just one little snip, two little stitches, and I would feel better.
Except I wouldn’t because my belly isn’t the only problem area. In the shower, I lift my arms overhead and squint down. That's where my boobs should be, higher up my chest. Not the middle of my torso. And breastfeeding actually makes them fuller and perkier but even so, they droop. And when I'm done milking them...I drop my arms and reach for my poof, not wanting to continue down this spiraled path. I spread the suds over my leg. My flesh ripples, flowing out and away as I scrub. It’s unfamiliar to me, how soft I’ve become.
As I turn off the water and reach to open the shower curtain, I watch my arm skin waving away again, and it reminds me of Adam Sandler’s version of a lunch lady, with her waggly arms and greasy food spoon. I might as well don a hairnet and apron.
And suddenly, I’m back in the cafeteria of the school where I work. I’m seven months pregnant, waddling everywhere I go and way too aware of how large I am. I’m not even hungry but know it’s not a good idea as a pregnant woman to skip meals, so I make the trek down the stairs to grab something. I’m coming in halfway through the lunch period so there’s no line for food at this time, and I wait patiently for the cafeteria lady to see me from where she’s washing up dishes in the back. She comes out, smiling and wiping her hands. She’s nothing like a stereotypical lunch lady. She’s pretty with light pink lipstick, and she’s incredibly pleasant. She hands me a styrofoam tray with a chicken patty and, like every single person who crosses my path, asks, “So when are you due?”
I cringe because I hate this question. I hate it because I know how she is going to respond once I tell her. She waits, silver serving spoon rustling against the plastic glove she wears over her hand. I plaster on my good-pregnant-woman smile and say, “ January 26.”
And there it is. Her eyes widen. She puts her hands on her hips and chuckles. “That long yet? My goodness, but you’re big!” The spoon waggles in front of her, circling in a mimicking motion of my stomach. “You sure there’s not twins in there?”
It’s not meant to be hurtful. It’s light-hearted and casual, and something people have been saying to me since I was five months pregnant. Friends have assured me I’m not that big, that women always pop faster and look bigger with their second child, that I just carry out front more. Heat creeps up my spine and splatters across my cheeks. I freeze my smile in place and duck out to the cash register. Another cafeteria worker waits for me there, an older woman with round spectacles. She’s always wearing a black shirt under her tan apron, and she always asks me if she owes me an extra punch on my lunch card. She’s nice but she’s going to talk to me too and I just don’t want to answer her, because if I do the tears will be apparent on the edges of every word. A large trash can sits before me and I’m tempted to toss my tray directly into it, then sprint to the girls’ bathroom and hide in a stall, like something out of a teen movie. I hadn’t even wanted to come down here in the first place. I wasn’t even hungry. And this is why. Because I’m pregnant and overweight and on display.
I make minimal eye contact with the cash register woman and dash away before she can pick up her hole puncher. She’ll owe me one next time. Every step back to my room hurts. My toes are pinched in my flats and my foot is actually so bloated it’s spilling over the top. I can feel it jiggle with every step. I reach the door and rush to my desk where I throw the tray of food and sob. It gushes from my throat, an audible sound, and I’m mortified. I’m crying over a woman asking me about my pregnancy. I’m crying because she made me feel fat. I’m crying because I do feel fat, and nothing like myself, and I hate that I’m the kind of person who doesn’t enjoy being pregnant because my identity is so tied to the skinnier, high-heel-wearing fashionista I am when not looking like I should be carrying twins.
As I towel dry off, I realize it’s not just pregnancy that stole my confidence. It’s the aftermath as well. Here I am, lighter than I was when I got pregnant, and I’m still scrubbing the self-doubt from my skin. Because this post-pregnancy body isn’t me either. Everything is just so...loose. I don’t like feeling pourable.
Even so, I slide on my most-loved and threadbare sweatpants and the nursing bra I’ve worn for three days. Dried milk stains line the inside of the fabric cups but it’s the best one I have and I haven’t had a chance to wash it. I pick up a t-shirt from the floor and crawl into it as I walk out to the living room and scoop up the grumpy four-month-old.
Construction paper sprawls across the living room floor, crayons everywhere. Maya’s embedded in the middle of this chaos, her legs are bent at the knee and her bare feet scrunched over each other. I sneak a peek at what she’s drawing. A portrait of us. She always draws us: Mommy, Maya, and baby Layla, the tres muchachas, only occasionally including her father and our dog to avoid hurting their feelings.
Layla reaches around and grabs onto the skin at the back of my arm. She nestles her head against my chest and she’s suddenly no longer grumpy. I place my lips to her bald little head and close my eyes. My body isn’t what it used to be. My life isn’t what it used to be, either.
“Mommy! Don’t look; it’s a surprise!” Maya exclaims, realizing I’m behind her.
“Okay, I won’t look,” I tell her, plopping onto the couch. I notice a lump under my butt and extract a dandelion yellow crayon.
She stashes her drawing at the bottom of her paper stack and jumps up to retrieve the crayon I’m holding out to her with a raised eyebrow. She takes it from me, then as is the way with six-year-olds, impulsively kisses her sister, rocking her wobbly little head back, then throws her arms around my neck. She squeezes a little too hard and knocks me slightly off balance. “Okay, okay, thank you,” I sputter, tapping at her elbows like an MMA fighter signaling submission. She backs away, her blue eyes inches from my tired green ones.
“Mommy,” she says, suddenly serious. “You’re wonderful.”
I smile at her and swallow against the tide rising in my throat. Layla’s hand adjusts its grip on my arm and she sighs contentedly, her breath skimming my collarbone.
My body is not what it used to be. It has a C-section scar that has bore two little girls. It’s blotched with moles and freckles and skin tags. It has a dog bite scar and tattoos that I want to improve. My ankles are thicker than necessary and my hips never got the memo that my children wouldn’t actually be passing through them. The dark circles under my eyes are never completely covered by the foundation I spread over them. But my six-year-old thinks I’m wonderful and my four-month-old finds safety against this battled frame.
And suddenly, I stop thinking about celebrities who have babies and emerge bikini-clad with stomachs unblemished. I stop wondering if anyone will scrutinize my arms when I wear tank tops in public this summer. I stop believing, at least in this moment, that my worth lies in the smoothness of my waist. I pull open the camera on my phone and look at myself, and I see who I am: I am a woman. I am a mother. I am a human who lives and breathes and thinks.
I find myself again. As Maya hands me her finished portrait and Layla giggles at her big sister, kicking against my thigh, I find who I want to be as a woman raising girls, because I don’t want them to lose so much time over worrying about their bodies. I don’t want them thinking that the most beautiful parts of themselves are stitched inextricably to their jean size. I want them to know their bodies are part of their beauty because of what it is capable of, not what it looks like. For mine has given me so much more than stress and doubt and resentment. It’s given me them.
I balance the baby on my crossed legs as I lower to the floor and pick up a crayon. Maya scooches over and presents me with a slightly crumpled but blank piece of paper. I color with my daughters. And I don’t once think about that saggy skin around my belly button or the soft loose wiggle on the back of my arm. I’m too busy creating to care.
Maya draws a circle on her paper, poking dots all through the middle. “I’m making the moon, Mommy,” she quips, trading in her gray for a bright yellow. Her hand moves across the paper, placing pinpricks of light all around the edges. They make the moon glow.
Layla kicks her legs in my lap, pulling them in and out, until she rests them straight in front of her. I’m reminded again of tides, of the ever-changing surface of this world, and suddenly I know why we call our earth Mother, because her bodies of water shift and bend, constantly moving, always sustaining life. Layla pushes against me, cooing at her sister’s picture.
“These dots are called craters,” Maya tells me, pointing at her circle. She’s back to the gray crayon, darkening her marks, widening them. “They’re all over the moon.”
“You’re right. Kinda weird, huh? I guess the moon’s all bumpy and hard to walk on.”
She loops around a dot, then colors it in, tilting her head to the side. “I like it.” She tilts her head the other way. “Like a artist made a pattern. It’s beautiful.”
My body is full of pinpricks and craters. They don’t have to be flaws. And though this is something I’ve known for a long time, it isn’t until now I feel it. Perhaps, like the surface of anything, my body is just weathering, being sculpted like canyons by determined rivers. Or like construction paper by crayons wielded by a determined kindergartener. Experience leaves its marks.
I press my cheek to Layla’s smooth one. I place my palm to Maya’s slim back. I breathe them in, the way I do when in front of the ocean. I’ve given so much of myself in having them. And here they are, returning it to me.
“Yes,” I whisper, and I see myself reflected in the eyes Maya turns my way. “How beautiful it is.”