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For three years, I’ve lived in someone else’s body. I realize this as I’m holding my two-month-old daughter on the front porch, watching the rain. Last night, we turned our clocks forward, but spring is still far off. In Pittsburgh, the branches are dark, and the sky, chalk gray.
Although I’ve lost 20 of the 40 pounds I gained with my second pregnancy, I still can’t wear regular jeans, even in a much larger size, because of the flab that hangs at my midsection. I’ve been texting with my friend who had a baby a few weeks after me. We lament the lack of a muffin emoticon to express our muffin-top plight. She sends me a donut with sprinkles. Here, we can use this.
I don’t have the belly to hold up my maternity jeans, but jeans with a zipper and button dig into my bulge. I’m constantly hiking my jeans up. I’ve become the Sisyphus of jeans.
Last night, I read a few of my poems at a journal’s launch party. I was thrilled to be out without the diaper bag, without unclipping my nursing bra to feed anyone. A friend asked how I was — “I’m good,” I said, with a false note in my voice. And then, “I’m tired. Really tired. Having two is so much work” — and I watched her eyes glaze over. So I said “Sleep deprivation is an actual form of torture.” We laughed uncomfortably, then changed the subject.
After the reading, I saw a photo of myself posted online. You could see my bra, the line of the full panel of my sagging maternity jeans, and the swath of skin in between. I didn’t realize my shirt was sheer when I was getting ready, rushing to get out the door before the baby needed me again. I felt exposed, a failed magician who’d let everyone see the ropes.
I Google “best postpartum pants” trying to find something to wear outside of my house, and corsets fill the screen. The most draconian is the “Slimming Corset Waist Trainer Cincher Girdle Body Shaper Women Postpartum Belly Band Underbust Tummy Control.” Made of spandex and polyester, it has 13 hook-and-eye closures. “Is it 1916?” I say aloud to no one. The model wears a red push-up bra to accentuate her giant breasts. Bile rises in my throat. I have always owned my body as strong, fierce, and worthy. Still, for the next week, every time I choose an outfit for work, I say to myself, I should have worn this to the reading.
The narrative: Woman has baby. Woman loves baby. Having created another life, woman is full of magical life force and forever changed for the better.
This woman is: so tired I ran a red light this morning. So tired I fell asleep reading my toddler Corduroy Bear. He shook my arm so I’d keep reading.
The narrative: When woman is out in the world with the baby, people say “You look great!” Woman smiles, flips her hair, and shifts her baby a bit higher on her toned hip.
This woman is: trying to hide the marks of what has transpired. The rumpled belly that held the baby, the monster pads she wears to sop up the blood that still flows. The poisoned darts of her feelings.
My babies literally pushed my intestines and my stomach higher to make space for their growing bodies. Of course, weird shapes remain. When people say I look great, I smile weakly and say “Thanks.” We both stare at the baby’s oblivious face.
I text my friend about the see-through shirt fiasco. She writes, “You just GREW another person and gave life to them and now you’re their only food source on earth. YOU ARE ALLOWED TO NOT LOOK LIKE YOUR OLD SELF.”
I know she’s right. I’ve given this admonition to other friends. But I can’t shake my feelings of failure. It’s not that I expect my body to be back to normal by now. It’s that I’ve failed to disguise my flab gracefully, to keep up the lie.
I watch a YouTube tutorial about how to wear an infant in an Ergo baby carrier. The woman is my height and probably weighs 50 pounds less than I do. She has a twinkle in her eye, perfectly clean hair, and is wearing skinny jeans with a zipper and button. When I buckle the carrier and push it down to the correct position around my hips, a layer of fat spills over the thick strap.
Who is this mythical woman? She must be in the same genus as Blake Lively, toned and glowing on the red carpet weeks after giving birth. I bet this woman says “Breastfeeding!” with a satisfied smile when people ask how she lost the baby weight so quickly.
It’s not that I only resent my changed body. I feel more useful than I’ve ever felt. I carried two people in my body for a year and a half total; I feed these people, I clean them, I sing to them, I make sure they don’t drink laundry detergent.
But useful isn’t enough. I’m jealous of my husband. He got to have our children without his body changing at all beyond a few extra pounds from sympathy eating. He can go for a jog in the park without carrying heavy, leaking breasts, without worrying about when the baby will need to eat again.
I gave birth to my first child with two months left in my MFA program. The pregnancy was hard, and I found solace in two things: eating to curb the nausea, and being serious about my poems and my essay on the poet Charlotte Mew. Mew didn’t have children. I became obsessed with her life, its triumphs and sadness. She was trapped by circumstances that were especially limiting at the turn of the 20th century: being a woman writer, and being gay. I felt trapped, too, into an impending change I couldn’t yet grasp.
My daughter is swaddled and sleeping on my lap while I write. Her cheeks grow rosier and rounder every day, and her eyes can see further and clearer. I adore her. My 2-year-old son — his laughter takes over whatever space he’s in. At the same time, I’ve never been so depleted in my life. The joy I feel from knowing and loving these little people is thick. But the sadness, it comes in and settles. It curls into the corners. Licks my face.
A friend with older kids tells me “It will get easier. Once you’re not breastfeeding, once she can feed herself, it will be easier.” But people also tell me to savor this time. “I hope you’re enjoying it!” they say as my son goes all passive-resistance on me, collapsing into a boneless puddle on the floor while I’m trying to put on his coat. “They will only be this young once.” I know. But I want to say, “So will I.”
Adrienne Rich wrote of her children in her journal, “I love them. But it’s in the enormity and inevitability of this love that the sufferings lie.”
My needs have taken on the whispering voice of the microscopic “who” in Horton Hears a Who. I can ignore it for so long I start to feel actually superhuman— holding my pee for epic lengths, forgoing eating to give my son the last granola bar in my purse, declining my friend’s call (again) to change a diaper. But the longer I ignore that tiny voice, the more urgent it grows until I’m crying in the bathroom when I didn’t even realize I was sad.
I still see the old me when I look in the mirror. But there is someone new there, too. She is trying to speak. She has gray moons under her eyes. Her skin is pale, papery. I don’t know her.
I’d like to see the beauty in this new me, so I can learn to love her. I want to sit and write for hours in a coffee shop, getting up only to pee or buy a scone. I want to answer my friend’s phone call and talk for a while. I want to sit down and not care about covertly unbuttoning my jeans. I want to look this new woman in the face and not be afraid of what she might say.