For the most part, we feel we have control over our own bodies. We can control how we move our bodies, what we put into them, and what we do with and to our bodies. And we know our bodies; the saying goes that you know something “like the back of (your) hand”. I’ve always had a pretty good relationship with my body. Growing up I was slim, but not skinny, and athletic. I didn’t put a lot of thought into what I ate, played sports throughout my childhood, and, in general, wasn’t too far off of what society said a woman should look like. Of course, like every other red-blooded American female, I could list off everything wrong with me at the drop of a hat. But at the end of the day, I always felt like I was in charge of what my body did or became. Pregnancy, childbirth, and postpartum recovery has taught me how little knowledge or control I have over my own body.
The first thing that happened when I got pregnant was that my breast became very tender and suddenly got bigger even though I had been dieting and losing weight. That was what made me think I was pregnant before I even got a positive home pregnancy test. Then came the nausea. I was lucky; my morning sickness was pretty mild. It mostly manifested as a higher tendency towards carsickness and I only threw up once early on. But those were the first signs that my body was not my own.
Your body changes a lot during early pregnancy, even if most of it doesn’t manifest in your outer appearance. You may not look pregnant, but you feel pregnant. Suddenly I was out of breath from moving a couple boxes and I couldn’t get through an afternoon without a nap. Increased levels of the hormone progesterone cause fatigue and could be responsible for the nausea of morning sickness. Other early pregnancy joys include food aversion, increased urination, and constipation. Thankfully, I never experienced those.
For me though, early pregnancy wasn’t awful. I wasn’t showing or feeling the baby move, so those first symptoms of pregnancy were joyful confirmations of the life growing inside of me. It wasn’t until the third trimester that I was truly uncomfortable.
My job involved sitting in an office chair staring at a computer all day long. My growing belly put pressure on my lower back meaning it hurt all the time. I was always hot, even when the other women in the office were putting on sweaters and complaining about how cold it was. My calves would sometimes cramp so badly that all I could do was hold them and moan in pain. When my belly got big enough, I no longer do simple things like pick an item off the floor or tie my shoes. I grew skin tags and new moles on my breasts and stretch marks on top of stretch marks. I had had stretch marks since puberty, but never on my stomach, and i had to mourn the loss of that blemishless skin.
During pregnancy your blood volume increases by as much as fifty percent over the course of pregnancy causing increases in heart rate and blood pressure. In the very last month my feet began to swell as my reduced circulation caused them to retaining water. Seeing my fingertip imprinted in the puffy skin of my foot was horrifying and I was terrified of developing preeclampsia. And then there was the constant need to go to the bathroom and the insomnia. I had always been a good sleeper, but suddenly I was waking in the middle of the night and lying awake for hours.
That’s not to say that I didn’t like being pregnant. Feeling my baby move in my womb is something I’ll cherish forever. But even that could be anxiety inducing. I worried when I hadn’t felt my sleepy baby move during the day and would lie in bed on my side crying with fear and waiting for her to move.
I won’t get into the struggles with my insurance company and their desire to treat my pregnancy like a terrifying disease and the conflict that caused with my desire to treat my pregnancy like a natural process. But that was yet another aspect of pregnancy that made me feel as though I had no say over what happened to my body.
The labor and delivery were both better and worse than I expected. The first thing that happened was that all this yellow mucousy stuff came out of me. That was my water breaking, but it wasn’t anything like what I had been taught. Childbirth was a process over which I had little control. My body was doing so many things and so much work and all I could control were my reactions to the things it was doing. Childbirth is a runaway horse and I just had to breath and ride it out…and push. There was lots of pushing.
Afterwards, when you’re at home and exhausted and feeling completely overwhelmed that there’s this completely new person who is suddenly the most important person in the world who depends on you just to live, your body definitely doesn’t feel like your own. The hormonal changes hit and the sleep deprivation builds up, and suddenly you’re going through wild mood swings, your hair is falling out, and you feel like you’ve lost your freedom. And in a way, you have. All the choices you make for the rest of your life will affect your child. Your entire life, not just your body, no longer belongs to just you. My daughter needed my breasts just to survive, so in a way, she had more of a claim on them than me. After all, what did I use my breasts for? Not a whole lot.
My vagina felt foreign to me. My perineum had torn a little and the midwife had stitched it up, so I was scared to touch it or even look at it. I bled more and for a lot longer than I expected even though I had read about how much bleeding there could be. We were told not to have sex for six weeks and then, when we got the green light I was nervous. We went slowly, but it still hurt a little and even now, ten months later I feel sensitive in spots and there can be pain if I’m not careful.
My post-pregnancy body feels a far cry from my pre-pregnancy one. I still haven’t lost all the weight I gained and now it’s distributed differently. I’ve got a pudgy roll on my stomach that may never go away. My breasts sag like empty sacks and one of them is at least twice as big as the other.
It’s tough not to be critical of my new body. After all, we’ve been told that new moms should be bikini ready weeks after giving birth. But my body has grown a child and carried it, birthed it and nourished it, loved it and taught it. I can hug my daughter and play with her. I can take her on walks and to the park and the beach. My body has done so many things and it reflects the life I’ve lived and the journeys I’ve taken. This IS my body and I love it, pudgy and all.