After my fourth child was born, I was ambushed by my own body.
But let me start from the beginning. I had been moderately slender my whole life, occasionally going on (short-lived) diets when I felt unattractive, but otherwise I was more concerned with the deep purple bags under my eyes and small breasts than I was with my dress size. I idolized my older sister, who was a redheaded version of Marilyn Monroe; all voluptuous curves, full breasts, and face like a renaissance painting. As a teen I was green with jealousy over the attention she got from boys. I felt invisible next to her. It made me determined to get breast implants and plastic surgery on my eyes as soon as I was old enough.
Fast forward fifteen years. I never got the surgery or implants thank goodness. Having babies didn’t make me look like my sister, but my breasts did fill out to a C cup. I was still a size 8, even after having three babies. I would rocket up to around 200 pounds by the end of my pregnancies, but I was a mad milk machine and lost the weight within 6 months from breastfeeding alone. Then it happened: I got divorced.
During my time as a single mom I lost a lot of weight from stress (and being too busy to eat) and plummeted down to a size 2. I was working, taking college classes, and raising 3 kids on my own. It is difficult to describe what it’s like to be a single mom to someone who has never done it. It’s exhausting to the point of permanent zombie status, and you NEVER stop moving. But having to do everything yourself with no one to lean on is oddly liberating and empowering. I never felt more strong and free than I did during that time.
But the heart gets lonely, and while doofing around online I blundered into the angel now known as my husband. I had delivered my first three babies naturally (aside from a bit of IV pain medication) so when I got pregnant with my fourth I expected things to be the same. HA! The relaxin hormone combined with a little known genetic condition called Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome had done a number on my lower spine, and I was in excruciating pain on top of barely being able to walk. I had three other children to care for at the same time, so when my OBGYN suggested inducing me at 38 weeks I jumped on it.
Unfortunately the nurse left my pitocin drip in too long, and without a midwife or doula to support me I broke down, went against everything I believed in, and asked for an epidural. My husband, bless his heart, had no idea how to help me, so he encouraged me to get it too. I had no idea at the time that epidurals sometimes delay milk production.
We left the hospital a day early, and I was confident that everything was going to be fine.
That first night home, despite having a strong latch and nursing frequently, the baby seemed unusually fussy and restless. The next morning when I changed her diaper and noticed her urine was brownish and very strong smelling, I knew something was wrong. We gave her some formula and waited.
By the fifth day of no milk coming in, I was absolutely devastated. I strongly believed in breast milk, and had nursed my other three babies with ease. I felt like I was letting my baby down this time by not being the mother that she needed me to be. I felt helpless, worthless, and alone. My poor husband tried to help, but breastfeeding was a new thing to him and everything he said ended up making me feel worse, not better. It was a very dark time for me.
I didn’t give up though, and after two months of nurse-first-then-bottle and countless sessions of tearful pumping, my milk finally came in. I wasn’t the mad milk machine anymore, and I didn’t have the overproduction or strong let-down that I was used to, but I made just enough for her to grow and be healthy, and that was good enough.
By the time the baby was a year old, it became apparent that I wasn’t losing any of the baby weight. I had erroneously assumed that the weight would come off from breastfeeding just like it did with the first three babes. I remember one morning looking at myself naked in the mirror, and thinking “Wow… I look like Ursula from The Little Mermaid, only with stretch marks and smaller boobs.” The realization hit me hard, and I began to spiral back down into that dark place again. I wasn’t used to the sideways looks and quiet snickering behind my back when I went out in public. I was used to being the invisible girl! My body had ambushed me, and now suddenly I was the round mama with too many kids. People started making assumptions about my eating habits, my income, and my birth control choices. Sometimes these assumptions were made out loud. To my face.
I remember one day in particular when I was shopping for bras. The baby was eating solid foods and only nursing for comfort now, so all my old, ratty nursing bras were getting to be too big. I wanted to get some pretty new bras, maybe with some matching panties or even a nightie to surprise my husband, so I went to a lingerie store in the mall. I was there with stroller and kids in tow, dressed casually in jeans and tank top. There was one other woman in the store- a young, skinny, twenty-something thing dressed in blinged out jeans and sequined top with strappy little heels and too much makeup. The store employee came out to greet us, and stopped dead in her tracks. She looked me right in the eye, did an obvious once over of my body, and then turned to the younger woman and asked if she needed any help. Wait… WHAT!?
I was shocked, embarrassed, and angry. Wasn’t my money just as good as sequin girl’s? Didn’t I have the right to shop for pretty things too? I did eventually get a formal letter of apology and a 30% off coupon after calling the company to complain, but it didn’t fix the way I felt that day. As if my size and family status somehow made me unimportant and a waste of time. Well fuck that.
I started my trademark yo-yo dieting again, and tried to walk as much as possible. I have trouble with Disautonomia (a condition that goes hand-in-hand with Ehlers-Danlos, and causes chronic hypotension among many other things) so aerobic exercise was out of the question. But my goal was different this time anyway- I just wanted to look like I wasn’t still pregnant. Shouldn’t be too hard, right?
When the baby was two we bought a treadmill and I really got serious about getting healthy. I worked out for 45 minutes every day and stopped eating sugar and high fat foods (except avocado and nuts). My weight did go down 5 lbs… at first. But then I started gaining weight again. To say I was discouraged would be an understatement. I was convinced my husband would get tired of me and start looking for someone prettier… and thinner. I started hoarding bottles of wine in the basement so I could sneak down and have a drink (or three) after everyone else had gone to bed. It kept me from thinking about how much I hated myself, and helped me sleep. I knew it wasn’t the right way to deal with the pain, but I didn’t know what else to do. Besides, millions of moms drink wine every day, and it’s just accepted as the norm. But our house is strictly dry, so the guilt of hiding it was almost as bad as was the reason for drinking.
The turning point came one night when my husband asked me what was wrong. I’d had an exceptionally stressful day with a sick toddler, a hysterical/hormonal tween girl, my son intentionally picking fights with his siblings, and a disaster house looming in on me like a crowd of mother-in-laws tsk-tsking at my incompetence. His simple question broke the flood gates, and I told him about my day, my self esteem and weight issues, and how afraid I was he was going to leave me. His reaction was not what I expected… He laughed at me.
He told me how ridiculous it was for me to think that he would want someone else- he married ME, not my dress size after all- and that while he encouraged me to be healthy, he secretly didn’t want me to lose too much weight because he had grown rather fond of my round bottom.
The next day I took a long hard look at myself naked in the mirror. I looked at all the things I hated about myself: the bags under my eyes, the odd-shaped breasts, the pink and silver stretch marks, the back fat that morphs into a muffin top, the thighs that are always one pant size larger than my waist, and my permanent baby bulge.
Then I looked at myself according to the things my husband has complimented. I saw my naturally arched eyebrows and light blue eyes. I saw the soft hollow of my throat and the curve where my spine meets my butt. I saw my round and slightly squishy hips, perfect for grabbing. I saw Aphrodite standing there- soft and curvy and fertile, voluptuously ripe and tempting. I was HOT.
I decided then and there that I was looking at the wrong set of parentheses. The set that looks like this ).( is just a pause, a lull inbetween dialogue. The parentheses that look like this (.) are the ones that contain all the juicy secrets.