After having my baby something I heard a lot of the time, apart from “is he sleeping?”, was “oh my god, you look great!” or “wow, I can’t believe you just had a baby!”. While it is nice to be told you look great, it felt like what the surprise in those comments was really saying was “I expected you to look not great.” That having a baby would ravage my body, that it would make me a lesser version of myself. It often came from other mothers who would then tell me how terrible they thought they looked after having babies.
Society is obsessed with this idea of a “pre-baby body”. A quick glance at any pregnancy or parenting magazine will tell you how important it is to lose the baby weight, how to gain “just enough weight” while pregnant, what super foods to eat, and how to feel sexy again (by losing weight). The celebrity gossip magazines almost always have a story about some star returning to their “pre-baby body” with a step-by-step guide on how you can do it too by exercising 6 hours a day and eating nothing but kale protein smoothies. But surprise! there is no returning to your “pre-baby body” – because you had a baby. Your body has changed in an irrevocable way. You grew an actual human inside you. Why is this something to be ashamed of? I am what society would call “lucky.” Without doing much of anything, my body, when in clothes, resembles mostly what it looked like before I fell pregnant. Take those clothes off though, and my breasts hang loose with stretch marks, my tummy is dark with lines and the incision scar from my emergency caesarean looks like a smile under a pouch of soft skin. My back aches more easily, I bear scratches on my chest and arms from baby newborn talons, and my feet are sore in anything that doesn’t have an insole. My eyes are dark from 6 months of sleep deprivation, my hair is in a perpetual state of mess and my face breaks out constantly from forgetting to eat or eating poorly.
Other markers I bear of motherhood are strong arms from rocking and nursing, an ability to open almost anything one-handed, a clear voice from constantly singing lullabies, a soft and squishy body which my son loves to grab in great fistfuls and my cat loves to knead, bruised knees from rolling around playing games on the floor, and a heart filled with joy. Whilst I sometimes look wistfully at old photos of myself (being a burlesque performer I’m in the unique position of having many semi-naked photos of myself) I wouldn’t want to return to that body. I am grateful for my body with it’s many bumps and lumps. It’s like a constantly evolving map of my life: here is that scar when I fell off my bed as a kid, here are the lines from many laughs and smiles, here is the incision that my baby was born through.
There’s nothing wrong with wanting to feel good and healthy in your body, and maybe for some people that means losing some weight, or hitting the gym, or wearing makeup, or wearing suck-me-in undies. What is wrong is when we expect all these things of women, and especially when we expect mothers to “bounce back” straight away. Bounce back to what? I think most mothers would never want to bounce back to their life without kids (although it is nice to visit every so often).
So, next time you see a new mother feel free to tell her she looks great because she’s a mother and not in spite of being a mother. And whatever you do, don’t ask her if the baby is sleeping at night.