CW: Sexual situations, birth trauma, some discussion of disordered eating and diet
By Julia Nusbaum
In the half dark of my bedroom, I dig for the leggings and sweatshirt I discarded last night. This is my uniform now, leggings that haven’t been laundered in a week and a shirt with spills and stains I can no longer identify.
“I miss lipstick,” I lament, as I pull the sweatshirt over my head. “I miss looking pretty.”
“Stop,” my partner says, his face half buried in a pillow, voice full of sleep. “You’re gorgeous.”
I do not feel gorgeous.
I don’t know what I feel, actually. I’ve never liked my body, but I’ve never loathed it either. Not the way I do now, post baby. For years it just existed. Carrying me through summers working on the farm with my dad, through winters in school where I participated in musicals with an adequate enough voice, but the definition of two left feet. My body has never been tight or toned. Always average, slightly soft. But always familiar, always mine.
The first time I said something negative about my body was seventh grade health class. The memory of the actual assignment is hazy, but we were to state—in front of the class—something we did not like about ourselves and something we did like about ourselves.
What I liked about myself: I had read the entire Nancy Drew series.
What I didn’t like about myself: The scar on my stomach.
“No one can see your stomach,” boomed Mr. Johnson, the health teacher. He was deaf in one ear and always seemed to be yelling.
“But I can see it,” I said. “And I hate it.”
And I did hate it, I realized. I’d never thought much about it, but I hated my doughy belly. The way it spilled over my jeans, no matter how hard I tried to suck it in. The way it wasn’t flat and taut, like so many other girls in my class.
I went home that night and examined myself in my bedroom mirror. Breasts that were just starting to bud, arms muscled from a summer spent bean walking and a soft middle with a ten-inch scar running across the left side. A scar that caused all my muscles to weaken. A scar that meant I survived something terrible.
For the most part my mother’s pregnancy was normal. Because she was in her forties, she was considered high risk, but nothing seemed out of the ordinary. There were no signs my birth was going to be anything other than routine. No one was expecting what happened. I was born with a diaphragmatic hernia, a birth defect which causes a hole in the diaphragm. Organs from my abdomen—liver, intestines, stomach—moved through my diaphragm and into my chest. The hernia prevented my lungs from developing normally. My hernia was not detected on any ultrasounds, which meant it likely happened as my mother was giving birth. I was air lifted to a larger hospital and taken in for emergency surgery and spent eleven days in the NICU.
I have never known a day of my life without a scar across my belly. It is so much a part of me, my dislike for it didn’t register until that moment in seventh grade health class. When Mr. Johnson called on me, I wanted to have something to say about myself that made me stand out. Part of me thought Mr. Johnson would ask to see the scar, I would lift my shirt to just under my breasts and reveal the thing that made me different, made me interesting. I imagined my classmates looking at me in awe, astounded I survived something so traumatic.
Instead, when I uttered the words, “I hate my scar,” I stepped through a door. I was no longer able to look at my body with an objective eye. I stopped wearing shorts for three years because one afternoon, late in that same school year, I glanced down at my shorts clad legs and horror welled to see my thighs, stretched and sweaty, against the plastic of my chair. I refused to wear a swimsuit throughout high school, because I was too embarrassed to ask about the tuft of hair between my legs. The internet barely existed and fashion magazines were lacking in my rural community. So, I simply forewent wearing a bathing suit, or anything that might expose too much of my body.
When I am dressed in the same sad uniform I have worn every day during this dark pandemic winter I go to the kitchen to make tea. I stopped making coffee a couple of weeks ago when my son started sleeping through the night. Not because I am suddenly filled with endless energy, but because the coffee grinder scares him and his bedroom is directly off of the kitchen. At the risk of losing the precious few moments I have to myself in the morning I have switched to tea.
While the kettle is heating, I tiptoe through our apartment, trying to avoid the places where the floors squeak most. I collect my computer from the sofa, where I left it the night before and bring it to my desk. I pour my tea and sit down in the quiet of our living room to check my email. My inbox is full of ads, for makeup, for clothing, for elixirs promising to help me lose the baby weight.
I have never felt like such a stranger to myself as I do now. When I look in the mirror my hips are noticeably wider, my face is rounder. There are new lines and rolls around my middle, sagging skin. And below my hernia scar is a new scar, this one running horizontal instead of vertical. So small it’s hard to fathom a human came from that opening.
Not long after the incident in health class I opened the refrigerator in our basement to find cans of chocolate Slim Fast my mother purchased. I’d seen the commercials, women who lost an entire pants size just by drinking the shakes. I looked down at the belly I hated and wondered if the shakes could make it go away. I took one from the fridge and opened it. It tasted like chalk, but I kept drinking. Maybe after a couple of shakes I would be skinny too. Maybe that summer I would don a bikini at the beach. Never mind I lived in a rural Midwestern town with hardly a beach in sight. In my mind I was thin and trim and muscular, sunbathing by the ocean.
I lasted two days drinking the shakes for lunch before I gave up and went back to real food. Life was too short, I decided, to spend drinking chocolate chalk.
Today is cold. Bitterly. But as it drags on, I can’t stay in the apartment. I need something to satisfy the restless ache in my chest. I dress my son and me in warm coats and hats and rush to the car, protecting his face from the artic wind. He hates being strapped into his car seat and cries until I cover him with his favorite blanket and he can stuff the silky edges into his mouth. We’re going to the lake, but first we’ll drive past the big mansions on the coast, to imagine what it must be like to live there, to watch the lake change with the seasons.
My favorite thing about the pandemic, if one is allowed to have a favorite thing from this season, is curbside pickup. From Target, from restaurants, from coffee shops, I like not having to haul my child into a store. We drive to a coffee shop near our apartment and I order a latte on my mobile app, feeling guilt swell as I do. First, because I shouldn’t be spending money so frivolously these days. And second, because I complained just this morning about losing the baby weight. And yet, here I am ordering three hundred liquid calories.
A few weeks after the new year I bought a membership to an online yoga community. In another lifetime, I worked at a yoga studio and took classes every day. It is the only time I have loved my body. Not because my stomach became flat, but because I felt strong. That was years ago, living in another state, another city. Working a job that didn’t take all of my energy, childless. With this online yoga membership, I thought I could trick myself into feeling motivated. But instead, it feels like another job, another thing to add to my day. Another thing to heighten my anxiety and worsen my depression. Right now, in this first year of motherhood that has been nothing like I expected, it is the small things, like hot coffee on a cold day, that bring me joy.
My son falls asleep in the car and I drive to the beach to finish my coffee in silence. I crank up the heat and sit in the driver’s seat staring out at the vastness of Lake Michigan. And for a few minutes, the world feels okay. I feel okay.
“You couldn’t flirt your way out of a paper bag,” a friend told me one evening as we sat in a crowded bar in our college town.
“I can too flirt,” I yelled over the music. But she was right, I was hopeless. I was twenty-one, nearly twenty-two and never had a relationship last longer than three months, only ever having two real boyfriends. There were a few drunken make out sessions with strangers in bars, even a brief fling with a guy friend that I ultimately shied away from. I didn’t have sex until my mid-twenties. I spent all of college hiding my body. Ashamed of how it looked, the softness of my nakedness, my unsureness about what to do when it came to the mechanics of sex. Dates were awkward and anxiety inducing, so I just didn’t go on them. I pretended like I didn’t care, like I wanted to be alone. But in truth, I didn’t understand what to do.
My evangelical upbringing didn’t teach me about sex, except to make sure I knew sex before marriage was a sin. Coupled with my growing shame over the way my body looked and I became more comfortable keeping to myself, pretending I didn’t want a relationship or any close bodily contact.
I go home when my son starts to stir. I still have work to do. Emails to answer, manuscripts to edit. Running my own business and caring for a child leaves room for little else in my day. I miss friends and time for leisure things like reading, or really getting into a TV series. I pull into our garage and unstrap him from his car seat, pulling his blanket around him and his hat low on his ears. I hurry us through the yard and into our building, up the two flights of stairs to our apartment. We’ve lived here five years, but will probably leave in the spring. We’ve outgrown it. But I’ll miss the way the light pours in, even now, in the deepest part of the winter, when the shadows of late afternoon start to stretch across the sky.
I put my son down in the living room and let him play with his toys while I sit nearby with my computer, doing work in the few precious moments he is distracted. I usually work during his naps, but because I let him sleep in the car while we went to the lake, I’ve missed the opportunity this afternoon. I do what I can now, before he gets bored and needs me to entertain him.
When he does start to whine, I pick him up and take him to the kitchen, letting him snack on graham crackers while I start dinner. Sometimes, I think I could sit all day and watch him eat. The way his tiny hands clasp the graham cracker, the satisfied noises he makes while he chews. He’s happy just to be alive in the world, stuffing his face full of food. My favorite meals are the ones where he comes away needing a bath, avocado or yogurt crusted in his hair. I wish I could love food so unabashedly, savor its goodness without worrying about the size of my hips or belly or breasts. I wonder, watching him, if my relationship with food will ever be that pure again.
“What did you have for breakfast?” the hospital assigned nutritionist asked as I sat across from her.
“Peanut butter toast,” I answered.
She shook her head. “Can’t have that anymore. The peanut butter is fine, but the toast has to go. And no pizza either.” She handed me a piece of paper. “This is how many carbs you need to consume with breakfast, lunch and dinner. You’ll need to make sure to have a full meal three times a day and a snack in between each. Three meals, three snacks.”
I took the card from her, trying not to cry. She continued, “gestational diabetes is all about balance and counting carbs. Do that and you’ll be fine.”
I could feel my lower lip quivering and I caught it between my teeth, taking a deep breath. I didn’t know how I was going to remember all of this information. “Is there a hand out, or something?” I asked. “A list of foods I can eat? A meal plan, maybe?”
“Google whatever you want to eat before you eat it. You’ll figure it out. Now, let’s talk about how to use your blood glucose monitor.” She showed me how to prick my finger in a way that didn’t hurt and how to interpret the numbers. A few minutes later our appointment was over.
I did not like pregnancy. By my third trimester I hated looking at my naked body. I avoided it, actually. I didn’t know that woman with the stretched out belly. My hernia scar began to throb as it was pulled and stretched in ways it had never been. When I showered, I did it quickly, avoided nakedness as much as possible. I felt alien to myself. My body wasn’t my own. It was doing things I didn’t understand, things I couldn’t control. And when I was diagnosed with gestational diabetes it felt like one more piece of myself slipping through my fingers.
It took a long conversation with my therapist to realize I did still have some control. “Yes,” she agreed, “there is an alien growing inside of you and it’s weird. Pregnancy is weird. But that aside, you still have some agency here.” She reminded me that even though I couldn’t control the big things, I could still control the little things. I could control what I ate. And so, I did. I read labels. I meal planned. I prepped. When everything else felt like it was spiraling, I grasped onto the edges and held tight, trying to remember who I was.
I do not love my body as I should. I take her for granted. I take advantage of her. From my first breath, my body has been fighting. Screaming for life. She’s carried me through trauma and heartache. She’s let me dance freely in dark bars, make love, and create life. She’s grown another human, cell by cell and then birthed him in the best way she knew how. She fed him and comforted him in his first days of life. She gives pleasure to me and to others. She is beautiful. And yet I cannot see it, so marred in the shame of it all am I.
I came of age in diet culture and I do not know how to love myself in this new body positive world. I understand, now, why so many mothers stop caring about their clothes once they have children. It isn’t just that we are too tired, it’s that we weren’t taught to love our bodies for what they can do. We were taught our value lies in the way we look, how quickly we bounce back and “lose the baby weight.” I do not know how to value myself in any other way. Even as the voices in my head tell me I am strong, how amazing it is I built a baby; it doesn’t ring true for me. My only truth lies in what I see in the mirror.
For now, I kiss my son goodnight and climb into bed next to my partner. Tomorrow I’ll fight these demons all over again. And maybe tomorrow I’ll love myself better.