I was sitting in the airless, florescent-lit, institutional-blue-walled, makeshift pumping room, with the ‘do not enter’ sign on the door, eating lukewarm leftover mashed turnips from a plastic fork. The work due tomorrow was open on my computer and as few words were coming out as drops of milk. Nine minutes in, I had less than an ounce combined. My mind was ruminating on the scale yesterday. Twenty pounds above pre-pregnancy weight. Ten pounds above my weight two weeks postpartum. Hating on my body for the bulge of my belly and thickness of my hips and thighs and width of my shoulders (amazing how the postpartum body beat-up so easily extends to everything I’ve ever hated on in my body over the 36 years before I ever gave birth…), and for the paltry supply of milk coming out. Beating, beating, beating. Worrying about how much weight I’ll gain in my next pregnancy, telling myself I’ll do better, I won’t gain weight next time. Then second-arrowing myself, piling on criticism for those worries-- better than a healthy, happy pregnancy that brought to life a healthy, happy baby? WTF Rachel? What is better than that? Ok, fine, if you gain less weight, that’s fine. But seriously. Why can’t you stay centered in what really matters?
Making no progress on the curriculum I needed to write, I started desperately googling for a feeling of being ok, and came across Mikaela Shannon’s “Love Your Postpartum” photos . The moment I saw the first image—a mom’s unclothed torso, one baby on each hip, their little knees perfectly snuggled against her loose, wrinkled skin—I burst into tears and milk started to flow.
As I looked through more photos—women who had grown and birthed children, allowing their bodies to be seen—I smacked nose-first into an uncomfortable realization. There was a part of me thinking, it’s fine that they look like that, they’re beautiful like that, but that wasn’t supposed to be me. I’m a yogi. I was in great shape before I got pregnant. I was supposed to be different. It was one of those moments of self-recognition that you’d almost like to get back because it’s so icky to see in yourself. I thought that I would be above all these postpartum body image issues because of yoga… and also that postpartum body changes wouldn’t happen to me because of yoga. And it’s so nice and easy to be above something when you don’t have to deal with it, isn’t it? Oh yeah I totally believe in body kindness and honoring the awesomeness that is a child-borne body… wait you want me to be kind to my belly rolls? To my expanded thighs? Are you kidding me? I was going to love your body from my flat-bellied place in the post-partum hierarchy. Huh. Guess I’m not above this stuff after all. I’m in it.
Here’s something I do truly know, whether or not I always believe it. In it—the hard stuff—is where the beauty is. Sit in the muck. Let it ooze up around those rounded thighs. I thought I could tiptoe through it daintily with barely a speck on my pedicured toes, and I was wrong. The muck is here for me and I can fight it or embrace it. A mud bath is good for the skin and good for the soul. What is the universe trying to teach me here? I don’t get to skip the muck. I’m not above anything.
Yoga isn’t a prophylactic and it’s not a panacea. But it is a teacher. It is a guide. How to Sit in Muck 101, and 201, and Advanced Graduate Seminar.
I would love to end this piece neatly. I’ve thought through all the postpartum body issues and learned my lesson. Here’s my pearl of wisdom, which will solve them forever for me and for you. Not gonna happen. Like so many things, I don’t think body peace is something you find one day and then have forever. It’s not that way for me, anyway. The body is constantly changing. In the few minutes you’ve been reading this, your heart has moved and oxygenated blood; the zillions of bacteria in your gut have eaten up the food in there and turned it into the stuff you need to stay alive; your cells have expanded and contracted and multiplied and died. Maybe your breast tissues have produced milk in these minutes. Maybe the cells of a new human life have continued their miracle march toward a child.
Sometimes, I am filled with awe at the wonder of my body. In those moments, it is pretty easy not to pinch the flub at the front of my stomach or try one more time to squeeze into my favorite pre-pregnancy jeans. Other moments, the mean voices are loud and wonder and peace ephemeral.
Those moments are muck. Realizing how much I judge myself is muck. Realizing how much I would like to be better than myself is muck.
So what can we do when the muck gets us like that quicksand got Princess Buttercup? Here are some things that work for me. Smile at my baby as he cuddles and plays on and eats from my body, and breathe into the ease and connectedness with which he interacts with my skin. Hear my partner when he tells me how beautiful and strong and sexy I am, and make myself listen without pointing out the list of ways he’s totally wrong. Thank my body for growing and birthing my baby, even if it’s the kind of grudging thank you that a 6-year-old gives for a pair of socks at Christmas. And remind myself that there’s something to learn here, about self-compassion and change and kindness and being ok, and if it were an easy lesson, I would have gotten it already. So what is there to do but to breathe deeply into the one and only body I’ve got, give her a little smile, and say well girlie, mucky days and non-mucky days, we are in this together.