As we drove back north after a family visit to Iowa, I couldn’t help but notice the quiet beauty of the landscape, mostly flat fields, and farmland. The trees, their leaves long lost, reminded me of the sticks my children poked into our own sandbox. I admired the bold, dark forms against the clouded sky. The fields were blanketed with snow now, beautiful in their neutral simplicity. It was a striking palette, all white, slate blue, dark brown.
This is not a time of year typically associated with beauty. Nobody cheers for February’s arrival. The buds of spring, fall leaves, and even the first snow are all greeted joyfully, but February is something to be endured. Living in the Midwest, no one really wants it to snow anymore, but winter isn’t truly over yet either. It’s a sort of no-man’s-land between winter and spring.
I enjoyed it, though, during our drive. Maybe it was because we had the first real glimpse of sun in a run of too many cloudy days, maybe it was because all the kids were napping, or maybe it was because neutrals are the “in” colors right now, but the scenery felt soothing and peaceful.
I realized on this drive that while late winter often does feel like something to be endured, I also felt that way just because it’s what I’d always been told. Once I appreciated it on its own, for its own sort of beauty, my perspective shifted.
I’ve been grappling with my body these days. We’re not exactly friends. You wouldn’t know it from looking at me: from the outside, I appear trim and healthy. I’m blessed with good genes or a good metabolism or both. My shirt size hasn’t changed since middle school (though I’m shopping at different stores now, I promise) and it’s hard to find pants to fit my petite 5-foot almost-2-inch frame. People are routinely surprised my body has carried and borne three children, especially a set of twins. While those numbers on the scale haven’t shifted much, that’s about all that has stayed the same. This body ain’t what it used to be.
I feel tight, tired, and weak. I’m not as strong as I was during high school. That’s to be expected, of course. Back then, I danced more days each week than I didn’t, in a pre-professional ballet program that demanded my time, energy, focus, and most of all, my body. That’s hardly my life today. For over five years now, my children have made those demands. Figuring out a new fitness routine of any sort while also caring for three small children is a challenge. I’ve never been much of a gym person, and even my love of group classes is hard to fit into my family’s schedule and finances these days. (Please don’t tell me I can just do yoga at home. I’ve tried, but apparently contorting into downward-facing dog is just an invitation for my children to climb all over me.)
Even more distressing than my weakness is the dreaded belly pooch. I know, I know. That whole three kids thing. But it’s there, and it bothers me. Just like our bleak, frozen landscape, I’ve been told by every ad, every commercial, every magazine that it’s ugly, and I feel it’s ugly. Worse, it doesn’t feel like me. The times I have rolled my yoga mat out in the middle of my living room floor I’ve found myself holding a pose, all tight and balanced and pulled in — or so I think. Then I look down and see that belly, just hanging there. It both surprises and disgusts me. It doesn’t feel like it could possibly be part of me. I Google things I never thought I would, things like “tummy tucks,” to see what can be done. I know that even if I manage to find the time to work out and strengthen my core, this stretched-out skin that doesn’t feel like mine will remain. What is this? Who is this person? And where did her belly button go?
I know I shouldn’t let it bother me. I read about others who have made peace with their postpartum bodies and feel a twinge of jealousy. Also suspicion: really?
I felt the same suspicion while perusing the multiples pregnancy boards when I was pregnant with the twins. At seven months along, already with a more-than-full-term-sized belly, other twin mamas claimed they were just as uncomfortable as I was. Yet they selflessly announced they wanted their babies to stay in as long as possible. Me? When my OB said at 34 weeks, he was satisfied and my babies could safely come “anytime now,” I cheered and told those babies they should hurry the heck up. (They didn’t listen, of course, and held on for another three weeks.) I was large and bloated and whale-like. That pregnancy was the first time I felt nothing like myself.
My body had been taken over by growing twins and everything that went along with them: two placentas, two amniotic sacs, two umbilical cords, double everything, right from the start. It was obvious my body was under strain, but there was good reason for it. Of course, I was uncomfortable with the rapidly-expanding skin I was in. That was to be expected. My pregnant self had hope for the future. Sure, others complained about their post-kid bodies, but that wouldn’t be me. Not that I had any plans in place to avoid all that–as though 37 weeks of an overly stretched-out body could be firmed up again through the power of positive thinking.
I’ve been waiting to write that whole “I’ve made peace with my body” essay, but it’s not in me. Not yet. I’m not there and I don’t know if I ever will be. It’s not exactly that I want my pre-baby body back. (Okay, maybe the boobs. Breastfeeding did those in for me.) And it’s not that I hate the body I’m in. It carried twins longer than anyone but myself and my OB ever expected, and a third baby just a year and a half later. My body nursed those babies until they weaned, on their own, all three of them just one week shy of 13 months old. (This time, apparently, they listened when I said they should hurry it up because I was done with that whole breastfeeding business after an entire year.) My body has been strong in other ways, too: recovering from two c-sections, pushing through long nights when all it wants to do is sleep, carrying toddlers around everywhere, one on each hip.
My body is in its own sort of no-man’s-land. It lacks the strength it had a decade ago but I’ve yet to give up on it. I know there are some who would love to be in my shoes; what’s a little belly pooch compared to three smart, healthy, adorable children? Yet, while I’ve come to appreciate some of winter’s offerings, this tired body is another story. These tight, sore, worn-out feelings are still unfamiliar to me. In my head, I’m that 17-year old ballet dancer, energetic, limber, and strong. It probably shouldn’t surprise me as much as it does when my 32-year old self looks in the mirror to find how tired her eyes and skin appear, or the way the waistband of her leggings hits her softer-than-she’d-like stomach.
It’s unrealistic for me to expect my body to feel the way it did well over a decade ago, but I wish it felt like it belonged to me. When I was dancing, I awoke each morning with the good type of soreness, the kind of aches that told me my body had stretched itself to its limits and felt it in the best of ways. Now I awake a different kind of sore, with a tight shoulder, a tense neck, joints that ache, usually still tired.
I’ve yet to make complete peace with my body, my own version of a long winter, one that I don’t see the beauty in quite yet. I dream of gaining back some of that strength, a bit of that energy, just a hint of that flexibility. (Okay, okay…I also want the flat stomach and those perky boobs.) I’m a both/and kind of person: I can both dislike that pooching belly and appreciate why I have it, what it has been through. I’m a bit amazed by these flaws, even if I don’t feel like celebrating them.
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Featured image by Holly Shafer Photography
Shannon Williams is an interior designer turned stay-at-home mom. She and her husband have always been overachievers, so they kicked off this whole parenthood thing with not one, but two babies (yup, twins). A third followed exactly two years and two days later. A complete bibliophile, Shannon also finds it impossible to say no to iced coffee, pedicures, or a good beer. You can find her scribbling her thoughts on motherhood and life at shannonscribbles.net.