I stood in the hospital bathroom and examined myself in the mirror for the first time since giving birth. My greasy hair was pulled into a makeshift bun. I had new bags under my eyes, the circles so dark they looked like bruises. My stomach was a deflated kickball, revealing stretch marks I hadn’t realized were there. My flesh spilled out of the mesh underwear a nurse had lined with a frozen pad and then helped me step into. (If I had any sense of privacy left after giving birth, that moment forced me to release it.)
I had never been so tired in my life—my legs shook with the effort of standing, and my limbs felt as though they were filled with sand.
And yet, when I looked in the mirror, what I felt was not disgust or shame or a desire to fix myself.
What I felt was a deep sense of admiration.
Before I became a mother, I had never been particularly connected to my body. I thought of my body as a possession, something I could control and subdue. Add in a personality bent on achieving perfection, and the result was plain cruelty.
I believed my body was most worthy at its smallest, and everything I did was to serve the goal of making it as small as possible. From middle school on, I lived in a constant state of food restriction. I over-exercised, “earned” what I ate, punished myself when I binged, and for a while, had a full-blown eating disorder. I tried on my smallest pair of jeans daily, pinching my flesh in punishment and shame when they got a little too tight.
And then I got pregnant.
For the first time in my life, the choices I made about food and exercise weren’t just about me—my baby would be directly impacted by everything I did. Restricting myself could have dire consequences for the baby during pregnancy, not to mention after she was born. I knew I didn’t want to pass on my disordered eating to my daughter, and trying to hide it from her wouldn’t be enough. I needed to get healthy for both of us.
Before getting pregnant, I would have rolled my eyes at anyone who told me to listen to my body. But during pregnancy, my body discovered its voice—and it would not be ignored.
My body cried out for salty tortilla chips and cereal with ice-cold milk during the nausea of the first trimester—foods I had sworn off long ago. I ate them anyway. By the second trimester, I couldn’t wrestle myself into my regular clothes anymore, and I melted into the forgiving flexibility of full-panel jeans and ruched maternity tops. And in the third trimester, my regular exercise routine left me feeling sore in all the wrong ways. My abdomen and pelvis ached after a HIIT workout, so I adopted gentle barre and Pilates workouts instead.
As my body became a home for my child, I found that it was actually a home for me too.
Childbirth, however, made me realize I had more to learn. My body didn’t go into labor on its own, and I was induced at forty-one weeks and five days. I labored for nine hours and made only half a centimeter of progress, and my doctor encouraged me to get the epidural.
“I can tell you’re fighting your body,” she told me. “That’s a normal reaction to the pain, and I think if we can get you the meds, your body will relax and do what it needs to do.”
She was right: the epidural melted my pain, and a few hours later, I was ready to push.
If each trimester helped me befriend my body in new ways, childbirth offered me a chance to truly partner with my body to do the most heroic thing I’ve ever done. With every contraction, I breathed deeper and pushed harder. When I felt I had nothing left to give, my nurse helped me connect to my body in a new way: “Picture pushing your daughter’s head toward the bed. That will help you direct the energy out and down instead of up.”
With that small mental shift, my daughter finally came unstuck, and within three more pushes, she was out.
The nurse laid her on my chest, sticky with blood and vernix, and I sobbed with relief.
I did it.
My body did it.
Which brings us to the next morning, as I stood in the bathroom and considered my post-childbirth reflection.
As I considered this new version of me, I wondered if I would ever feel normal again. I couldn’t imagine sitting without pain, feeling rested, or having a stomach that fit inside pants with a real button and zipper. But instead of feeling disgusted, as the old me would have, I was simply in awe.
For the first time in my life, I saw my body not as a foe but as a friend. Not my opponent, but my companion. Not an it, but a she.
I still struggle at times—I think I will always have to resist my tendency to impose rules and morality and unrealistic goals on my body. Staying connected to my body requires effort, and I’m working hard to make sure I model self-love and self-compassion for my daughter.
But I’m also learning that much of the time, I simply need to get out of my own way. When I turn toward shame and control, it’s usually because I have drowned out my body’s gentle and wise voice. It’s not actually up to me to tell my body what she should do or who she should be.
It’s my body, my faithful friend, who is leading us both.