Consider This is a column focused on how important elements of a woman’s life look in single life and in marriage. This week, we’re considering how we experience our bodies and fertility as single and married women—with and without children. The essay by the single woman can be read here. The essay by the married woman without children can be read here. On a fourth day, they respond to each other’s experience.
I set a timer on my phone and sent up a few desperate Hail Marys.
The test sat on the windowsill of our tiny bathroom, sunlight streaming in above it. In most respects, it was an ordinary weekday morning: I was at home with my eight-month-old baby, who was napping in her crib, and my husband was at the office. That particular morning, however, had awoken me with nausea that I could neither explain nor shake. I tried to remember the last few weeks—was I . . . ? Could we have . . . ?
As an exhausted, still-very-new mom, I was scared.
Attached at the hip
Of all the things that had surprised me about the physical aspects of becoming a mom, the difficulty of breastfeeding was near the top of the list. I’d heard that there was a learning curve; I’d heard that it didn’t work out for every mom who wanted it to. I even knew a little bit of the lingo—“supply,” “latch,” “letdown.”
And my baby and I had taken to it well enough, I suppose, in that we persisted long enough to get beyond the initial cracked and bruised nipples, the synchronizing of her needs and my supply, the delicate dance of nursing discreetly in public. At the time, I was only working a few hours a week, so there was no real need for formula or bottles. It was all working out as I’d planned, even exceeding my expectations in some regards: the generous boost it gave my metabolism all but melted off my leftover pregnancy weight.
What I didn’t know, however—nor would I have been able to prepare for, even if I’d known—was the extent to which I’d feel tied to my baby, at the exclusion of nearly everything and everyone else.
This was the usual script.
Me: “Do you think I could make it to the gym?” (Or to the grocery store, or to a yoga class, or to Target?)
My husband: “What time did she last eat?”
My husband: “Is she going to get hungry again before we get home? Should we find a place to sit somewhere?”
Me: “Yes.” (Always “yes.”)
My life had turned into a series of two- and three-hour segments, in between which I had fleeting minutes of free time—and by “free,” I mean, “not stuck in a rocking chair/in a Target Starbucks/on my bed feeding the baby.” My daughter and I were attached in the most literal way, and my daily life had been upended by her insatiable hunger.
My body had been, too.
They call it “lactational amenorrhea.” It’s the infertility that your body experiences when you’re nursing intensely—nature’s way of spacing children. I’d assumed that my period would come back when my baby’s feedings became more spaced out, or when she started solid foods, or when she started sleeping the night. But even as she passed these milestones, I was still waiting. I knew my fertility would return before my first period did; that first ovulation can happen without much warning. I just didn’t know when.
Pregnancy vs. postpartum
The first time I missed my period, newly pregnant with our firstborn, it felt like magic.
My husband and I had been walking on air since the early-response pregnancy test I’d taken the weekend prior. We’d gone out to dinner, sitting next to each other at the bar—just water for me, thanks!—of a cute, cozy restaurant.
“Is this the size of a poppy seed?” I’d asked him, holding my thumb and index finger a millimeter apart. At four weeks, I couldn’t believe the baby wasn’t microscopic, and I still didn’t believe I was actually pregnant.
But it was when my period failed to show up on schedule that I started to believe that my body was doing something different, that I did, in fact, have company.
And just as I relished the idea that as I went about my day, I was never completely alone, I’d never felt closer to my husband. As the weeks and months passed slowly—time seemed to relax in response to our anticipation—we planned, we purchased baby things, we picked names. Unburdened of trying to conceive (or trying not to), even sex had a new lightness to it, despite my growing bump and mounting pregnancy aches and pains.
If this sounds idyllic, it was. Or maybe I’m just remembering it that way because of how much things changed after the baby was born.
While pregnancy was physically difficult for all the usual reasons, that first year postpartum—even with the unparalleled joy of meeting our baby, at last—spent every mental, emotional, and physical resource I had. In many ways, my disappeared period represented much more than my temporary infertility; it seemed to me to say, “You’re running on empty.”
It also left me in a state of confusion. Before I got pregnant, charting my cycle had felt empowering; I could pinpoint exactly when I’d ovulated and when my period would show up again, even when my cycles were occasionally irregular. Postpartum charting, however, was unlike any of our prior experience. My fertility symptoms were all over the place; the fertility awareness postpartum protocol made little sense to us. Ultimately, we ended up purchasing a monitor to measure my hormones, because it seemed like the only way we could resume intimacy with any degree of confidence.
Things may have gotten better after that . . . if I’d wanted to resume our intimacy. Those postpartum, nursing hormones left me largely uninterested in sex, and even when I did want it, my body was slow to cooperate. More often than not, I’d unintentionally stiffen when my husband put a hand on my back or pulled me in for a hug, even in a nonsexual way. Between my emotional and physical exhaustion and my baby’s nursing and clinging, I just didn’t want to be touched any more than I already was. His desire, despite its accompanying patience, felt like one more need. And I felt like the last person to whom my own body belonged.
So it was with more than a little trepidation that I considered the possibility that I might be pregnant again on that sunny morning in the bathroom. After what felt like an eternity, the timer marked three minutes with a gentle beep-beep-beep. I held my breath and looked at the test.
Negative. I exhaled.
Eventually, after I’d weaned my daughter, my period did come back. As much as I hadn’t missed the cramps and inconvenience, it felt like a homecoming, a return to who I was before I became a mom. Spending time away from my baby no longer required calculated logistics. As my hormones resumed their usual levels, intimacy with my husband regained its appeal. I even felt more connected to my girlfriends, participating once again in the monthly litany of PMS-driven grumbles. Where once I’d been depleted, there was now a surplus, and I was grateful.
And glad as I was to have gotten off the roller coaster of pregnancy and postpartum life, I was even more grateful for my body for having gotten us all—myself, my husband, and of course, our baby—through it. My body had weathered pregnancy, childbirth, countless hours of nursing, extreme exhaustion. It was nothing short of miraculous, and I felt proud of it—proud of us.
Motherhood did not stop being a physical job when my baby stopped nursing; I doubt it will until my children (however numerous) are all older and more independent. These days, I’m neither pregnant nor breastfeeding, but I’m often sitting on the floor, or carrying a heavy toddler, or pushing a stroller. Through it all, I continue to be amazed that my body takes it all in stride, serving both me and my family day in and day out.
So, it’s with a different lens that I now regard my reflection in the mirror. I’ve surely aged more quickly in the last couple years than I would have if I hadn’t become a mother; the cumulative exhaustion and stress is written in my eyes, my skin, my hair. And yet, I have never felt more ambivalent about how I look or how others may perceive me. Perhaps it’s because I’ve found as much beauty in my body’s function—bringing forth and sustaining new life, of course, as well as simply sustaining me—as I used to seek in its form.
We’d like to have more children, though we’re in no rush. In the meantime, I’m enjoying the respite that each period assures me I have—and the gratitude that I’ve found for my body, that hearty steward of my family and me.