On Bellies and Exhaling: The Lessons My Daughters Have Taught Me
February 23, 2017
I make fat babies. All four of them have been squishy things with rolls in their thighs and a few chins and the kind of big rosy cheeks that you could just chew on. After the first couple, I just came to expect it and hoped that at the very least maybe my arms would get a little toned from having to carry their chunk around all day (they didn't). But none were as round and squishy as my daughter. She has the best belly, soft and perfectly round, so much like Santa Claus or a pregnant woman that I can only buy her pants with an elastic waist. When she climbs into bed with me most nights and backs up against me, I will drape my arm over her and grab onto a hunkful of that belly just because I loved it so much. "You've got the best belly," I whisper into her hair. "I know," she murmurs, half asleep already. We had an unexpected warm day last week and I watched her as she ran around outside like only a child who has been indoors too long can, with her curls unbrushed and her bare feet hopelessly dirty, her too-tight shirt not quite covering that belly. It's already getting smaller, I noticed, likely thanks to the running and the growing, and I'm struck by how sad this makes me. These are the things they don't tell you about motherhood. How you will be a weirdo who is in mourning because your daughter is losing her baby fat. They also don't tell you how it will make you a little jealous. The way they are so comfortable in their own skin and just naturally seem to know how to love themselves. How is it she struts that thing around like the masterpiece we both know that it is, and yet I struggle to keep mine sucked in? When does that happen? Where is the turning point, when we forget how to love ourselves? When do we decide that we must be smaller to belong, to take up less space, to deny ourselves?I worry I've already started to lose her older sister. I can see her looking at herself critically in the mirror, and she recently asked me for a new winter coat that doesn't make her look as fat. This is despite my best attempts to tell them all everyday how not only are they the most perfect beings I have ever laid eyes on, but also that it doesn't matter. These words must fall short, considering I can't stop bemoaning my own imperfections.The two of them together tumbled into my room the other morning when I was still half undressed, as they do, loudly and without warning or knocking. "Ew," the older one said when she saw me, scrunching her face up like she had tasted something bitter. "Ew what, exactly?" I asked her, stung. "Your body," was all she offered back, as if that should be enough of an explanation all on its own. As if bodies naturally should be offensive distasteful, covered up, sucked in. I looked at her – really looked at her – and saw right there on her face, how she was standing on the precipice of the turning point, starting to want to shrink. I wanted to reach her and grab her back from that edge. "NO! No. Do you even know what this body has done? Do you know that it grew you girls, and your brothers? That it fed you from my breasts and held you in my arms and wiped your tears with these hands? Do you remember how it woke from much-needed sleep again and again in the night to rock you, letting you find your comfort in its softness? How this," I say, gesturing towards my own belly, "was your first safe space?" I surprised myself with my vehemence. Did I really believe all of that, I wondered, or was it only what I would have wanted to hear when I was standing on the edge myself?I searched my heart and realized that yes, when it was put like that I did believe it. There was nothing in my body to be ashamed of. I didn't need to be smaller. If anything I needed to be bigger: to take up more space, to stand taller. I stretched up and broadened my shoulders and let the weight of these two little girls rest squarely on them. "Our bodies," I said to my daughters, "are amazing." And slowly, still half naked, I made myself stop sucking it in. It felt unnatural at first and then it felt vulnerable and then it felt like exhaling a breath I had been holding since puberty. The youngest reached for me, grabbed a fistful of my stomach, and echoed to me what I had said to her so many nights before: "Mommy, you have the best belly."I answered her but I was looking at her sister, making sure she was listening. "You're right," I said to the two of them, but also to myself, "I certainly do."