Stretching of Self
Oddly, L sleeps similarly to the cats. On his back, arms extended wide, head tilted up and away to one side. It is a position of trust and it engenders a disturbing cooing impulse when I go in to check on him nightly before bed.
Checking on L’s breathing (that L’s still breathing) is not a habit I’m proud of and indeed is one that seems to have formed out of J’s badgering and stuck around through my own SIDS fear mongering. Tonight is no different, I popped my head in (idea being to put the least amount of me in the room and thus invite the least chance of him waking up) expecting to see the rise & fall.
I can't see anything. This is fine I tell myself. It’s dark and he’s wearing enough padding to play professional hockey. I creep closer and place my hand on his chest. I feel nothing. I do some deep breathing of my own and tell myself that I am all kinds of idiot.
I hold my hand in front of his nose. Nothing. Or, something? Was that an exhale? Or am I projecting? I mentally dial the first two of three zeros. I reach down and gingerly unzip his padded sleep sack, preparing to put my hand on his - hopefully - warm & regularly rising chest. His tiny arms windmill in panic as the startle reflex is triggered and I give silent and plentiful thanks for that particular evolutionary hangover as I back out of the room.
It’s just gone eleven and I’m typing this in bed in the dark (thank you Apple for the backlit keyboard) as my partner snores lightly beside me - although he would object to my calling it that.
I’ve been mulling over a post on bodies, post-partum, for a month or two. Bodies in general make me uncomfortable. My discomfort with the reality of bodies (owning one and other peoples) is a long running family joke. I maintain, however, that my feelings are – mostly – valid. They – the bodies, not the feelings - leak and bend and spurt and break in the most appalling ways.
(In light of this, the degree to which I was disturbed by the process of my distorting to grow a human may be less surprising.)
If I were to give one piece of advice, or rather relate one thing I’ve realised (which could be patently obvious to all others) it would be that labour really is a marathon. People say this offhandedly, sure, and perhaps the downfall was my not really taking them seriously but honest to god it is the most gruelling test of endurance. I really should have been fitter - I mean, would you do a marathon with absolutely no prep other than some gentle swimming and the occasional ‘light yoga’? If the answer is yes you’re as daft as me.
As it was I remember turning to my mother a couple of days after, saying with a kind of wonder, ‘gosh my shoulders and arms hurt’. In fact, it should have been no surprise, given the hours I spent clutching various handrails in my contorted efforts to escape the experience. (Spoiler alert: there is no escape, except maybe an epidural. Next time I’ll try that).
Other than sore muscles in various unexpected places, as well as those expected, the post-partum period is to me best characterised as the ‘floppy stomach’ period. It’s a lovely description, which no doubt has already painted a picture in your mind.
Before I had L I remember being told that post birth it was likely I would still look pregnant for a bit and not to worry if my jeans didn’t fit in the weeks following delivery. This is untrue. Not the jeans part, that part is true.
The looking pregnant part. You don’t look pregnant. Heavily pregnant people, regardless of whether they’re glowing or glowering, look ripe. Full. Overfull really. Awash with hormones and overflowing with substance, the very physicality of a pregnant person is stretched thin in an effort to contain it all.
Post-partum, it’s definitely half empty. The skin, no longer stretched tight, sags and folds in on itself. I remember lying in the bath about a week after and staring down in vague horror at the mess my midsection had become. Stripped of its buoyant mass, it was lumpy and non-directional, with vertical angry red stripes to record its decline. To say I was dismayed would not be inaccurate, although I did also spend a good five minutes poking it and watching the ripple effect wash across this part of me that felt so disconnected even the muscles had separated.
In parent class, we were told how your milk ‘comes in’, usually 48-72hrs after birth. Which sounds calm right? Like it gently enters your body and then gracefully exits into the waiting newborn mouth. No mention of horrifically swollen and engorged breasts that would put Dolly Parton to shame, not a whisper of the fact that it can be painful enough to cause crying in the shower (in addition to already crying in the bath trying to express colostrum into a syringe to be fed to your still-hospitalised-infant.)
A friend with Polish heritage extolled to me the virtues of wrapping cabbage leaves around said offending protuberances and, while I admit to thinking thoughts about Poles and their cabbage obsession, she was spot on. I was a cabbage convert for weeks. You do wake reeking of cabbage soup but that seems small price to pay for reduced swelling and less porn-star-ridiculous breasts. It was around this time that I walked into the lounge room, sans top, to proudly inform my mother and sister that I had realised that the inflatable-silicon-harlot look was actually emulating full lactating breasts and obviously this proved that Freud was right about men and their mothers. Don’t judge, it’s a weird time.
And while I didn’t think my body would bounce back (mostly due to how often you are told as an expectant person that this will not happen) I did think that the imposition of pregnancy would end when the pregnancy ended. I assumed that I would be restored to my previous self, not in a way that was obsessed with my stomach (god knows its never been something to write home about) but in a way that my sense of self would be replete. It sounds awfully like something off a karmic-love-bumper sticker but having a child does change your idea of who you are. Not in that a grand truth metanarrative is unlocked but that your psychological and emotional skin stretches along with its physical twin and it takes a while to gather it back up and work out how to wear the new you.
It is something that I am still figuring out.
Four months on and the mad swell and shrink has largely subsided. My stomach is still soft and striped (thinking of them as tiger stripes has helped me come to terms with the look – I’ve always liked animal print) and I’ve resigned myself to living in the 10% of my wardrobe that has button access but at least, at last, my pre-pregnancy jeans fit. Just.