She was at my door trying to sell me one of those dinner box services. Believe me, I would sign up if we could afford such things. Brilliant concept. With a baby on my hip and a polite “no thank you” on my lips, she turned the conversation to Micah. “How old is he?”
I answered his age and then with raised eyebrows she responded, “Wow, you look so good for having just had a baby.”
She was sweet and genuine and I took her compliment as just that—a compliment. But she was also the most recent in a string of strangers who felt totally free to remark on my body shape and size as if a baby in arms suddenly grants permission for such personal commentary. Weird.
Why were they paying such attention, anyway? I felt annoyed and uncomfortable.
With a courteous smile I gently shut the door and then let my building tension unravel into a puddle before my husband.
Why is my body everyone else’s business? Why all the pressure? Why the impossible standards? Why do people feel free to size me up and then tell me about their assessment as if I wanted to know their opinion? Why is this considered normal small talk? Why? Why? Why?!
He looked at me with a glint in his eye and a half smile. Nodding his head, he signaled his attention was mine. (He knows rhetorical questions of this nature aren’t actually looking for answers, only a listening ear.)
This is the part in the story where some will be tempted to snort and shake their head and tell me I’m a princess or too sensitive or fill-in-the-blank.
This is also the part where you might be thinking, “I wish I got a compliment like that.” And that’s fair—I get it.
But if we’re still thinking of how much or little I weigh, or how good I look or don’t look according to the impossible standards society imposes on us, then we’re still entirely missing the point.
Don’t miss the point
To be clear, what I’m not talking about is encouraging a friend when you know she’s been working hard to achieve fitness goals. Then by all means—notice her achievements, cheer her on, tell her she looks fabulous. What I am talking about is perfect strangers making your waistline their business. Isn’t it more productive and affirming to celebrate what a postpartum woman just achieved than heaping expectation and pressure and body shaming language and ideas (even if it’s indirect) onto her already-full plate?
Look, I realize the sweet sales rep at my door said this as a compliment. I do. I received it as one and I’m grateful she was giving me a compliment rather than a passive aggressive suggestion to lift my game (like this mom shared about her Target experience—ugh). But here’s the thing, the issue is bigger than a ‘harmless’ compliment given as a form of small talk.
The fourth trimester should be a time of healing
The postpartum period (or fourth trimester as some call it) is hard enough for moms physically and emotionally. We are operating on little sleep. We may be dealing with hemorrhoids or cesarean wounds, or stitched up tears in sensitive places. We may have engorgement issues, cracked nipples, mastitis, leaky boobs, or falling out hair. We may have night sweats or the baby blues or full-blown post partum depression. We may lack energy. We might have “baby brain.” We may be weepy. Our clothes might feel tight or saggy or anything in between. We may or may not be able to groom the way we’d like or afford new clothes to fit our new shape. Our muscles might be separated, our back might be misaligned, our pelvis might feel like it’s hanging on by a thread. I mean, honestly, the list goes on and on. (And that is just what’s going on with our own bodies, not to mention what may be happening with our little ones.)
Conceiving and growing and birthing and caring for a baby is no small thing, and yet no one’s handing out capes. There is very little back patting or encouragement that we can do hard things. Instead we’re sizing each other up, staring ourselves down in the mirror, buying contraptions that promise to help us lose the weight! flatten our tummies! feel like a million dollars! tighten up! erase stretch marks! Most moms will tell you the pressure is not only unrealistic for them, but not motivating toward holistic health during a time we’re already feeling vulnerable.
What if we focused on the miracle?
What if instead of being obsessed about losing our baby weight we give ourselves a little breathing space to rest and heal and grow into our new selves while we get to know the astonishing little humans who share our DNA? What if we remember we’ve just done the bewildering work of growing a whole person (while simultaneously growing our ankles to that of a small elephant) and the mighty work of then birthing him into the world? Let’s call that good and leave the weight loss pressure for after we’ve figured out how to trim a fresh baby’s fingernails without dismembering him.
The movement to end body-shaming at large is an important one. And mamas, it’s up to us to lead out in this postpartum subcategory with one another. If we can’t affirm each other deeply then who can? (Here’s a fabulous example.)
Bringing a baby into the world is hard, holy, regular, spectacular work. Our bodies stretch and widen and contract and release and bear down and hold back and tear and heal in all number of mind-blowing ways. Perhaps if we spent a little more time celebrating our bodies for the miracles they are and the miracles they produce, we’d be less obsessed with trying to become our old selves instead of focused on appreciating our new, powerful selves.
You can do hard things, but be gentle on yourself
Welcome to motherhood, dear sweet post-partum mama. Don’t waste it feeling ashamed of your body. Don’t waste it feeling embarrassed by what you have or haven’t “achieved” to fit into your skinny jeans. Take care of yourself, yes. Set goals, work hard, move your amazing body, fuel yourself well. Do all those things. But don’t do them to fit in or feel worthy or cope with shame. Do them because it feels good to do hard things, because movement and sunshine fill your cup, because you’re more at home in your body when you’re caring for it.
But in all of this be gentle. Don’t rush. Be kind. Be accepting. Live in your skin and celebrate the wonders that have already come true for that baby to be in your arms.
Motherhood looks beautiful on you
And hey onlookers, if you want to shoot a compliment our way (thank you!), may I gently suggest a few alternatives? Try these:
“What a delightful baby! You must be so proud!”
“Oh, mama, what a wonderful work you’ve done! Well done! So well done.”
“Can you believe your body made that gorgeous little human? How miraculous is birth?!”
“Motherhood looks beautiful on you.”