At the breastfeeding festival, where I recently read some of my poems to an appreciative audience, I heard a talk from Chrissy Chittendon, author of Attachment Feminism. She covered some points I had never thought of before.
One of the things she said which struck me was that no-one celebrates a woman’s post-natal body and society’s emphasis is to ‘get back to normal’. But a woman’s post-natal body IS normal.
When you have carried a child in your womb, the body is changed forever. It enters a new phase of existence. The womb never goes back to its pre-used state, like a balloon that has been blown up cannot return to its former tightness. The evidence of child-bearing is written on the body forever.
I wish someone had told me my breasts might leak or be engorged. The lustrous hair of the last months of pregnancy lost its volume. My belly was almost as large as when pregnant, but soft and empty. I continued wearing pregnancy clothing as at first, nothing else fitted. However, none of this bothered me. My body was a soft cushion for my gorgeous daughter. My cuddliness comforted her. It is a bodily state we ought to celebrate. And it is temporary. In the scale of things, it’s fleeting. Could it be nature’s design that the first few months after birth give us these baby-friendly bodies?
Between babies, my body did return to normal, without my doing anything in particular to help it do so, though admittedly I was a stone heavier than before my first. I was in my young mother body, one equipped for the job I was doing: a comfortable knee to climb on, a soft place to rest a child’s head.
I knew my body so well by then, I was able to tell very quickly when I was expecting a second child. I could smell it and feel it. I was in tune with it. My older child was told every stage of ‘our’ baby, so much so that when she came into hospital to meet the new baby, she demanded to know, aged three years four months, whether I had seen the placenta and whether my milk had come in yet.
My new self-knowledge opened up new places in my writing. Self-acceptance is very important, whatever the media pushes at women to have ‘perfect’ bodies. In reality, the perfection is about function, not aesthetics. I believe our bodies, like our faces, are all the better for being lived in.
I confess I was one of the lucky ones. I have no stretch marks on my belly, no scars from sections. But I do have stretch marks on my legs. I wrote this poem in celebration of stretch marks. They are normal and beautiful.
The stripes are silvered on my skin,
not for common view; my secret signs,
whispering I love you in tracery,
scripted onto my belly and thighs;
intricate as silver chains, glistening tracks
of snails on morning rugs, when they have
crept into the house, tasting the night silences.
Insignia of motherhood, cuneiform,
canticles of breathing space, mother-marks,
I will wear them all my life.
(First published in Letting Go, Mother’s Milk Books 2014)