A trail of milk runs from her heart-shaped mouth, over her cheek and down the folds of her neck. She still has the pinkish tint, curled up feet and hands of a newborn. Her half-dressed mama and I are sunk deep into the couch, coffees in hand, chatting easily, the way you can with a good friend who comes from the same place of the world that you do. The Jehovah’s Witnesses were knocking on the door, but we ignore them; we’ve found our little bit of heaven inside.
“And, I need to start losing weight.”
We are passing a newborn baby back and forth; one who hasn’t been in the world long enough to see a new month on the calendar, and her words hang between us. “No, I really do. And really soon.”
Oh, mama. I don’t have the words to tell her that she will get there eventually, but not today, sweet girl, and not fast, and it will be the hardest thing you’ve ever done aside from pushing that baby out. We pick up and carry the weight with such an effortless sense of purpose; shedding it is a whole different story.
“It sucks and takes forever to feel like yourself physically, but at least you will know that this is totally normal.” I’ve received an email from a friend of a friend after having a sobbing breakdown during our monthly phone date. The email comes to try to rescue me from my self-hatred, and talk me back down from thoughts I’ve been having: maybe I’ll just starve myself; maybe I’ll only eat foods that start with the letter K; maybe I’ll start pumping more to burn more calories; maybe I’ll never be in a photograph again. The breakdown comes on the heels of an incident in my closet. I am trying to find a green shirt to wear for St. Patrick’s Day. My daughter is 5 weeks old, and I end up stealing a Guinness t-shirt from my husband and trying to pawn it off as a tunic over white jeans. He comes into the closet and gives me a look that lets me know that my borrowed-giant-tee-come-tunic isn’t working, and I burst into fitful, hysterical tears because nothing, green-or-not, is working on my new body.
The email from the friend-of-a-friend convinces me that I should go shopping, ignore the sizes, and buy a few things that I feel great in so that I can leave the house. About a week later, I buy a “capsule” wardrobe at the Loft. This later becomes a hip new term for dressing yourself for a season in only 10-25 pieces of clothing. I live on my 10 items of clothing for an entire summer because my old clothes don’t just not-fit, they look like they belong to a different species.
During that summer, I live in my post-partum summer capsule wardrobe while we cross the country with our new baby. This is a season of life that I will later remember as the one where my thighs rubbed together nonstop under the punishing heat of Summer. At night, lying under scratchy bedspreads in hotels, I dream of burning the wardrobe when we get to our final destination. When we arrive in California, I’m reunited with our belongings after 3 months of travel. Standing in my new walk-in closet, hanging up my items of clothing on their hangers, I start to cry. There is no joy in being reunited with this wall of used-to-be. These clothes aren’t my friends anymore.
It’s 5:40 am. For two years, four months, and one week, I have been rising on my own terms to do the hard work of shedding. Shedding the pounds. Shedding the self-loathing. It’s unglamorous and painful. Sometimes, as I tiptoe through the house in the early hours, I can hear them stirring. My gift from the universe is when I come home and the house is still quiet. I should shower, make lunches, fold laundry, but instead, I pour myself a cup of hot coffee and drink it in peace, savoring the feeling of reclamation. Today my coffee cup says #iwokeuplikethis; no, I didn’t. This awakening was slow and steady and uncomfortable, and sometimes it moved so slowly, it was practically moving backwards, but move, it did.
I reclaimed my body, which had been heavily on loan to the two tiny humans, just sixteen months part, for the better part of my marriage. By reclaiming my body, I don’t mean that I woke up one day and realized that I had the body of my dreams. By reclaiming, I mean that I took back ownership and control, and in small ways, I saw change.
Last Saturday, I was on the circle of our street with the kids at dusk trying to kill time until dinner. We had tied a silver balloon from a birthday party to the back of my daughter’s tricycle. She flew around the circle faster and faster until it became untied – slipping away. We stood watching it fly away. First, it was close, and then very quickly it was high in the sky. We stood for what seemed like forever watching it get smaller and smaller in the sky. Every time we thought it was gone, we would squint and realize it was still there, even higher in the sky. Eventually, we stopped squinting.
That was how it went with my self-loathing. Even while my body changed, and I made new friends with mom jeans, fit and flare dresses and black v-necks, I could still hear my negative thoughts in my head. Over time, I would think they were totally gone, but I would realize that if I still squinted they were there, floating over my head, getting further and further away, but still out there.
“Let’s go on a walk, when you’re ready.” My urge is to hug her and say “you don’t need to worry about that for a long time, just worry about loving that sweet little baby.” But I see her. And I was her. And you’ve been her, or you’ve known her. Your kids will love you, no matter what. Your husband will want you, no matter what. Your friends have been there, so they understand, but you won’t love yourself again until you reclaim yourself. It would be easy to tell her to dismiss the thoughts, but instead, I say, make friends with them. They’ll be around for a while, so you may as well get comfortable. They’ll be over your shoulder, and later up in the sky, they’ll float far away, and the may ebb back toward you. They’ll sneak up on you when you least expect them. But, someday, in the not too distant future, on a beautiful day, you’ll look up in the sky, and all you’ll see are the clouds.