My body wanted to be a mother before the rest of me did.
When I turned 30, I felt the pull in my core. I’d stare at women in the grocery store sporting baby bumps with a strange tug of envy and awe.
In private, I’d press my palm to my own smooth, unbloomed belly and imagine it rounding, cradling new life. While my mind worried about the financial and emotional implications of parenthood, my body whispered: Let’s get going with this whole baby-making thing.
Leaning toward the possibility of my own fertility was jolting. For so many years, I’d been at war with my body.
It started in elementary school gym class. Each year, when the ropes descended from the ceiling for the presidential fitness tests, fear flushed my body. I can’t do it, I thought.
I’d sneak to the back of the line of kids waiting to climb the ropes course, but eventually, the gym teacher would nudge me. “Just give it a try,” she said. I’d rest my sneakers on the knot at the bottom of the long rope, then half-heartedly attempt to shimmy up it like all the other kids seemed to be able to do effortlessly. But then I’d make the fatal mistake of looking up, up, up—and with a burning sensation in my hands and shame rumbling through my head, I’d hop back to the floor, defeated.
My body couldn’t do what everybody else’s could. There was no good reason for this, except that I was an anxious, nonathletic, sensitive kid, already more at ease in my mind than the rest of my body.
A few years later, after going through a chubby phase, I began the dance of dieting and overeating. I started a food journal where I jotted down everything I ate and vowed to cut out “problem foods” like cheese and bread. I pranced around in the living room to my mom’s Cher workout video, greedily eyeing the sleek, black-swathed bodies moving on the TV.
I weighed myself multiple times per day, allowing the scale to tell me what type of mood I’d be in. All day, I’d obsess about taming my body into a shape it was never born to be. Then, in the damp of night, I’d sneak down to the kitchen. The dim light of the open refrigerator represented both an enormous appetite and self-loathing.
As an adult, I discovered yoga, dance, and a 12-step group for my eating issues. Life got much, much better. I learned to focus on eating healthy and finding exercise that fueled my spirit as much as my body. The old feelings of not trusting my body—of not believing I was strong or lovable—began to fade.
But nothing has transformed my relationship with my body like motherhood has.
When my husband and I decided to start trying to conceive, at first, I thought it’d be instantaneous. Once, a few hours after “trying,” I pressed a hand to my womb, announcing, “I think I feel something!” He laughed. After all those years of trying to not get pregnant, I figured that without birth control, I’d fall pregnant instantly.
I was wrong.
After several months of trying without success, I revisited my ancient mistrust of my body. Something’s wrong with me, I thought. Of course. I should’ve known.
My imagination went wild at all the ways my reproductive system could be haywire: moldy, dented ovaries. Tangled Fallopian tubes. An upside down uterus, a one-way vagina. Clearly, my body just wasn’t trustworthy enough for biological motherhood.
But then, the day before I was due to visit my doctor to start talking about infertility, a wave of nausea swept over me. I was pregnant—and the following winter, we brought home our beautiful baby boy.
Though the demands have been steep at times—emotionally, mentally, and physically—for once, instead of focusing on what my body couldn’t do (it couldn’t climb ropes or run fast, and it couldn’t be whittled into the shape I desired, the shape I was told by society that I should be) I started to see what my body was capable of.
It could, out of the smallest elements, morph a bundle of cells into an actual person. My body had an instinctive knowledge of how to weave together blood and bones and skin. It knew how to feed them from the depths of my womb. My body grew beautiful, strong babies.
Then, when it was time, my body worked harder than ever before—much harder than that damned ropes course—thrusting them into the bright world. It made sweet milk for them. Cradled them. Lugged them up stairs and in and out of car seats. Held them close when they were sad, or scared, or sick.
Despite the occasional aches and stiffness of middle age, and the way my belly button now sags in silent defeat, the process of motherhood has given me intense respect and trust for my body. If I can do that—grow and feed and carry children—what else might I be capable of?
Well, I’m apparently capable of playing a lot of football with my 8-year-old, though I haven’t figured out how to throw a spiral—yet. And I ran a 5k exactly once, after which I felt like I’d proven I could do it and could happily rest on my sweat-soaked laurels. I discovered a love for heated vinyasa yoga, for the way it snaps me into the moment—into my body and breath—and for how it’s improved my flexibility and keeps my wilting triceps from complete collapse.
Sometimes, those old voices creep up and tell me my body is not good enough—but only sometimes. Motherhood rewired my relationship with my body. It’s strengthened my sense of what I’m capable of; it’s softened me to myself. And if I need a reminder, all I have to do is look at my sweet-cheeked children.
Look what you did, I think. Look what you can do.
Author: Lynn Shattuck
Image: Unsplash/Joey Thompson
Editor: Yoli Ramazzina