I am fifteen months postpartum, though with each day that passes, I question my right to use the word postpartum when describing myself. It is dark, and I am nursing my youngest, who has somehow turned from an infant into a walking, teething monster who loves nothing more than removing every item from every accessible shelf in our house.
I remember when he was tiny and could barely move his head, how I would have to use all of my strength to hold his body just right so that he could eat his fill. But now his right foot is by my right ear. His upper hand is pulling down the top of my shirt, then trying to shove itself, in its entirety, into my mouth. His bottom foot is pushing against the side of the rocking chair as if he’s a swimmer, doing laps. And his bottom hand is pawing, constantly pawing, not unlike a badger bent on getting to the earth’s center.
And what he is pawing jiggles...quivers back and forth. That space above my hip and below my ribs. And it suddenly dawns on me — this is what they call love handles. Love. Handles. I have love handles. He is handling my loves. He continues to nurse. He is unphased. I am not.
The seventeen-year-old who still resides in my mind’s dark and uninformed corners rolls her eyes. She is tan, with arms and legs strong from years of playing year-round sports. She packs her two-piece in secret when she meets her friends at the beach because according to her mother, those kinds of suits leave no room for the imagination. But she does not need to rely on imagination because she is a Youthful Dream. Her toned, flat belly brings all of the boys to the yard. She scolds me and tells me that I should do another Whole 30 or at least to check into a gym membership so that I can start swimming, or doing zumba, or something aerobic for goodness’ sake. She side-eyes the under-arm wings that I’m beginning to grow.
The confident sixty-five-year-old who lies waiting within me gives the teenager a knowing smile and tells her to hush. She is also tan, but her under-arm wings are now fully grown, and her under-eyes have never quite recovered from the deficit of sleep that is having three babies in four years. But she knows that this body has made space for four babies, and birthed and fed three. She is proud of the space that her hips have created, the life this body has carried, even the stretch-marks, although she’s never quite come around to the cellulite. Her forearms are gaining wrinkles, but they are strong from decades of chopping sweet potatoes and kneading bread. Her legs may jiggle, but underneath her muscles are strong from doing endless sets of stairs, lugging heavy laundry baskets and toddlers who do not want to take a nap.
And then there is me. The one with the love handles. Somewhere between. I have no aspirations to wear the bikinis of my youth, nor do I rejoice in the pooch-hiding shirts that I buy, the ones that I hope leave plenty of room for imagination, like maybe there could be a flat belly under there after all. I do not wish to do Crossfit or train for a triathlon like some kind of youth, but I would also like that sixty-five-year-old to be able to hike a state park trail with ease or at least to be able to get down on the floor and play legos with her beautiful grandchildren.
So I sit with my body in the here and now, wondering, always wondering, if I should be doing more to take care of it. I question what consequences my future self will suffer from my choices today. But often such thinking is interrupted by my children’s own questions: Will someone please wipe me? Can I have another snack? Mom, help! I can’t find the lego steering wheel again!
I cannot even fold a basket of laundry sans interruption; the idea of a twenty-minute yoga session seems an unattainable dream. And then there is my pelvic floor, which after working so hard for so many years, seems to have taken an early retirement, making any sort of exercise that requires jostling an unhygienic impossibility. I so rarely sleep through the night; also, I love cheese. So I feel stuck in a loop of wondering if I should do more to take care of this body, but never really doing it.
My days are filled with so many shoulds that all aggressively compete for my time and attention — the people that we should be inviting over, the dentist appointments that need to be made, the vegetables that I should apparently be fermenting, the school forms that are not filling themselves out on my desk. The idea of getting my body back tops The List Of All The Things I Should Be Doing every few days, most often as I am getting out of a bath, staring at what has become of me. But what has become of me?
I am in this liminal space between youth and aging, caught between wanting to high-five my body one moment and shame it the next. There are days I choose another glass of water over an afternoon spoonful of peanut butter with chocolate chips. But at other times, I take my kids out for ice cream because they too need to learn the joy of a sprinkle cone on that first truly warm day of summer. Daily, my body pulls at me, but my life pulls back.
This is why I cannot listen to that seventeen-year-old, who weighs herself morning and night and has the luxury of time to work out each day when I cannot even get a shower in more than twice a week. And it is why I cannot yet concern myself with the sixty-five-year-old who has pre-arthritic knees but is not daily squatting next to the toilet, cheering on her toddler’s most valiant attempts at potty training.
They are not me, and I am not them. Instead, in the now, I am a shelter, a launchpad for living souls coming into this world. I am the arms to welcome my husband home, the applier of bandaids, the one who kisses foreheads and smooths furrowed brows. I am the birthday cake baker, and at less festive times, both doctor and janitor. I am the bearer of love handles, the jiggly kind, but I am the soft landing place for my babies, physically now and metaphorically later. I am the dispenser of both time outs of justice and forgiving hugs of mercy that hopefully one day will help my children to know the true and only Gracious Judge. I am a daughter, a mother, a wife, a friend.
I am so much more than just my body. I always have been. I always will be.