No you can’t touch my belly and other things I need to say out loud.
A sign of a good friend is one who ever so gently prods you into doing things that are good for you. They do this because they know you and they care. Nearly every time I unloaded intense feelings about being pregnant, giving birth, and having to climb out of the broken shell my body became postpartum, Margeaux would gently say: “You should write about this!”
So this essay was born after months of encouragement and out of a feeling that I never really found anything about being pregnant or becoming a mother (anywhere!) that truly captured some of my sadder and more tangled-up complicated feelings; so I decided to write the thing I wish would’ve existed when I needed it most.
There is still such a thick air of silence and mystery around birth. Having gone through it myself I can understand why. Our culture seems to either esteem motherhood as the be-all and end-all most sacred thing, or ignore and devalue it completely. These mixed messages serve only to further mystify what’s already a baffling transformation of body, soul, and spirit.
There is little room for women to reconcile the ways pregnancy can prompt their own symbolicdeath and rebirth. There is no mention of how all your most tender parts are annihilated by the trauma of birth. Nowhere did I find representation of the abject, specific kind of loneliness that comes afterwards, the relentless and unpredictable floods of tears; the dilemma of wanting both nothing more than to nurture your new little human offspring and to escape on a convertible joyride (Thelma and Louise style) from the struggle to make it through the next hour alive.
Still, it should also be mentioned that transformation of any kind, for anyone, will not only bring forth old wounds into the light, but will also beckon us to understand ourselves with more empathy. Keeping the things that bring us shame hidden from view serves to keep us bound to shame itself. So in talking about my relationship to shame and to things that I’d rather not actually be talking about, I want to dispel the silence that comes with negative patterns that hold us all back. Because the truth is, none of us is really as terrible as we think we are, and yes, we can make it better by holding close the parts of ourselves we’d rather keep hidden from view from ourselves and each other.
One positive change that I have welcomed as I continue to lean into being a mother is the fact that my already spongy heart has become even more porous. I’m pretty up there on the feelsies scale. I cry when a meal is really good or when I step into a perfectly balmy summer evening and feel alive with summer (like as if I AM SUMMER INCARNATE). Also, gently moving boughs. I blame this on my genetic makeup. I’m Mediterranean and women in my family openly collapse into tears on the regular. It’s seen as a sign of strength and proof that you are not in fact, say, a vampire or a possessed harpie in need of an exorcism.
I have always known I wanted children. As far back as I can remember, I imagined the when part happening in the misty future where I was a real-life grown up and super “together.” Little girl me would have imagined this grown up version of myself to look like the two most glamorous and beautiful women I had encountered up to that point in time: Mariah Carey and Blanche Devereaux. Mariah Carey circa the Fantasy theme park video – only dressed in Blanche’s signature head-to-toe pastel. I would be beautiful and beautifully important; conducting open-heart surgery with perfectly manicured square-tipped acrylic nails. I would have a boyfriend doctor and we would adopt all the stray cats and dogs that no one wanted. We’d live in a western style bungalow because this also seemed the height glamour in the 90s.
As I got older and my sensibilities matured, I imagined this more perfect future as future where there was always things in the fridge. My friends would say things like “wow, you’reglowing,” and I’d smile graciously, letting the compliment hang in the air, because, like, after all, I was now grown up enough to take a compliment. A real-life grown up princess woman! Basically just a casually dressed Venus de Milo (only with olive skin and cooperative bangs) because I was Aphrodite and WITH CHILD.
How would I surprise him with the news that I was pregnant? Picnicking under our favourite tree, obviously. I’d wrap the pee stick in some wax paper. He’d think it was some sort of gourmet cheese. We’d laugh at the kafuffle! We’d kiss in the most brilliant afternoon light and live out the rest of our days in total bliss. Walking hand in hand to the soundtrack of a heartfelt Antony and the Johnsons track.
We would know and feel an all-encompassing, unwavering deep sense of harmony. After all, wasn’t it obvious? This baby was the ultimate expression and manifestation of our love.
My pregnancy was not glowing. It was arduous, difficult, and long. It was filled with sadness.
For the better part of the 10 months (no it’s NOT 9. This is yet another example of how pathetically we are misinformed about anything having to do with women’s bodies. It’s 10 long ass months) I was overcome with conflicting feelings of guilt, pride, shame, sadness, self-loathing, love, resentment, and fear. Feelings on top of feelings with more feelings.
I stopped sleeping through the night very early on. In the mirror I saw a woman who appeared completely abject to me. I watched my fingers trace my linea nigra, (the dark line that appears across the belly during pregnancy) marvelling at how quickly it appeared, faint at first, and subsequently growing dark overnight. This dark line seemed to represent a no-man’s land, a physical reminder of the passage I had made: I had crossed over beyond my former self. The person on the former side of that threshold seemed to have existed in a dream. I could not imagine life on this new territory. This side felt strange and unknown and terrifying.
At eight months pregnant, having already outgrown most of my meagre selection of pregnancy clothes, there were many times where I would take a long walk to the park (alone, in the middle of a record-breaking heat wave) and sit on a bench overlooking the polluted Humber river, and sob. As I looked across the sludgy water watching the ripples stroke against a single sneaker, I couldn’t help thinking, “How did I get here?”
I felt my heart sink with the gravity of my own crippling reptilian revulsion towards myself and what I had done, who I had become. How could I be so careless to think I could do this? I was already so exhausted. How and where would I find the energy to continue carrying this child, birth it, and take care of it with unwavering strength and resolve and love?
My sorrow seemed as deep as it was pathetic. Outwardly, I tried to project the person I knew those who cared about me wanted me to be. I didn’t tell anyone about my true feelings. I’m sure to the outside world I did indeed look glowing. I used humour to deflect the unwanted hands that seemed to always come out of nowhere to stroke my belly.
“How are you?” a friend would ask.
“I’m a flaming pile of 33-year old garbage. Thank you for asking.”
“How do you feel?”
“I’m too busy making new organs to have a sense of selfhood.”
I didn’t “glow” (it was sweat from the aforementioned heat wave). I imagined the bliss of being invisible, of feeling weightless and empty.
I hated the doctors appointments, the ultra sounds, blood work, the chit-chat with nurses while they drew 10 vials of blood; having to pee on a piece of paper the length and width of a match to make sure my body wasn’t plotting against the baby, every Wednesday, of every week, for 6 months. This is not how I saw this supposedly magical time unfolding. I was sad, angry, ashamed, confused. But I was also full of expectation and hope. I wanted what was best for this little silver trout swimming inside my woman cave parts. I was happy but also completely arrested (and afraid of) this HUMAN CHILD THING growing inside of me.
My ambivalence seduced me down the same rabbit hole I had been falling down over and over, for most of my life: the feeling that there must be something deeply and profoundly wrong with me.
When I speak of shame, I am speaking of the pain of feeling not good enough. The consistent, pestering sense that “there is something wrong with me.” A nagging sorrow that I’m unlovable. A feeling that I must remain small (or, even better, invisible) in order to be loved or acknowledged as worthy. And if I look around and find examples of ways that I’m loved, then I’m plagued with an on-going sense of guilt for wanting more than what I currently have.
Surely I’m not alone though. I know that like many people, shame was first passed down to me by my own mother. But this happened in the same way to her, and so on. For my mother, it had been a shotgun wedding, and despite her abject poverty she managed to defy the odds and cultivate a striking sense of taste. She was infamous for her vanity (read beauty) in the remote, small town in Portugal where she was born. The eldest of six, she was put to work at the tender age of nine in an undertaker’s kitchen. True story, babes. By fourteen, she recalls that her most prized possessions were her 7 pairs of underwear and her toothbrush.
Ever the emotional and physical caretakers, the message that our mothers and grandmothers have received and internalised over and over again in our patriarchal culture is that there’s not enough love to go around between women. Love is presented as a finite resource. And the only way to get it is to work very, very hard. So hard that you make it look easy.
It’s no wonder that shame gets bound to our first expression and experiences of love. As girls, we learn from a young age to have a high threshold to poor treatment from others. We take on emotional caretaking while having to do the impossible task of being everything to everyone. We are encouraged to serve, breeding low self-esteem and a feeling of having to compete with other women. This repeated cycle encourages self-sabotage and sets the stage for poor boundaries.
So let’s go back to me looking at the Humber River and feeling profound sads.
The following list is a sample of some of the things that wallowed in my sternum to the sing-song tune of “You are a selfish cow. You are reckless and stupid for wanting to have a child”:
- I didn’t have a job
After working abroad for over three years, I decided to move back to Toronto with my partner (who I met in my travels) and make a more permanent home. We were both a bit burned out, so decided the move would be a good time to take a break and figure out what our next step was. Chris’ work visa would take a few months, and we both deserved a break! We made the move over Christmas. By mid-January I was pregnant. We were living with my parents, and it was in their guest bathroom, holding the pregnancy test (I swear that line appeared like RIGHT AWAY) that the full extent of the chicken and biscuits we had on New Years Eve – which unbeknownst to us, was like a gateway drug to an deluge to hedonism and poor judgement – became fully actualized and made me immediately vomit onto my own lap.
- My partner didn’t have a job
- We were living with my parents
“Until we found our feet/ I found work/ Chris’ work visa arrives”
I felt guilty at how unprepared I was. When I laid it all out before me, it was almost laughable.
As my belly grew the more persistent the daydream to disappear became. I was so tired. I spent so many years trying to let go of these negative, persistent feelings that I wasn’t good enough. All I wanted was to feel strong, to have the sky open up with an overwhelming sense of peace and love. A Where Have all the Cowboys Gone kind of angst was destroying my confidence and wearing down what I thought was a strong resolve to be better, to grow up and just “get on with it.”
I eventually did find a job. But I hid my pregnancy for fear of being sacked during that sketchy probation period that no one likes and should really not exist to begin with. I told myself it would take an especially callous Scrooge situation to dismiss a pregnant employee during a probation period, but also know Scrooges are real.
The days were long and the one-hour plus commute via public transit from suburbia to downtown Toronto was utterly dire. I kept a plastic bag in my pocket at all times so I could hurl in the narrow fire escape at work.
As I began to show obvious signs of being-with-child (which is, I think, the dumbest thing you can call a pregnant woman as you are not “with” child, but actually MAKING IT, like ALL of it, from its tongue to eyeballs to its tiny, perfect asshole) strangers would touch my belly without asking, or more commonly, gawk. I was audience to unsolicited advice. People told me horror stories and asked really rude and invasive questions. I hated it. But all the while I smiled as I listened to an imaginary James Taylor song in my head.
The months rolled on. I waited with bated breath for the dreamy third trimester where apparently you start to feel a sense of chill.
No chill did come. But I did get an overall sense of resignation. I was resigned to the fact I would be giving birth, and that this brand new tiny human would just have to learn to deal with my hot mess.
I opted for a natural birth, but ended up having to get induced, which I learned after the fact was like the best set up for experiencing the most violent pain possible. I’ve said it before, but it warrants being said again: childbirth feels like having to poo out a giant spikey tire. And not only do you have to poo out a giant spikey tire, you have to do so while other people are watching and monitoring your “progress.”
While experiencing the most terrific abject pain, you’re also having to remember to do something called “breathing”; and being asked to engage in this kind of activity amounts to being asked, with total sincerity, to kindly and aptly slow dance with a bear.
How can I describe it? I can say with total sincerity that I went to the underworld and felt the abject pain, of like, the ORIGINAL WOUND. The pure delirium of it was purifying, and in that birth/death dreamscape of euphoric pain I came to know myself and my own strength in a way I could never have imagined was possible. So, thanks pain. Now I know. *Thumbs up emojis*
Transformation. Big. Profound. I found/lost/died/was born/died again.
The first night with baby went so terribly that it was almost comical. I struggled and sobbed through nursing sessions where I was convinced NOTHING WAS COMING OUT and BABY IS STARVING. I’d forgotten to take my pain medication for my stitches** on time and got the shakes so badly that when I finally did try to take my painkillers I dropped them and they disappeared into the baby swaddle I was holding. I frantically unwrapped and checked every fold as my already distressed baby reached new heights of distress.
How could they have let us (READ: ME) walk of the hospital with such a perfect and helpless lump of baby flesh? I was going to ruin it! I was already ruining it!
I remember little of those early days. I needed help going to the bathroom, and I cried every time I did. Once in the tub I watched with disbelief as an actual piece of my nipple detached itself and floated away. Days later, a friend who had given birth in the previous year recounted to me over a text how the exact same thing had happened to her.
SYMPATHY FOR THE DEVIL (or, don’t be afraid of the devil card)
At 5 months post partum, I felt ready to tackle this uphill shame and anger battle. Feeling stuck, I turned to my old standby, tarot.
For years tarot has been a main source of divination and creative energy. I also use the cards as a source of dialogue. What I mean by that is that there are conversations of the heart and spirit that happen in their own secret language, and for me, tarot offers a way into a dialogue that may otherwise stay hidden from view. Tarot allows me to speak the secret language of my own psyche, to see my inward story and to have access to its shape and depth. Reading Tarot gives me a way in to access emotions and worlds that emerge out of my own specific story but are also linked to a larger narrative that is universal. So when I read the cards I feel like they are making references to very particular aspects of my life but also to bigger things.
When I received an invite to a poetry and tarot workshop led by Hoa Nguyen with guest poet Timothy Liu, I jumped at the chance to attend and learn from two poets who have abundant wisdom to impart. On a snowglobe Saturday I headed over to Hoa’s gorgeously warm and humble home with a notebook and my Raider Wait tarot deck in toe. We did a few exercises informed by cards that each of us drew individually and collectively. At the end, we were asked to draw one final card to act as a “final thought” for the day, something to ponder and let percolate as we each departed to make our way home.
As I shuffled the cards, I remember acknowledging that I felt a bit stuck. I’d been too shy to share the poem I wrote about my dad digging a hole in the backyard in the cover of night for us to bury my placenta in.* Dovetailing on the strange feelings of that real life moment, it’s no surprise that the next card I drew was the devil card, which, in the Rider Waite deck, looks like this:
Babes don’t worry! The devil card is not a “bad” card. It’s a card that is all about those so-called lower or base urges. Feelings that live long and die hard! The satyr devil dude is bat-winged, and yes, dominates over the male and female figures in the foreground. Yes, there is some chain action happening BUT take a closer look and you will see that those are basically some weak ass role play chains and those two could easily break free if they were to so choose to.
The devil card is asking us to consider the things that are blocking us and keeping us in bondage. It speaks to hedonism or overindulgence in things, habits, people, or forces. Too much of one thing and not enough of the other.
On this particular moment it felt very apt that this card emerged in answer to my question: What should my next step be? Read in the Judeo-Christian tradition, the two figures can be interpreted as symbolizing the OG castaways, Adam and Eve. They’ve been shunned and ashamed and now have to live out their days in a low-key bondage situation. But here’s the thing – about role-play AND bondage – both involve consent. Reluctantly, I was being urged to consider the ways I was keeping myself “tied up” to feelings of shame. Tarot always makes room for agency. What is it that’s keeping me from walking away from feelings that do not serve me?
I decided to start outward to move my way inward. I needed to turn the yin energy tap and let ‘err flow. Yin energy is the domain of the sacred feminine, darkness, dreams, sleep, the moon, water, the depth. No big deal, right? Just like, everything.
Yin energy relegates the domains of are the realms the chest and abdomen, and everything below the waist. I needed to be in my body.
For me, this ultimately meant that I needed to let go of my fears by allowing myself to feel gratitude. I would never imagine assailing another human being with as much negative energy as I was channelling inwardly towards myself. How to start?
- Ritual Baths
I love baths. It had been a very long time since I have lovingly made an event out of a bath, as this act of self-care is more of a means to an end these days. I started making time to prepare, fully enjoy, and unwind after the bath. I made a scrub with Epsom salts, coconut oil, and essential oils. By candlelight, I undressed in the bathroom. I rubbed a few drops of oil into my palms and brought my hands to my face. Deep, deep breaths. As I rubbed the scrub, I imagined that I was lovingly touching something very precious and sacred: My bomb ass self! Depending on my mood, I poured myself a glass of juice, wine, or ice water. Sometimes I feasted on fruits. Libations are important. If I have trouble relaxing (I find myself *thinking* I hear baby crying just as I am about to let myself drift) then I listen to music to help take me somewhere else.
But only the slowest, most restorative kind. I’ve been taking it very, very slow. If I feel myself start to feel anxious or frustrated after difficult nursing sessions, I change how I’m existing in physical space. Sometimes this means laying on the floor, sometimes this means dancing to Selena’s Como La Flor. It means that I stop whatever it is that I am doing that isn’t working. On cold days it looks like heading out the door for a walk with only a nursing bra under my heavy coat. Sometimes it means that I undress myself and my baby and hang out in bed. This skin to skin contact chills us both out.
- Dressing myself, combing my hair, drinking water, eating, and undressing WITH LOVE (just basic, everyday human shit)
Being aware and present is hard. In my experience, at least, encouraging myself to be as present as I can be elicits a feeling of sadness. I’ve thought a lot about this and it may be a bit reductive to put in these terms, but here goes. When you are truly present in the moments of the everyday, things that are tedious and unspectacular become something more when felt in their wholeness, their enormity. Because really, nothing, NOTHING (when contemplated deeply) is actually small. Take the simple act of washing dishes: water just runs from the tap! You can adjust the temperature. Deep below our feet there is a complex underbelly of pipes and networks and sewers and refineries that connect to bigger and bigger bodies of water. The more you think about it, the more expansive this network becomes. And we just take it for granted! Imagine, how does water just be what it is? It’s a marvel.
Sinking into the enormity of the everyday allows me get outside my own head and experience my existence as something that’s just as sacred and multitudinous as say, running water. Holding space for this kind of contemplation makes be feel both big and small, and there’s comfort in this.
I do all this, and yet – using the same principles to reframe my physical body is much harder. It’s easier to think about things that I experience outside of myself as profound and beautiful, but turned inwardly, my first instinct is to genuinely cringe when seeing myself with the same kind of generosity and love.
Why is this the case?
Combing my hair, dressing myself, bathing: all these things are so bound to systems of patriarchal power and it’s incredibly difficult to take back these acts of self care from the dominant cultural systems of power they are entrenched in.
How do I dress and groom myself for ME, for my own pleasure and satisfaction?
Recasting rituals our culture uses to bring us shame and subjugation as potential acts of self-love is both is radical as it is necessary. The toxic attitudes and expectations projected onto bodies (of all kinds) are so deeply internalized, that our own sense of pleasure in yearning to feel good about our bodies has been distorted into impossibly limiting definitions of what it means to desire feeling good and looking good.
Postpartum women are expected to immediately shed all evidence of their pregnancy, their arduous labour, and their slow and incremental recovery (which can take months). Basically all and any evidence that a human has been made is seen as excessive, ugly.
We are told to hide our bodies. If we are breastfeeding, we are expected to adhere to a strict code of conduct when it comes to feeding our babies. Well-meaning friends (and strangers!) remark on how well you’ve “bounced back” (like you’re actually a perfectly rotund, hard little ball whack!) or they assure you that “It takes time to get your body back.” Okay wait – where did it go? Are you telling me this whole time I’ve been a floating ghost lady with no physical form?! Ghostmoms for the win!!!
Being in my body means acknowledging a constant degree of physical pain and living with it anyway. Most days the basic tasks of getting ready for the day or for the night seem tiresome and like more work. There is little distinction between night and day as taking care of an infant is a round the clock job, so just having the time and the mental headspace to achieve this is quite a task.
But even if I am rubbing non-chaffing lubricant cream on my nipples, I try to remember to do so with care because I have magical life-giving nipples whose most excellent perfection should be a point of peerless devotion.
Being present in my body is a constantly evolving practice. Recently, I posted a picture of my post-partum body on Instagram with a caption along the lines of this is my body and it’s okay, even if sometimes it does not feel great, it’s still okay. Admittedly, it felt great to receive some positive feedback (lots of high five emojis) but the overall tone of the responses hovered around the wow she’s so brave vibe. Which like, okay, I get it. It’s not like we have oodles of these kinds of bodies up for grabs in terms of representation – but the very notion that being a human woman with physical markers of birthing and breastfeeding a baby – just the fact that saying oh hey this is me is brave is kind of sad and hilarious. I am a woman, I have a body. I took a picture of myself wearing underwear and a bra. What is it about this action that makes me brave? Is it the fact that my belly is soft, that my breasts have stretch marks and despite this, I didn’t hide? It was a normal thing. Just because it’s something we don’t often see does not make it any less ordinary.
- When in doubt, sing it out
The simple act of singing (aloud, to myself, to my baby, to no one, to track or solo) has many benefits for well-being. If you are too shy or self-aware to sing even to yourself then give lip-syncing a try. My go to tracks are a Lillith Fair Ladies of the 90s playlist because they are so unabashedly angsty-gurrrl. Also anything by Patti Smith, Neko, or Stevie Nicks. If I wanna move, then Lizzo’s Good as Hell and Scuse Me, M.I.A, Bey or Solange, or Bomba Esterio’s So Yo.
Getting in on that diaphragm deep breath action is great. This week it’s been a lot of Britney Spears because so many inspirational memes have been made about her that it was time I channel some of that energy. Also, sometimes my singing takes on the narration of making a sandwich or making a cup of tea. It’s silly, yes, but that’s why it works.
My final (hand-held microphone against a fake brick backdrop) thought to leave you with is this: shame is a part of being human.
I love being a mother and the ways this new chapter has transformed and challenged me to grow. Despite this, I still wrestle with feelings of sadness and ambivalence. We see the postpartum experience as a binary: mothers are either a natural who bounces back or a shallow puddle of postpartum depression. Surely there is room for a wide array of experiences between these two extremes.
There is so much focus on how motherhood impacts women outwardly but little of our complex inward transformation is explored. The birth of a child prompts the formation of a family, along with the new challenge of navigating our sense of self in this new domestic infrastructure. And while all these internal changes are taking place, as new mothers our focus is set decidedly outwardly; to our new baby, leaving us with little to no energy with which to process these profound changes.
I’m grateful for the steps I have made in walking away from what does not serve me. Some days I wake to find I’m back exactly where I started. And that’s okay. I’ve come to accept this is part of the work: acknowledging the sadness so that I can make room to feel other things too.
When I feel anger, shame, distress, or ambivalence, I start the list. It starts in the body. I am breathing. My heart is beating. I am here.
*This is truly one of my top Dad moments of all time
** I was in the final stages of my labour and had been pushing for about half an hour when the doctor came in and said “Ok, Carla. You need to stop what you’re doing. Stay still. Hold your breath. You’re about to tear into your anus. I need to redirect the tear.” Ok cool. Thanks for that.
Tags: birth, body, feelings, motherhood, pregnancy, shame
This post was written by Margeaux