Tuesday 29 July 2014

Postnatal bodies: "Letting yourself go"

postnatal bodies, baby weight, losing baby weight, mummy tummy, self esteem, dieting, mother diaries, motherhood, parenting
Body image is something that is a problem for pretty much every woman alive. I'm sure there are a million theories as to why the female sex feels the need to care so much about their appearance or why they are so heavily criticised, but as a female myself I have lived with years of preening myself, trying endless make-up testers and detox programmes. I have struggled to go out without makeup on. I have battled with acne, lifeless hair and chubby thighs.

It's everywhere isn't it? You can't walk past a magazine without seeing a celebrity being criticised for having a roll of fat whilst she ties her shoelace, and next month she'll be praised again because she now looks like a wafer (without the ice-cream). We're led to believe that this is somehow normal; that our bodies should look a certain way and that we're all continually falling short of it. God forbid you'd make any changes in your life that would encourage cellulite or fatter waists or saggy boobs.

Like motherhood.

I was never under any illusion that motherhood would do my body any good and, if I'm honest, I became sick of the constant whinging of mothers who complained about what it had done to their bodies. Still, it was no wonder I was not so keen to put myself through such self-harm – I mean, a beautiful body is high on everyone's priorities, right? God forbid you choose something that makes your tummy wrinkle. Older mothers would tell me how skinny I was and then follow with "Well, you haven't had kids yet have you, love." (Cue evil cackle.) So for some reason I was slightly unenthusiastic about the prospect of having a child and turning into a heffalump over night.

And then I had a baby.

Something happened in me after I joined 'The Motherhood' (that elite group more lethal than the mafia) that, despite all the self-criticism, suddenly made me aware of how amazing my body was to complete such a ridiculous task as to grow a whole human being in nine months. Sure, my body had changed but I worked very hard to lose the baby weight and I became the fittest and most toned I'd ever been in my life (cue older mothers chucking bricks at my head). Yes, my body had changed – I had scars and stretched skin to prove it, but I felt surprisingly okay about it.

And then I got pregnant again.

And my body has stretched a little bit more, and I have less time for exercise and I eat. Lots. And I'm left with wondering how my body will change for the second time and how I will deal with the criticism and the stares at my belly three days after I've given birth (as though that huge, nine-month-old bulge should somehow magically disappear overnight). I'm wondering if I will look at other young, childless women and envy their stomachs and their pert little bosoms; I wonder if I'll tell them they're only like it because they haven't had children yet (cue evil cackle). And my younger friends will look at my body with slightly more curves and lumps and discuss behind my back how I have let myself go.

Letting yourself go – that phrase associated with becoming less beautiful, less physically attractive, as though you can't be bothered to make an effort. Women with children don't get a choice in this matter it seems; they are lumped into this category without warning, unless they become obsessive about surviving motherhood on a lettuce leaf a day, wearing their heels to 'mums and tots' groups and spending a small fortune on push-up bras.

As I approach the birth of my next child I am faced with a choice. Do I let myself go? And if you think by that I mean eating Macdonalds for breakfast and wearing my baby-sick-stained tracksuit bottoms all day then you'd be wrong because I consider my 'self' to be worth more than just my appearance. I consider that 'self' includes things like respect and dignity. I consider that my 'self' is worth more than a few stretch marks. I consider that my body deserves respect; respect enough to eat well and look after it and dignity in the folds and the wrinkles that my life story has bestowed on me. I have a choice, see, to tell you how crap my body is compared to when I was sixteen, or to empower women of all ages to feel beautiful and respected.

When I did life drawing at art college I always hoped that the model I had to draw was not a beautiful, young woman – her body was too smooth to add texture; her frame too slight to add character; her skin too fresh to tell a story. Sometimes imperfections are the very things that make us interesting; they make us beautiful. Your scars and your imperfections are important; they are the layers of your history. No one criticises The Grand Canyon for it's ridges, right? Why should we give ourselves such a bad rap?

So no, I will not be letting myself go, but by that I do not mean I will be body perfect or without criticism. What I mean is that I have enough integrity to hold onto that which is truly me and develop it. I want to be a good mother, a good friend. I want to laugh, even at myself. Becoming a parent gives you the option to be more of yourself than you've ever been; the inevitable hard times can develop character, the good times can develop deeper thankfulness, the unexpected times can give you more grace, and you can be all the more beautiful because of it. So please, please, ladies, don't let yourselves go. But feel free to eat a chocolate eclair every now and again, you've bloody earned it.

Saturday 5 July 2014

Learning to embrace suffering

I’ve always been pretty idealistic about life; I’ve sought out the good things; the things that bring happiness, fun and fulfilment (well, doesn’t everyone?). When it came to trouble or pain I would run a million miles away, to the point where if there was any risk of suffering I would steer clear, no matter how good the potential outcome. I became trapped by my own fear of pain and heartache and essentially I couldn’t face reality. I wanted life to be perfect. I walked around like a little kid in the face of pain, sulking that life was not fair. But a funny thing happens when you run away from pain; you not only avoid your own suffering but other people’s too.

Now, you may think that I’m hardly apt to speak about suffering, but I would tell you that I am perfectly knowledgeable about such a subject because I am, in fact, human. Admittedly my suffering may dim in comparison to someone who’s fighting cancer or dealing with horrendous loss, but I think that my human condition gives me permission to write about suffering.  I’ve had to face up to emotional as well as physical pain, which has been, quite frankly, shit. I don’t want to write about things that are painful, or disappointing, or less than perfect. But I’m human. So I write.

And I guess that’s one of the hardest things about pain, is that people judge you in your darkest moments, telling you that you should be able to handle this because so-and-so did, or that you should count yourself lucky that it’s not any worse. And right in an instant, those words are like a punch where you’re already bleeding. We’ve turned sceptical of people’s pain, turning a blind eye to it because it means we have to carry some of it ourselves. Deep down we’re all running away from suffering.

Recently I have had a pretty tough time. I’m currently sat in pain writing this, and for the last two weeks my husband has had to help dress me, aid me on the toilet and get me in and out of bed. The worst of it though is that I’m still unable to give my son a cuddle. It’s killing me. No, I’m not dying, but I have experienced suffering.  And no doubt you have too, because no one is exempt.

It all sounds pretty dire doesn’t it, facing all this doom and gloom? Yet in the midst of suffering I have become more alive than I have ever been. We have a choice, see, to run from suffering: to be defeated by it, or to embrace it: to let it shape us. Throughout times of suffering I have become aware of true friendship, of the depths of love of someone willing to hold you while you pee, of someone squeezing your hand when they can’t take the pain away, of someone hugging you when they have nothing to say. And somehow there is a something amazing about the hugs from those who have truly allowed suffering to shape and humble them, because they don’t come at you with how much more they’ve suffered than you, they just hold out their hand to you – really good people who have really suffered, and they’re not even bitter about it. They simply reach out to you and help to carry your pain too.

And so I am trying not to let suffering define me, but let it shape me. I’m determined not to run from it, but to embrace it – embracing others who suffer and not trying to give them solutions or tell them how much harder I’ve had it. I’m not sure I’m quite there yet – you know me, I tend to wallow in my own self-pity, but  I have come out the other side thinking that life is a pretty good place to be and I’m glad to still be here.  The pain has given me a greater understanding of happiness. I’m not exempt from suffering, but I’ve experienced horrendous pain and known peace, extreme frustration and known comfort. The fear of pain is often worse than it actually is. I now have deeper relationships and a greater understanding of humanity and I want to be able to reach out my hand to pain without judgement, not hide it away in fear.

And if you’re reading this and you’re in the midst of suffering, whether you’re close to death or you’ve simply got a headache, your pain is valid. Your suffering counts. But don’t let it define you, let it shape you so that you too can help to ease the weight of suffering and experience freedom in spite of it all.

“Suffering has been stronger than all other teaching, and has taught me to understand what your heart used to be. I have been bent and broken, but - I hope - into a better shape.”Charles Dickens, Great Expectations

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