Susan Peterson (36) and Stella (10 months)
Aurora, Ohio | Photographed in Austin, TX
"For most of my life, and even throughout pregnancy, my body has been a strong, agile, reliable friend. I’ve never been what one would describe as willowy or thin or lanky -- but I have been muscular, curvy, athletic, graceful, coordinated. Until now. My daughter, Stella, is ten months old, and my feelings about my postpartum body surface when I’m baby-talking to her. In that singsongy voice reserved for one-sided conversations with preverbal children, I ask her, “Did you take all my youth and beauty? Did you take it?”
In my first couple months postpartum, I was feeling confident that I’d regain my strength, lose weight, and maybe even be thinner than I was before I got pregnant, since I’d be breastfeeding. My mother told that when you are breastfeeding, it’s the only time in your life you can actually lose fat cells -- not just shrink them. My mother-in-law told me, “She will eat you up.” The extra weight did not effortlessly melt away.
At seven months postpartum, I was feeling pretty low. I alternated between two muumuus, ashamed of and exasperated by the extra weight, my floppy midsection, chalky complexion and stooped posture. I felt like even my soul was frumpy. I remember getting a haircut around this time. The extra-wide, extra-tall full length mirror at the salon accused me for an hour. When my hairdresser suggested some highlights to show off my new cut, I said, “I don’t want anyone to see me.” I left the salon anxious, agitated, depressed. I also carried a new base load of low-grade pain and discomfort. I had plantar fasciitis, aching hands and wrists and a burning tightness in my shoulders, neck and back. I had painful scar tissue at the opening of my vagina that had to be manually broken up by a physical therapist. I had difficulty practicing the kinds of exercise I did before, in part because I had a small abdominal separation and in part because I simply lacked energy.
I was also struggling to adapt to a new, more modest professional identity. I had planned to go back to work full-time after Stella was born, but I made the choice to step down from a director position and move into a part-time role so I could stay home a couple days a week. My decision surprised me: While I’d been excited to be the mother of a young adult, my expectations for infancy had been pretty low. I’d imagined a fair amount of boredom and drudgery. Instead, I was insatiably curious about Stella, completely in love -- I felt a primal urgency to spend unhurried, unstructured time with her. After I made the change, I was grateful my organization and my family could support my part-time schedule and I loved my time at home, but I missed my clout and influence at work and felt self-critical about my failure to “lean in.” When people asked me about my new work arrangement, I usually opened my explanation flippantly, saying, “Well, I’ve gutted myself professionally.”
Now, at ten months postpartum, things have shifted again. I feel fond nostalgia for the intense, fugue-state early weeks with my tiny infant daughter and I’m also enjoying a little more strength and freedom. My body is making less milk now as Stella eats more solid food and I both celebrate and mourn the lost closeness. My abdominal muscles are knitting back together. I have lost some weight, though my belly is still squishier than it was before. I have taken my first postpartum bike ride and humbly returned to running. I can leave the house after 7:00 p.m. since Stella sleeps through the night now, though I don’t often want to.
You will share everything: Your bed. Your breasts. Your diminished energy. Your carry-on suitcase. Your breakfast. The insides of your ears, mouth, bellybutton -- they are all fair game. This sharing is intimate and painful and frustrating and riotously fun. We have shared hundreds of walks and several snotty colds. We share space in my drawers and on my shelves. For a couple weeks, Stella would scream if I closed the bathroom door behind me, so I shared the bathroom with her, where she would pull up on the toilet as I sat on it and grab at my pubic hair as I peed. It seemed barely possible to continue sharing my milk with Stella while I had mastitis, but I nursed and pumped through it.
My husband, Sebastian, and I are celebrating -- and documenting -- these first months of Stella’s life with a great deal of tenderheartedness. We feel joy over exciting changes (rolling over, walking, first words) and softness toward difficult changes (teething, tantrums, messy solid food poos). The changes to my life and body have arguably been as fast and dramatic, but I have too often experienced them as disappointments. I am here as a gesture of goodwill toward myself, to celebrate and document my own changes with a little more gentleness."