Raquel Atkins and Oliver “Oli” ( 8 months)
Raquel shares -
“I have always been hard on myself, and I have been especially critical of my body since I was a little girl. At 8 years old, I was diagnosed with a rare skin disease called pityriasis lichenoides, which causes the skin to become crowded with small red lesions, looking very similar to chicken pox. It left me feeling ashamed of myself, as if I wasn’t already. I would wear long sleeves in the middle of humid Chicago summers and constantly compare my spotted stomach to the smooth tummies my friends felt confident baring. The disease usually lasts a few years and spontaneously resolves itself, but I have had it for 19 years and counting. I developed anorexia, battled with a prescribed addiction to Adderall, and exercised obsessively.
Moving in with my husband (then boyfriend) was a critical turning point in my life and is when my healing truly began. Love is powerful in that way. While I was pregnant, I would take long walks around our neighborhood and pray that the Universe would support me in my mission to heal my body image issues. I would talk to Oli when he was still in my womb and let him know that I was working on it. I spent hours writing, trying to reconcile my ill feelings toward myself. I remember on multiple occasions sobbing until I could hardly catch my breath because of the awful things I would think about myself while getting dressed.
My sister, Nicole, was my biggest support in those moments, coaxing me into ditching the pre-pregnancy clothes and welcoming mac and cheese back into my life. Our mother was not a great example of body positivity, and my father is a former competitive bodybuilder who still regularly denies himself food. The responsibility of healing that cycle of shame has fallen upon my shoulders, and I am grateful to be strong enough to carry the weight. Birthing my son and becoming a parent have brought me closer to humanity. I am extending myself grace for the first time in my entire life. While some moments are more difficult than others, I would say that parenthood has emancipated me in some ways.
Immediately after birth, I felt surprisingly sexy. I felt as though I was standing in my power and finally seeing myself as a woman. The honeymoon phase I was experiencing with my postpartum body faded as the weeks carried on, and I noticed myself falling into old patterns of restricting food and being hypercritical of myself. I began making the connection that my impatience with myself led to impatience with our son. How can we love our children fully if we are unable to love ourselves? Our children are of us. I fully intend to love our son eternally and unconditionally, but in order to do that, it is imperative that I continue to cultivate unconditional love for myself as well.
After thirty-seven hours of labor, I birthed Oli into his father’s hands from a position on my hands and knees in the comfort of our own home on our own bed surrounded by an incredible birth team and a whole lot of yummy love. Labor slowed down after the first 15 hours of surges, and everyone went home to rest. I had been vomiting since labor picked up at about hour 5, and I was exhausted. I was embarrassed that I had summoned our doula and midwife too early, but after they left, labor picked back up and was too intense for me to sleep through. I spent the night attempting to breathe through surges and navigate this holy terrain on my own while simultaneously leaving my body at multiple points throughout the night. The following day, I could not seem to push past 7 cm on my own. My body had not slept or ate in over 24 hours, and it had no energy left to help my son make his journey. I was tense, ashamed, and drained. My saint of a chiropractor was able to come to our home and adjust me during surges for two hours, ultimately giving my body permission to open and allow my son through. Oli was born an hour after she left. Instead of the flood of tears I was expecting to have when I saw my son for the first time, I felt elated and looked to my husband and said, “He’s so fucking cute!”
The days after Oli was born are a blur to both my husband and me. On the fourth day, I was feeling restless, so Rick and I decided we would take Oli to run a quick errand. I was nervous about the logistics of how to bring a baby into a store and saw Rick being home with us as the perfect opportunity to test the waters before I would be on a solo mission when he headed back to work the following week. I sent a picture of Oli bundled up to one of my closest friends as we were gearing up for our journey. On the way into the store, I was soaring. I told Rick that I could not believe I was allowed to bring Oli with me everywhere I went. It felt so good to be in public with our new little family, even just for a fifteen minute trip to Homegoods for a Christmas gift. About half way into the store, I opened a text message from my friend condemning me for bringing my son in public so early, reminding me of his age, and asking me why I hadn’t just sent my husband out instead. This was the first time I would be shamed and criticized by another woman for my mothering, and it was the first time I experienced the ever-present guilt so many moms talk about (or don’t). This was also when I had my first full-blown panic attack of my postpartum experience.
My husband went back to work one week after Oli was born. As he left for work and the entirety of when he was away for 13 hours each day, I was almost constantly trying to keep myself busy. If I didn’t, I would have out of body experiences, feel lightheaded, and become terrified. I remember being afraid to close my eyes at one point. I couldn’t explain it, and I thought that this was just a part of my consciousness expanding after having a child. Maybe it was part of it, but it was unbearable to be this uncomfortable being alone with my son. I was never afraid that I would intentionally hurt either of us, but on more than one occasion, I was afraid that I would pass out. It wasn’t until I called my sister in the midst of a panic attack that I was able to identify it as such with her help.
Seeing a therapist during this time was one of the best moves I have ever made, and I will forever be indebted to my incredible therapist. With the help of EMDR and Reiki, I was able to sort through and heal much of my fear of abandonment that seemed to be at the root of my panic attacks. Panic disorder does not always present itself as paranoia, watching your child sleep and breathe all night, or thinking something devastating is imminent. For me, panic disorder presented itself as unexplained panic attacks, telling my husband that I never wanted to die because our lives are too beautiful, and a general feeling of being terrified of nothing in particular. These feelings did not need to be medicated to be managed. They were begging for attention. Birth is not only the birth of our children. Oli’s birth also represents the death of my former selves. Oli’s birth revealed parts of me I did not know needed to be examined and forced me to heal parts of me I thought I had healed years ago. The birth of my son has forced me to become a more authentic, more compassionate version of myself.
The essence of my truth is that mine is likely different from yours, and that is okay. The same person who had first criticized me as a new mother recently told me that it is my moral obligation to my husband and son to be happy. Absolutely. Not. My moral obligation to my family is to be Raquel, whatever that looks like at the time. I do my best for myself and my family, and we love each other unconditionally with everything we are. I am imperfect, and often I am impatient and feel stretched to my limit. I persist, and I grow. I hope that women (and men) know that it is okay to not feel okay. Ascribing morality to happiness is to deny your humanity. Just do you, boo. YOU is so good, even when you is a total mess.
4thTri was a critical part of my postpartum journey. I have probably read every woman’s story who has participated. When I would be nursing my son for hours on end or having a particularly hard time accepting the way my body looks, I would turn to these stories for a sense of camaraderie. I am so grateful we moved to Reno, because I have never felt less alone. I am surrounded by an amazing group of body-positive women, and I am even blessed enough to be able to participate in this project. I hope parents remember that body image issues are not exclusive to women. My husband and I are determined to raise our child in a body-positive environment, though we know that doesn’t count for everything. I hope when Oli is older this will help him make sense of his strange momma and prove to him that I really am working on it like I promised him while he was still in my tummy. This is important work.”