mothering bodies ~ adoption ~ alt.gender ~ parenting ~ work/life balance

Saturday, June 29, 2013

Mother Bellies

Invisible Mamas, Poolside
Photo: MLB
My friend Sara and I took my sons to the swimming pool the other day. It is early in the season and Sara joked that her abdomen is still too lily-white for public exposure. I laughed that my rock-solid abs are inconveniently hidden under a belly pooch. But we shed our cover-ups anyway and enjoyed the warm sun on our respectively white and spongy abdomens.

Women and girls have conversations like this one all the time, usually while disrobing in proximity to each other in dressing rooms, at the beach, or by the pool. Although my exchange with Sara was punctuated by laughter, it showcases the ways in which women and girls in our culture are pitted against media images of perfection impossible to achieve--but also against each other. Sara joked about her color because I am more tanned than she is (and I use the term "tanned" loosely here). I joked about my shape because Sara is thinner than I am. Our comparison of our bodies' shortcomings against societal criteria of thinness and color was also--whether consciously or unconsciously--a matchup of our shortcomings against the beauty we see in each other. And while regarding others as beautiful is a generous trait, it becomes toxic when it translates into an uncharitable self image. Fortunately, more women and girls are fighting this toxicity by refusing unfair comparisons and promoting love of all female body shapes and colors.

Fashion: Bathrobe
Photo: Bryan Brown
I do not see such attention paid, however, to loving mothers' bodies. Our bodies bear the marks (or sometimes not) of childbirth, surgery, neglect, disease, and aging. And, yet, when human interest stories feature celebrities or models as laudable examples of imperfect women loving their imperfections, it is their--and, thus, our--cellulite and curves we are told they love. Not stretch marks or surgery scars, not dark circles under the eyes or the sweat sheen of a menopausal hot flush. The media loves a pregnant woman's body, but not a mother's. Her body is considered a problem to be fixed with camouflaging fashion and makeup tips.

Or we just ignore it.

While we sunbathed poolside, I noticed another difference between Sara's belly and my own. Stretch marks trace a silver web across her pale skin from navel to bikini bottom. Sara is the mother of two in their twenties. My own belly is also marked by reproductive processes, but mine are a constellation of laparoscopy scars marking the corners of a diamond stretching from hip to hip to navel, and disappearing below. Although I am the proud mother of two boys under the age of ten, my body is not marked by childbirth but by hysterectomy. Instead of fetuses, I carried rampant endometriosis scar tissue. I was never pregnant, but my belly bears the marks of my reproductive status nevertheless.

As mothers, Sara and I sat near the side of the pool, instinctively scanning the bright water every fifteen minutes to count bobbing heads. Periodically, I cringe-walked into the shallow end to scoop whooping boys into the air and splash them down again. "Dunk Mommy!" they screamed, and under I went. The water was bracing and I briefly fantasized slicing laps across the shimmer of an unpopulated pool. I popped up and they clung to my sides like barnacles. I carried them into the deep end and we bounced and glided, pretending that sharks pursued us and hugging fiercely.

Back at our seats, I shivered in my cold, wet towel. My six-year-old Connor, blue-lipped and shiny wet, climbed onto Sara's lap with his fish towel and fell asleep in the hollow of her belly. She looked at me and smiled.