Getting My Body Back

Isn’t a thing I’m supposed to say. I'm not supposed to say that my stomach isn't as flat as it used to be and c-section scars actually don't fade until you can barely see them. Apparently hip-dips are a thing now, and I don’t know if they’re trendy in a good way or a bad way, but I’ve been giving mine the side-eye every morning for the last several years. But who cares? Why am I even reading articles about that? I'm supposed to say I made humans! Whole people came out of me! I love this scar. I love the lived in look of my navel and the way those little veins snake up my thighs. These are the truths I'm supposed to believe because feminism and girl power and love and motherhood and all the body love hype that I champion.

But I haven’t felt like I thought I would.

When I was in college I took a personal leadership class, and in that class I learned something called The Formula for Change. In order for this formula to work the vision for change and the dissatisfaction for the current situation both need to be high in order for you to actually make the change in your life. When the professor explained it, I took copious notes. I remember writing down the equation and studying it carefully, sure that it was something I would never forget. Thirteen years later I can’t recreate it, but I think that’s okay. I remember the gist of it, and it’s this: if I want change I need to be ready to take action.

***

There’s a scene in Legally Blonde that’s really the turning point in the whole movie. After Elle Woods has kicked it into gear at Harvard Law in order to prove herself as a serious student, one of the professors announces that he is taking on first year interns to assist in a murder trial. In the scene, we see the crowd of students outside the professor’s office looking at the list of interns posted on the bulletin board and hear the rush of excitement as Elle’s ex-boyfriend Werner and his new girlfriend Vivian gush over the fact that they earned spots on the team. Elle pushes through the crowd as a male voice says “that leaves one spot for—”. Elle scans her finger down the list, turns through the crowd with her signature determined walk, throws her right pointer finger down and yells “ME!”

***

For the last six years I’ve given my body away in really beautiful, substantial ways. I fostered a baby, then adopted that baby. I was pregnant twice in a very short period of time. I nursed babies and rocked babies. In fact, I still give my body away all day everyday. I carry toddlers and schlep backpacks. I bend over to pick up socks, and Legos, and crayons. I wipe noses with my fingers and catch vomit in my hands (Literally. Last week. At 4 a.m. On a camping trip!) I’m writing this with a two-year-old pressed up against me and every time I shift my body weight she grips my thigh with her chubby little hand and roughly whispers “can’t leave,” as though I’ve been traveling abroad for a month without her rather than spending the better part of every night of her entire life sandwiched between her small sweaty body and the prospect of uninterrupted slumber.

Sidenote: what all those parenting experts don’t tell you about the attachment parenting style is that the children get attached to you. Not just in an I-feel-super-loved-and-secure kind of way. I mean really, actually attached. They latch themselves to your body like sticky, graham cracker covered leeches and instead of sucking your blood they slowly eek the energetic life force from your being, but you love them and they’re darling, so you let them stay because you’d be so desperately sad if you plucked them off and flung them onto their own beds for goodness sake, but ohemgee coffee is just not a strong enough replacement to combat the ferocity of their pull.

But back to me.

That’s kind of the point: back to me. It’s hard work to circle ‘round to this practice of maintaining personal space (what with those precious leeches and all). It sounds selfish. It’s hard to say and hard to write, and for me, it was harder to do.

For the last six short (long?) years of motherhood, three wild babies, and hours upon hours of giving my body away, I had some dissatisfaction about the fact that I just couldn’t claim personal space with any kind of consistency. My desire for “getting my body back” was never about looking 25 again. I’m not trying to turn back time or erase the existence of the parts of myself that I’ve grown into over the years, but I want my body to return to me. I had given it up and given it away, and I wanted to feel like I belonged to myself again. Just a little bit. Every day.

Then a new gym opened up near my house, and somehow I became one of those 5 a.m. first-class-of-the-day people. This seems insane. I know. I’d roll my eyes at myself so hard if I wasn’t completely obsessed with this new habit.

I love how I feel at 6 a.m., stepping out into the cool morning air to greet the sun, knowing that I beat her, that I started my day first, that I reached out into that little patch of morning and planted my flag on it.

***

On Saturday, I went to the local running store with my middle daughter. I didn’t need anything. We were in the shopping center for other errands, so I figured we could just pop in and scan the sale rack. As I browsed, my daughter went over to the shoes and carefully removed three different pairs of sneakers.

“Which one do you like best?” she asked. I pointed to the black ones with hot pink laces.

“Those are fun,” she said. “But when I’m a running mommy, I’m going to pick these.”

She held up a mint green shoe with lavender accents. “I’m gonna be so fast,” she said.

I hope she is. I hope she remembers this.

I hope I remember so that I can whisper it back to her in 30 years. Go. I’ll tell her. Be a running mommy.

***

This isn’t just about my body. We all know that, right? For all intents and purposes my body is like, you know, good. It absolutely does all the things it’s supposed to, and for that I am unendingly grateful. This is about my entire self, about all the parts of me. The parts that existed before three little people filled my arms and my heart, and the parts that will continue to exist long after those people have fully grown.

I think I lost myself for a while there. It’s understandable. I don’t think I totally knew that until I found a way to get her back.

I’m amazed at the connection between the mind and the body. How just a small change in physical activity can facilitate a vast shift in perspective. The time I’m spending to come back to myself could include any activity, but for me, it’s exercise. It’s returning to a routine I had set aside for a season. It’s returning to something that I loved for no other reason than I love it. It’s knowing that I’m able to care for myself better and care for my family more fully because I’ve looked at the calendar, circled a time slot, and every day when my alarm goes off, I push through the crowd of time and space, throw my pointer finger down and say “ME!”

Why Am I So Tired?

The day started a little after 5 a.m. I spent some time praying, writing, returning emails, and sipping cold brew, nothing out of the ordinary. The kids all joined me one at a time, emerging from their beds with disheveled hair and creased faces, and the mommy-routine began: milk, diapers, cuddles, clothes. It was a morning as usual after that: speech therapy, the park, lunch, quiet activities, a TV show (which is when it all when south for mama), dinner, bath, book, bed. The day as a whole had resembled many, if not most, of our days in this season.

Well, except that I fell asleep in the middle of it: just after 3:30 p.m., on the couch, three kids in the room, with Super Why on PBS in the background. It was only a minute, but I can assure you I was asleep, unaware of the entire world for those few short moments. Cannon, my three-year-old, crawled up on my lap and started poking my eyelids, which was a kind reminder that a four-, three-, and almost two-year-old are not exactly ready for extended unsupervised time. Mamas don’t sleep, his little fingers seemed to tell me. Wake up, wake up!

I want to tell you that one of my kids had been up the night before with a cough, or that another one woke up exceptionally early needing something and did not go back to sleep. I wish I had been at some late night gathering the night before, chatting with girlfriends and enjoying sangria like I did a decade ago. But none of those things are true. All of my kids slept through the night, like they usually do, and by 7 p.m., I had no bra on so I certainly wasn’t sipping sangria on a porch anywhere. At this point, five years and three kids into motherhood, I am actually sleeping more than I have in a long time. I’m not nursing, not pregnant, and have three very reliable sleepers.

Why on earth am I so tired?

I think it is because for a mama, the day is so much more than what makes the list of things we did.

At speech therapy, my heart got pulled in two opposite directions: hope and heartbreak. A glimpse of emerging words followed by a whole lot of silence. Carrying the emotional load of special needs is exhausting. The wondering, the fear of tomorrow, the elation of small steps of progress and the daily surrendering of our own plans. It is a wonderful journey, but it takes a lot out of you. And driving to and from therapy is just the start of it.

We did get to have fun at the park, but for mothers of young children, any place without a fence is the opposite of restful. Because in addition to pushing kids in swings and catching them at the end of the slide, my eyes were never in one place, but always on the lookout for a toddler who had walked too far or a stranger who had come too close; echoes of the latest scary news article I saw on Facebook still haunting me just a bit. You forgot to bring the sand toys, the four-year-old not-so-kindly reminds me. Sorry, child. Make a friend and ask for theirs. And don’t talk to your mom with sass, please. I wanted my children to have fun, and I wanted them to be safe, and I wanted to at least ask my friend two questions about her life while we were both in the same physical space and dang, my mind cannot do all of those things at once.

Lunch came next, but in between the park and lunch, three kids and six shoes and a plethora of towels and water bottles did not make it back into the van by themselves. They also didn’t get there without some strong reminders about listening ears and grateful hearts for the time we did get to spend at the park. I could blame the sun and the hunger and the quick fall from the high of playing with friends for a bad attitude, but I’m still responsible for parenting one. When you care deeply about the kind of human beings your children become, you spend a lot of time working on the kind of children they are. Discipline is worth every second, but we all know it takes a lot more energy than looking the other way.

By the time our lunch plates were put away and the baby was finally down for a nap, I could feel the sleepiness tip-toeing its way in. I should have known better at that point than to sit down with my kids while the TV was on. I should have made a small cup of coffee, or done some pushups or ... anything but sit down. Alas, the couch looked too cozy and the idea of just not moving for a minute overtook me. Shortly after, I felt those little fingers poking at my closed and heavy eyes.

We did plenty of good things that day, but that’s not why I was so tired. I’ve been doing plenty of things my whole life without falling asleep before the evening news comes on. Life is different now, and not just because I have a diaper bag slung over my shoulder. Between the places we go and the tasks we accomplish, there is a whole host of things I carry. No one else sees them, but the weight takes its toll on me. Things like hope and worry, vigilance and patience, fear and laughter, unanswered questions and anxiety. It all gets heavy after a while. Did she drink enough water? Will he ever talk? Is he behind the slide? Are we all safe? Did you leave your new shoes on the bench? Why is he crying? Will insurance cover that? Why is her attitude bad? Am I even doing any of this right?

That’s motherhood. Even when our bodies rest, our minds rarely can.

So at the end of the day, I think I’m tired because we had so much fun, and I’m tired because I had to discipline 28 times. I’m tired because this is a wonderful, scary world we live in. I’m tired because three kids and one mama usually means four opinions and my decision fatigue is off the charts. I’m tired because of a full therapy schedule and I’m tired because I am still trying to be a wife and a friend and a writer and a professional, too. I’m tired because I am busy, yes; but the busyness in my heart far outweighs my to-do list.

But mostly, I am tired because I am giving this beautiful, complicated life and these growing, changing kids my very best.

Aren't we all?

Maybe being tired is not a sign that we are doing anything wrong, but simply evidence that we are doing something very, very right.

In Time

My teenage son saves a collection of broken wristwatches on his dresser, all with little to no shot of resuscitation. Some simply need a new battery. A tiny metal heart with a spark to get them ticking again. Others have rusted or tangled gears that don’t know how to spin anymore. All of them are, in reality, not going to be fixed any time soon.

“Why do you hang on to those? They’re just taking up space,” I ask him once a week when I deliver laundry to his door.

“I don’t know. They were worth something. Once.”

He is our family’s nostalgia buff. The one who gathers memories and artifacts of the past. Meanwhile my daughter only has eyes for the future.

“When will I be a mommy?” she asks me.

“Not any time soon,” I tell her.

“Before or after I drive?” she persists, dangling my car key from her tiny finger.

After you drive,” I tell her. “Definitely after.”

My children are growing in opposite directions, and somehow, 10 years apart, they’ve magically decided they want to switch places. My son, 16, flails to grab the last few moments of being called a kid, putting away his action figures with reluctance, and sneaking a head on my shoulder when absolutely no one is looking. His superpower is to know the malaise that comes with crossing that magical border to young adult. I am grateful more days than not that he is a young 16.

My daughter, just six, can only see a decade ahead and smuggles lip gloss and high heels to her room. She uses her mirror as a time machine to imagine what she will look like as a teenager. She juts out her hip and waves her hand in the air, beckoning to her imaginary tribe of future friends. She is a visionary at times, mapping out her entire future in the palm of her hand.

Neither of them, though, has any idea that this moment, this now, is as perfect as it gets. And sometimes I blame myself for that.

Motherhood often tricks us into believing the now isn’t real. We plan ahead for summer vacations, for picture perfect birthday parties, and for graduations and then weddings and even grandchildren decades before they exist. We nest and stockpile. We plant our feet and brace ourselves to shoulder tragedy and shield our loved ones from the unknown with an armor that only motherhood provides.

And far too often we simultaneously mourn the past. The lasts. The last time we see a first step, and the last time we cradle a newborn in the crook of our arms so used to being fleshy swings. We hold knit baby caps to our noses and try to recapture the smell and the feel of bringing our little ones home. We walk through toddler sections of stores with melancholy when our children have raced on to the next size. Often, we let our memories and our anticipation squeeze the joy of the now right out.

By following our examples, our children do it, too. We applaud them when they read beyond their grade or cruise past the doctor’s milestones for where they should be. We nod as they design their futures or carefully compile scrapbooks honoring a special family moment. Because we are older and wiser, we ask them to cherish the past and prepare for the future.

But how often do we ask them to stop and experience the joy of now?

Mindfulness and presence have enjoyed a central spot in many healthy living regiments, but the concepts haven’t permeated advice on parenting quite as much. Perhaps it’s because the now is unpredictable. The best plans, as most parents know, rarely work exactly as we’d like. Editing the past is cathartic—remembering memories in their fondest ways while extracting the uncomfortable moments.

The now is delightful and messy and wild.

I want my children to grow, in the ways and directions they choose. I want them to love the past and shiver with excitement for the inspiring futures waiting for them tomorrow and beyond. But I also want to teach my children how to hold very still and see every detail, every minute, ticking deliciously around them.


Guest post written by Sarah Clayville. Sarah is a writer and high school teacher in central Pennsylvania. Her work can be found in numerous literary journals both online and in print. She spends most of her time figuring out how to write about the incredible people around her without them knowing and getting everyone she meets to read more. Sarah often carries a few extra books in her purse and gladly distributes them to those in literary need. Discover her work and musings on her website, Sarah Says Write, or on Twitter.

The Gift of Each Other

Two and a half years ago on a warm Friday night in October, my husband and I sped down the freeway from Sacramento to Davis at approximately 80 miles per hour. The clock on the dashboard flashed 12:13 a.m. I was 60 percent sure I was not in labor.

I had signed the VBAC consent form a few weeks earlier as a formality, and remember practically smirking as I did so. Just in case I go into labor early, yeah right.

Turns out, the joke was on me as I winced in the passenger seat. The possibility that I was, indeed, in labor, grew with each contraction and each mile of freeway passing underneath our car.

We left the house a mess. No food in the fridge. I’m almost positive we were down to one roll of toilet paper, because “buy toilet paper” remained on my Costco shopping list. You know, the errand I had planned to complete one week before the scheduled c-section? Yes, that one. I cannot remember if we had purchased newborn diapers. I think those were also on the Costco list.

But that’s not the worst part.

We left the house in such a hurry that we never said goodbye to Everett, our 2.5 year-old.

My friend Christina, who was also eight months pregnant at the time, waddled through our front door at 11:50 p.m. to sleep on our couch while Everett slept in his room. A flurry of texts, a five-minute shower, a handful of items thrown haphazardly in a bag, and we were gone. We didn’t even have a car seat installed in the car, a fact that would later be funny (in a pathetic sort of way). We said goodbye to Christina, but we never said goodbye to Everett.

I did not even think to tiptoe into his room to kiss his forehead in the dark, a fact that would torture me for the remainder of the drive.

***

I always knew I wanted more than one child, in the same way I knew I wanted to be a mother. That desire was mostly selfish.

Sure, I wanted a sibling for Everett, in the same way I wanted more grandchildren for our parents. But those desires were secondary to my own. I wanted to experience motherhood more than once. I wanted to feel more kicks in my belly, to hold another newborn against my chest, to feel the earth moving under my feet as I bore the immense privilege of becoming a mother all over again. I, I, I. Me, me, me.

Sure, I wanted a sibling for Everett, but that desire was more of a side benefit, a bonus, the cherry casually dropped on an already-sweet ice cream sundae.

The most miraculous part of adding a person to your family is somehow finding more love within yourself that you weren’t sure existed in the first place. When we got pregnant five years into marriage, I remember fearing that I might love my husband less as a result. As if a new baby could use up the love meant for my marriage, as if my love had limits, as if it could run out, like water contained in a pitcher. There’s only so much love to go around, I thought to myself. Only so much water here. Only so many glasses on the table.

How will I make sure there's enough for everyone?

The exact same panic set in when I became pregnant with my second. How will I ever love another baby as much as the first one? How will I love my husband, this child, and that baby, all at once?

I felt guilty for everything our first child would lose: the constant attention, the full capacity of our love and energy and financial resources. I felt guilty for the second child in my belly because he would only know a life sharing all of those things; he would never know what it’s like to have his parents all to himself.  

It wasn’t until I was home in the grey rocking chair with two children in my arms that I realized my love does not have limits at all.

As it turns out: my heart is a well, not a pitcher.
As it turns out: so are theirs.

***

“Shhhh ... she’s coming!”

I walk down the hall to the sound of giggles and see Carson, our youngest, diving into the bottom bunk. He closes his eyes and pretends to be asleep. I pretend to not know he’s pretending.

The second my silhouette flashes past the door frame, they are at it again: telling knock-knock jokes, playing with their stuffed animals, giggling incessantly—anything but sleeping. It is 8:30 p.m., and they’ve been playing in the dark for over an hour.

I don’t mind, though.

The first 18 months after our second was born, my kids lived on different planets: Baby Planet and Big Boy Planet. Every day they orbited around me until I got dizzy. Their needs were different, their interests were different, their diets were different—I was pulled in half on a daily basis, breastfeeding here, potty training there. While Everett was always kind and gentle with his baby brother, there was no real connection between them, no friendship. How could there be? The baby only slept and cried, an alien if Everett had ever seen one.

But then, around the 18-month mark, something incredible happened. Those two little planets started orbiting around each other instead of orbiting around me. Carson started walking and talking, and a friendship bloomed right before my eyes.

Everett started asking if we could wake Carson up from his nap.
(Never.)

Carson started asking if we could pick Everett up from preschool.
(Not yet.)

Fast forward another year, to today, and they want to be together 24/7. They look out for one another in the way that brothers do; if one falls down, the other helps him get up. I remember a few months back the kids were climbing a treehouse ladder. It seemed a bit too high for Carson. But Everett scaled the top and yelled, “You can do it, Car Car!!!” and sure enough, my tiny, not-even-on-the-growth-chart toddler made it all the way to the top. I would give anything to have that moment on video, because I have never seen Everett beam with pride for someone else’s achievements like he did that day. He jumped up and down, clapped his hands, hugged his brother, and exclaimed, “Carson! I am SO proud of you!” (I almost cried.)

They’ve created their own precious world together—one of dinosaurs and train tracks and toy cars and trampoline games. They are playmates, brothers and best friends, never sitting more than two inches apart on the couch while they watch Paw Patrol with matching snack cups in their laps.

Their lives have intertwined like a soft pretzel, so much so, that it’s hard for Everett to even remember his own life before he had a brother.

If I’m honest, it’s getting harder for me to remember, too.

I know their relationship will not always be this sweet, this easy, this simple. They hardly ever fight, and I fully expect that to change as they get older. There will be seasons when they don’t get along, possible punches thrown when no adults are looking, harsh words spoken late at night. I am not so naive to believe we can live in this Daniel Tiger-esque bubble forever.

But no matter what ebbs and flows from here, I can’t help but feel like I spent nine months worrying for nothing. I was so concerned about everything that everyone would give up; I couldn’t see forward, to the future, to this moment and this friendship, to everything that each of us would gain.

And if I could go back to that Friday night in the car, 35 weeks pregnant barreling down the freeway with a heap of guilt on my shoulders, that’s what I’d tell myself. (Also: yeah girl, you really are in labor, and this is about to hurt like hell.) I’d tell myself to keep my eyes on the road in front of us, not the rearview mirror. I’d tell myself this is the end of a chapter, but it’s not something to mourn. The next chapter is going to be 100x better. Just you wait. Give it eighteen months.

I had it all wrong back then. I had everything backwards.

Because as much as having a second baby was a gift to me, make no mistake ... it was a far greater gift to each of them.