Challenges and limitations are nothing new to me. In fact, there’s a certain sense of familiarity that comes with intimately knowing what your abilities are and – perhaps more importantly – what they aren’t.
You see, I have multiple chronic illnesses. I guess you could say I hit the Jackpot of health issues. At least that’s the line I always use when meeting a doctor for the first time (which happens often). I have Central Nervous System Lupus, Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome Type III Hypermobility, scoliosis, mitral valve prolapse, and I’m sure something else that one of my first conditions has made me forget. To sum it up, having an autoimmune disorder and a connective tissue disorder can take a toll on both your body and your mind.
Since I was born with these conditions, I’ve never really known anything different, so I don’t tend to complain. I also tend not to realize when I’m doing something that freaks people out. I’ve had a toe dislocate at work to the astonishment and disgust of my co-worker, I’ve caused my husband serious concern when I repeat the same question multiple times thinking each time is the first, and of course I give my mother a mini heart attack any time I so much as sniffle or cough.
This kind of confidence in acknowledging and accepting my body’s quirks was quite liberating once I became an adult. It was actually cool to be different in college and volunteer work with health-related charities looks great on a resume. Just about the time I really felt at home in my body, someone else decided to call it home, too.
I’ll be honest. I was scared when I first found out I was pregnant – and not necessarily for the reasons you may think. My immediate thought was, “Oh, God. What I have cursed this baby with?” And as the first visit with my OB/GYN would confirm, my pregnancy was going to be high-risk. But hey, that also meant I got a bright red folder instead and got bumped to the front of the line. It was VIP treatment for the next nine months.
Prenatal visits transitioned to out-of-town trips to a Maternal Fetal Medicine Specialist and then concluded with me on bedrest at month seven. Bedrest sounds fun in theory, but after day three, you’ll be bored, lonely, and longing for a shower. At that point my sole focus was on keeping my inner home intact for the tenant that most certainly would not be getting his security deposit back. I even began to love the job of growing a life. My stomach was huge, I had endured multiple rib and hip dislocations, but my body finally felt like it was doing something right.
They tell you all about “what to expect when you’re expecting,” but nothing prepared me for how I would feel about my body after I gave birth. I had to have a c-section for medical reasons and it wasn’t the best experience. So when I was taken to recovery, I quietly lifted up the sheet to take a peek at my “vacant” stomach. Of course I wasn’t expecting washboard abs, but it looked like I was still five months pregnant. At a time when I wanted to be rejoicing, a small part of me was secretly grieving – grieving the loss of a body with purpose.
I was elated to hold my baby for the first time. I also loved all of the special moments that came after, but I just didn’t feel like anyone understood the disconnect I was feeling within my own body. As soon as I mentioned anything about it, I was immediately shut down with comments like, “But you’re so tiny!” and “You look great for just having a baby, though.” Yes, that’s great, but that wasn’t what I was saying. I was saying this: My body – my flawed, malfunctioning, and ill-constructed body – at long last did a job and did it correctly. But what is it now? I don’t know this body. I don’t know these lumps and scars. Whose soft, pliant stomach is this?
What made matters worse was when I was told that, partially due to my connective tissue disorder, I would be unable to breastfeed. Words can’t describe the devastation that flowed through my soul at that moment. I continued to pump even until I bled just to prove the doctors wrong like I had done so many times in my pregnancy. But my luck had run out. I vividly remember meticulously collecting less than two milliliters of breastmilk, careful not to spill a precious drop, and feeding it to my son for his first and last time.
I failed. That’s all I could tell myself. A mother’s job is to care and provide for her child and I couldn’t even give him the very sustenance he needed to live. I begrudgingly accepted my lot in life and grew to hate bottles and formula even more than I hated myself. Logically I knew that plenty of formula-fed babies go on to live happy, healthy lives, but reason and facts were no match for my hormone-fueled, sleep-deprived brain.
And then things changed.
Not gradually, but suddenly, like a lightning bolt. My son was only four months old at the time. We were in bed together in the early hours of the morning while my husband left for work. And then it happened: those tiny, pudgy little fingers pulled and clung to my loose stomach where he nuzzled in and fell asleep. That’s when it hit me. I had been flinching when anyone tried to get near my torso, but it felt entirely natural for my son to pinch the body from which I felt estranged.
My body didn’t lose purpose.
My body was still a home – for both of us.
Guest post written by Sarah Bunton. Sarah is a wife, mother, feminist, animal rights activist, and a strong supporter of the LGBTQ community. She holds a BA in Religious Studies from Stetson University and currently works as a cognitive skills trainer with children facing developmental challenges. In between balancing a chronic illness, work, and a feisty toddler, she loves to share her experiences, advice, and humor with others. You can find more of her writings on her blog, Bump Birth and Beyond! Follow Sarah on Facebook & Twitter.
Photo by N'tima Preusser.