My husband thinks I'm beautiful, but I don’t believe him.
I was only 20 when Jon and I started dating. Back then, I was tan. Lean. I had both the time and the inclination to workout. My underwear drawer contained no Spanx, and I scoffed at bras with padding as “false advertising.” Of course, I would have argued then that I wasn’t a head-turner; I spent plenty of time in front of a mirror, cataloguing my flaws. A nose that’s a touch too big, hair that insists on doing its own thing more often than not, and a stomach that was never quite flat, regardless of the number of crunches I did. Those were my favorite targets, but I had a much longer list.
In four days, I’ll turn 34. I’ve had two kids and two c-sections in the last six years. I am pale now, even in the summer. I could probably find the time to workout, but I’ve yet to locate the inclination. My underwear drawer holds a small collection of Spanx in different tones and I now know that the right bra with the right padding is absolutely everything.
I no longer make a habit of studying myself in the mirror to pick apart my flaws. There are simply too many to choose from; I’d be there all day. When I look over my shoulder into the mirror, I see dimpled flesh and a stretch mark or two. If I take a deep breath and look at myself straight on, I see the effects of breastfeeding and gravity — a body marked by the scars of bearing two children, and the dark circles and gray hairs that reflect the raising of them.
Despite what the mirror reflects back to me, Jon whispers you’re beautiful into my ear almost every day. I say thank you, but what I’m really thinking is are you blind? I see pictures of us from the early years and I nearly shudder. Twenty-year-old me? Sure, if you squint, she could be beautiful. But not 34-year-old me. I’ve changed so much.
My husband would argue that’s exactly the point.
For a long time, there was a hard edge to me. My words were sharp, like arrows. I launched them at my targets, looking for a bullseye every time. I had great aim. It was a skill developed out of self-preservation. I wasn’t well-liked in my growing up years, and the words and actions of a few particularly harsh classmates triggered my worst instincts. I was argumentative, contrary and defensive, mistrusting of almost everyone’s motivations and wary of anyone who tried to get too close. Not many people bothered trying.
Until Jon. He was warm. Charming. Handsome. He liked me. I liked him. And suddenly, for the first time ever, I wanted to be softer.
I wasn’t sure how to be, though, and so I wasn’t always good at it. I’ve wounded Jon over the years with my words, my tone, my harshness. I’ve been difficult and unyielding. He has loved me anyway and patiently smoothed my roughest edges, but my weapons were never far away. My instinct to protect myself at the cost of everything else still lurked under the surface.
We got married. We had a baby. I remember lying in the hospital bed the day our son was born as the nurse brought him over to me. I ached to hold him — I had waited months for this moment, but I realized I had to make room. I couldn’t hold my weapons and my son at the same time.
“You’re going to need to keep him warm,” the nurse told me. “If his body temperature drops, we will have to take him away to the nursery and put him under the heat lamps for awhile.”
She smiled. She trusted me to keep him safe. Without hesitating, I laid down my arrows. My body relaxed. I raised my shaking arms to hold my son. I snuggled him under the heavy blanket, his cheek pressed against my chest.
The remnants of my hard edges melted away in that hospital room. We laid there for hours, my son and me. He needed me to be safe, soft and warm, so that’s what I became. Looking down at his face, I realized I couldn’t face the world hackles raised and primed for a fight anymore. Jon wasn’t defenseless, but this baby was. My husband began the work that my son finished: desperate not to hurt him, I finally valued something more than my own self-preservation. I became a mom.
In that moment, I believed I was beautiful.
Motherhood has made you so much softer now, a friend — the kind of friend who’s known me for two decades — observed the other day, half-joking.
He’s right. My belly is softer from baking cookies and going for doughnuts and doing more dance parties in the kitchen and fewer miles on the treadmill. My expression is softer, with eyes that look perpetually tired from years of rocking babies and soothing sick children in the middle of the night (it’s always in the middle of the night). My mouth is softer, edged with lines from years of deep, side-splitting, tear-producing, shoulder-shaking laughter.
That’s not what he meant though. It’s that my heart has been gentled, too. I no longer see a world trying to hurt me and rush to get the first strike in. It used to be easy to lash out or condemn others for their mistakes, but I want my children to see the inherent good in others, which means I have to look for it first.
Without my weapons, I’m more vulnerable. I cannot protect myself anymore, because I’m no longer mine to protect. Being a mother has pulled my heart outside my body. It means more bruising, more pain and more risk. But it also means a greater love and sense of purpose then I ever knew possible. That’s where we find our beauty: not in our flawlessness, but in our humanity.
My body shows the wear and tear of motherhood, but so does my heart. The scars, the softness, the permanence of the changes — what mars one, refines the other.
Perhaps Jon isn’t as blind to my flaws as I think. Maybe I’m the one who can't see.