“Put your fat stomach away. It’s ugly.”
My husband’s words cut through the darkened living room, lit by the gas fireplace and Christmas tree lights. I am sitting in a recliner and am only a few days past laboring out our second son; I pushed for hours in this very living room before we went to the hospital for a vacuum delivery. My mom is in the kitchen, and the dishes she is putting away pause in mid-air.
As he starts to rise from the sofa with our toddler in his arms, my husband glares at me nursing our newborn son, my shirt pulled up and around my deflating stomach and ballooned breasts. One of my hands grips my areola, trying to keep a searing latch in place. Milk drips down the slope of my belly, and I feel the warm wetness of urine fill the hand holding the curve of my son’s tiny, badly-diapered bum as his belly button presses into mine. Tears slip down my cheeks and I stare at the wall, pushing my shirt down as much as I can with my elbow.
“I don’t want to ever see that again. Do you understand?” My husband lifts our toddler up, tosses him in the air. They both giggle and start the short walk to the bedroom. A bowl clanks into place in the cupboard as my mom continues to unload the dishwasher. The moment of pause is still with me, even as our baby smacks my breast, even as his gums clamp down on my blistering nipple, even as the dogs re-circle at my feet to lie back down, even as the household starts to hum again.
I can’t breathe. I want to scream.
I just had your baby. We are the reason I look like this. I breathe snot soundlessly back into my nose and hug the baby closer. Our fluids mix together, milk and tears and urine and saliva, all in my hands and on his chest, and the only sound is his gulps of milk. For a moment the world is ours again, messy and sweetly painful.
Eight or nine months later—it all blurs together now—my husband has a mistress. I am looking for a divorce attorney. It will be a total of seven months before he sees our children, or me, again. I am in the midst of losing 20 or 30 pounds in a matter of a month because I have mostly stopped eating, though I’m still nursing. Life feels like it’s being sucked out of me, and in some respect, it is. My dress pants that “fit” are so loose that I catch a high heel in the back hem and almost break my ankle. I can count all my ribs and for the first time in my life, I have no rear end. It doesn’t make sense; nothing makes sense at this point.
On a whim, I book a nursing photography session. It’s fall, and I buy new clothes for the session because that’s what you do in the fall. Time seems to be slipping from us as I move on autopilot, and years later, I can’t tell you how we spent our days. I only recall all the crying in the middle of the night, my hands that shook all the time, and how scared I was of what was happening, and what was to come. Then, what races through my head on repeat: I am a woman who gets left, a woman whose husband is sleeping with someone else, a woman who can’t even convince the father of her children to call them regularly. There is nothing worthy about me. Put your fat stomach away. It’s ugly. Everything about my sons is magnificent and as much of a failure as I am, I am the only person they have to take care of them. That fact holds me hostage more than the voice in my head—I don’t want to ever see that again. Do you understand?—otherwise, I would never get out of bed.
When the photos from the nursing session land in my inbox, it’s not the fading sun embracing us or the brilliant framing that catches my attention. It’s the way my baby is reaching for my face as he nurses, his eyes locked on mine, so it seems we are almost the same person still. My shirt is pushed down around my breast; you can hardly tell we are nursing: we could be just another baby and mama pair captivated by one another. My breath catches as I realize, he loves me. I don’t know what my baby sees in me, and over the next few days I become obsessed with flipping through the photos and trying to understand: What have I missed about myself, the person who doesn’t deserve to be loved?
Here’s what I keep coming back to in the photos: His fingers, captured snowflaking into my smiling mouth. His body relaxed into mine, leaning towards me. Love emanating from his flesh, which I alone have fed and grown. I start to look for what is in the photographs in real life, as I lay in bed nursing him, as I change another diaper and he giggles, as we sit on the floor banging his blocks and he falls into my face with his open-mouthed kisses that drip with slobber I let dry on my face. I watch for signs from my toddler, too: the way he squeals in delight and runs to my arms when I pick him up at daycare, when he wakes me up with giggles and pats to my hair, how he tells me “I love you, Mama” in his singsong voice at times that make no sense, like when he is sitting on the potty or rolling in the grass or I am chasing him down the hallway.
I start to consider this: What if I’ve been listening to the wrong voices, paying attention to things that weren’t actually true?
So I start to fall in love again, with great care. This time I work to fall in love with myself, for maybe the first time in my life. I ask for an antidepressant; my therapist takes me immediately to the psychiatrist down the hall from her office. At home, the boys and I do big painting projects, blow bubbles into the ceiling fan, and tickle each other to wake up. I build memories with Saturday morning pancakes, zooming through aisles in fire truck grocery store carts, and throwing pizza crusts to the dogs during movie night. I buy clothes that fit and feel good on my body. I comb my hair and file for divorce and apply for a bigger job. I ask for help when I get pneumonia, and people drop off food for two straight weeks. I call my brother sobbing one day, and I don’t tell him no when he says he is booking the first flight to us he can find. I get the job, and I smile at myself in the mirror in the morning. Every day I cry, but now mostly in relief and with hope.
I start to hate when people apologize for him—and you would not believe how many people do. People who have known me my entire life, who are processing how he betrayed them too, who will never meet him. I do not apologize for the text messages he sends, the visits he does not make, the calls he skips. I am not sorry about what he is choosing to do, and I am not sorry for the life I am building, the story I am creating. I know these people mean well. Meaning well isn’t enough, which I also know now. When my husband told me I was fat and ugly because he saw my empty belly against our nursing newborn, I meant well too, so I said nothing. Some words are too much; others will never be enough.
“I love you more than all the stars in the sky, all the water in the ocean, and all the sand on the beach. I am so lucky you picked me to be your mom,” I whisper into my sons’ damp hair as they climb off my lap to go to bed. They press their faces into my belly before they run upstairs; it’s their favorite part of my body to hug. My boys are now five and six, and when their dad didn’t show up to his call last Saturday, I asked them how they felt. My youngest son told me, “We don’t care, Mom. It’s his decision,” as he kept working on the magic dragons he and his brother were creating from tissue paper and cardboard rolls.
Once their footsteps disappear up the stairs, the next hour or two are mine. I write on my laptop, and I read books, and I run on the treadmill, and I take baths filled with salts and bubbles. Every day, I learn more about how to take care of myself and in doing so I love myself a little more. I know now the answer to the questions I had about those nursing session photographs several years ago: I am loved just as much as I love. While this love isn’t what I thought I’d have when I first held my babies, my husband at my elbow, it’s better. Deeper. And it includes my fat stomach which, it turns out, isn’t ugly after all.
Guest post by Lacey Schmidt. “My mom does everything,” is how her then three-year-old once described Lacey. Most days, it feels true. Solo parent to Miles and Jack, Lacey is an HR leader by career, Mom always, and all else in the cracks she can find.
Lacey’s essay was the first-place winner of our “Love After Babies” essay content in our Exhale creative community. For more information about Exhale, visit www.exhalecreativity.com.
Photo by Andrea Oleson.