Emilia is lying on the changing pad, her skin soft and rosy from the bath. She reaches for her toes and flashes a wide, gummy smile. I burrow my head into her belly, with its perfect jelly-roll shaped navel, and she giggles. I rub baby oil between my palms to warm it, then slide my hands over her legs and feet.
When Emilia was only a few weeks old, a home health nurse brought over a few worn teddy bears and a pamphlet with eighties-style graphics. As my baby slept in the infant swing, the nurse modeled an infant massage on a teddy bear and my two-year-old son and I tried to imitate her movements, giggling as we rubbed the pilling fur. That night, after my baby’s bath, I opened the pamphlet, peering over every few minutes to check if I was doing it right: pulling the skin of her leg away from her hip. Walking my thumbs up the soles of her feet. Rubbing each tiny toe before finishing by encircling her leg with my hand and pushing gently toward her body.
Now every night, I lie her down on the changing pad and massage each of her limbs, her belly, and her back. I turn on a playlist of lullabies, singing along with “Wildflowers” and “Cecilia and the Satellite.” When the music starts, she looks up at me with sparkling, trusting eyes. Her body is in my hands, and I can tell she feels safe, at peace, and connected.
With two energetic boys and a new baby, our home is chaotic. Someone is always crying before dawn, there’s always a playdate or appointment we’re rushing to, and I feel like there’s never enough of me to please everyone. Our nightly ritual is my pocket of peace. It’s a quiet space for me to marvel over the toes and fingers that took shape within my own body, to reconnect with the months when it was just the two of us. I memorize the strawberry birthmarks on her scalp and spine, the beauty mark on her right knee, the tiny dimple in her chin. The perfect, everyday miracle she embodies, just by growing.
I’ve never been one for massages, myself. Touch is not my love language. I’m a stiff, hesitant hugger, prone to being touched out and wanting to retreat from contact. I’m more comfortable with firm boundaries and at least a foot of distance.
Part of it is my constant, private war with my body. I’ve never been small, even when I’m at a healthy weight, but these days I’m neither. During my pregnancy with Emilia, my midwives performed extra tests, took extra precautions, for reasons delicately referred to as my “size.” I noticed when the nurses stopped using the regular pressure cuff and moved me up to the one marked “XL--Large Adult.” I look in the mirror and the face I see is unfamiliar, the features smaller, surrounded by more flesh.
Even when I weighed less, I felt lost in my body. In high school, I was always the slowest when we ran the mile in P.E., red-faced and heaving for an hour afterward. I missed the steps on the bus and fell into the street more than once. In college, I broke my wrist disco skating. I participated minimally during my few forays into team sports—I collected four-leaf clovers in the outfield and hung back during soccer, terrified of actually connecting with the ball.
I was more at home in my head, in my thoughts and books, until puberty, when I suddenly wasn’t. My hormones changed me from a happy little girl to one who sat alone, crying on the playground while the pretty girls with shiny hair swapped lip glosses and talked about TV shows I wasn’t allowed to watch. I didn’t know how to combat the waves of darkness swelling in my mind that dominated my thoughts for the next several years, confusing and isolating me. I didn’t realize until later that those thoughts, too, were chemicals made by the body I wasn’t comfortable inhabiting, that the symptoms I experienced were a physical disease.
My daughter is my third child, and I like to think I’ve learned a few things. I know how much Tylenol to give when she runs a fever and I have no qualms about sucking snot with a Nose Frida. I know that Target clothes run small and Gymboree run big, that Goldfish are much tastier than Annie’s Cheddar Bunnies, and that blowing bubbles will de-escalate almost any tantrum.
But having a daughter feels strange and alien, a new set of considerations before me after more than five years of being a boy mom.
There are so many things I feel I have to teach her: how to work for a healthy body without hating the one she has; how to protect herself without fearing the world around her; how to show her the bright, beloved, beautiful child of God she is when I still don’t always believe it about myself.
My body is a paradox of failure and miracle. My first son was born via C-section after hours of pushing. No amount of herbs, pumping, or praying could convince my breasts to produce enough milk to exclusively breastfeed my children. I’ve struggled to moderate my appetite and my brain chemistry. But my body has also done amazing things--given birth to nine pound babies without medication, nourished my babies with some breast milk despite a series of roadblocks, run a half-marathon, completed a triathlon.
Years ago, one of my friends watched her own daughter dig for snails in the dirt with my oldest son. “I love her physical self,” she exclaimed, as if she couldn’t hold it in.
“She is adorable,” I responded.
“No, I don’t mean that,” my friend said. “Of course she’s cute, but that’s not what I’m saying. I love her body. I love the physicality of her.”
I look at my daughter again, her kicking legs and grasping fingers. She slowly opens and closes her fists in front of her eyes, mouth open at the wonder of having hands. I love watching her spirit settle into the newness of its beautiful earthly vessel, so like every other person who has ever lived and yet so unique and inimitable. I love this soul wrapped in bone and flesh that grew and pieced together cell by tiny dividing cell in my own imperfect body.
I’m learning and relearning to love my body. Without it, my children would not be here; my daughter’s body could not exist without my own. Loving her physical self can only bring me back, full circle, to acceptance of my own physicality. So I take this moment of connection, a tiny gift for us both outside of my obligations and the needs pulling at me, and I love her with all of my senses. I know her mind won’t remember these intimate moments, but I pray her body will cling to the sense memories of being cherished. I finish the massage by tracing her spine with my fingers. Emilia turns her head toward the mirror behind her and smiles at her reflection.
Guest post written by Lorren Lemmons. Lorren is a mama of three, a military wife, a nurse, a bibliophile, and a writer. She lives in North Carolina. Her work has been featured on Coffee + Crumbs, Mothers Always Write, Military Mom’s Blog, and other online publications. You can also subscribe to her newsletter.