Ah, pregnancy. Swollen feet, 25-35 extra pounds, aching joints, sciatica—these are words I typically associate with the blessed miracle of life. That is, I did until I got pregnant myself.
Pregnancy changed me in a wholly unexpected way.
Like many other women, I have a tenuous relationship with my body. It's not bad, I suppose, as female bodies go; it's fairly strong, mostly healthy, and decently reliable. On good days, I feel proud that my body can run three miles and carry a 20-pound toddler. On bad days, I sculpt my thighs to a "better" size with an imaginary knife.
When I was pregnant, my body and I had almost all good days.
I'm nearly a year and a half postpartum, and I still can't quite wrap my head around this. Even when my I couldn’t stuff my puffy fingers into my wedding ring anymore, even as I slowed from a run to a walk to an undignified waddle, even when I couldn't stroll through the deli without dry heaving—even then, I couldn't believe my love for my pregnancy body. Pregnancy gave me an unexpected gift: a wildly appreciative respect for my body.
I know my experience was far from universal. I didn't will myself to feel this way and I didn’t expect it. In fact, I anticipated developing any even further strained relationship with my body. After all, my copy of What to Expect When You're Expecting warned of drastic changes and a dysphoric body image. At times, my enjoyment of pregnancy even made me feel self-conscious or out of place, or like I must be doing something wrong. There’s not a vernacular for talking about pregnancy in terms of enjoyment or satisfaction, much like we often lack a vernacular for talking about our female bodies in positive terms. I also know this isn't how every woman experiences pregnancy; it may even be a rare experience. Who knows if I’ll love my body the same way when I’m pregnant again. But it left me with a lesson I’m still trying to unravel.
My newfound love for my body may have been due to my husband's constant affirmation, or other peoples' kind "You're glowing!" comments. Maybe it was due to the fact that I had an “easy” pregnancy on the wide spectrum of symptoms or complications. Or maybe I felt confident because I could let my tummy hang out (woohoo!) and lovingly refer to it as "the baby” regardless of my current level of gassiness. But I think my new respect for my body went a lot deeper than that.
When a woman is pregnant, her uterus expands up to 500 times its original size. Her heart literally grows to accommodate her growing child, pumping 40-50% more blood. Her ligaments soften gradually to prepare for labor while her center of gravity shifts and her body compensates. When she eats, her body prioritizes the nutrients directly to the baby before passing them over to her. During labor, her uterus contracts with force equal to 397 pounds of pressure per square foot, and her pelvic bone separates down the middle. All of this is accomplished without her conscious effort.
When you're pregnant, everything you do is miraculous. I'm not being dramatic—that's exactly how I felt. When I was at school, I was at school and growing a baby. When I tutored, I tutored and grew a baby. At work, at school, at home—no matter what I was doing, I was also performing a miracle. My body was building another human without any conscious thought on my part, and doing it brilliantly. It was a life-altering thought.
I started treating my body like it can do amazing things—because it can.
I found my gaze softening when I looked in the mirror; I was immensely grateful for what my body could do. I treated my body more kindly: I practiced yoga, I rested, I drank herbal tea and ate when I was hungry. I thought more intentionally about how my choices affected my body because now it was performing the unimaginable task of housing my child.
You know the crazy thing that happens when you respect your body? You start to respect yourself more, too. Sure, we like to think our bodies and our souls aren't as closely linked as all that, but they are; at least, our perceptions of them can be. I said no to requests when I was tired or felt overwhelmed; heck, I learned to say no just because I didn't want to. For a recovering people-pleaser, this was ground-breaking. At first I was saying no because I was pregnant, and I had to take care of my baby. After a while, I realized I could say no because I had to take care of myself, too.
Did the effects last? Yes, and no. Pregnancy taught me a lesson that I'll never forget. I do have an altered—improved—body image today as a result of my pregnancy. But it has been easy to forget, too, especially when the expectations of a ruthless society barge in to remind me not to "let myself go" or "look like a mom." I still have to check myself regularly, especially when I find myself fueling a run or a workout with thoughts of getting rid of this or that part of myself.
But here's the thing: pregnant or not, my body is amazing. It can soothe my child, embrace a friend, calm my husband. Through it I experience pain and pleasure, desire and satisfaction, endorphins and taste and adrenaline and emotions. Even while writing this, I took a break and held my daughter close, soaking up her post-nap warmth, my body giving and receiving comfort skin to skin, lips to forehead, chest to chest.
I wish it hadn't taken pregnancy—and 25 years—to realize that my body made in the image of God is beautiful and strong. Our bodies are infinitely more than numbers on a scale or short necks or thin lips—in fact, who gets to say what your scale should read or your neck and lips should measure?
Your body is made up of more atoms than there are stars in the universe. Your brain is currently processing information faster than the world’s most advanced supercomputer. Every second that you’re here, reading this, you’re producing 25 million new cells.
You, as you are—you're amazing. Your body is amazing. Don’t forget it.