About two and a half years ago Ezekiel and I decided not to have a third child. Now our “baby,” Ira, is four years old and will be starting kindergarten next fall. Leigh is a second-grader. We are no longer starting a family; we are already a family. It seems like just moments ago that I was pregnant with our first child, but I gave birth over seven years ago. It was a challenging birth, but I have good memories of it. I remember the hours I spent singing during the birth, and the months of happy pregnancy. I can barely remember the morning sickness, exhaustion, and pain. OK, apparently I do remember those, but what I remember most of all is how beautiful I was. I remember my expanding belly and my outrageous mane of dark curly hair. Despite the difficulties and pain of labor, I remember how awesome it was to give birth and how I felt like I could do anything.
After Leigh was born, there was a switch in shifts at the hospital, and a new midwife came in to check on me. She told me that I was still young, and things would go differently the next time I gave birth. My belly was flabby and soft rather than ripe with life, my vagina was stitched up like Frankenstein’s monster, my hair seemed to have turned to straw, and I knew there would be no next time. I knew I was all done making babies (I did not give birth to our second child, Ira).
There wasn’t much time to feel sad about being done with future babies because I had my hands full with Leigh. I remember when I first knew that I loved her. She was just a day or two old and had been screaming for over an hour. Suddenly, unexpectedly, I felt that my heart would burst with love for this painfully loud infant who was giving me a headache. This love was like nothing I had ever felt before, but it was colored by loss. My old life and my old body were gone, and I was now a supporting character in someone else’s story.
I complained a bit about being saggy where I once was firm, and I whined a little to other moms about not being in the spotlight anymore, but mostly I just lived my life. But something shifted when I started to battle digestive issues. One of the amazing and unexpected things that being pregnant did for me was to relieve severe indigestion and acid reflux that I had struggled with for several years. Once nursing was over the indigestion started coming back again. By the time Leigh was two, we were trying for a second baby and I was in pain again. I found somewhere on the Internet that an ultra low-carb diet could cure heartburn, and I tried it. It worked! I gradually added back carbs, confident that I could control my symptoms. While I continued to have relief from the acute pain, I also gradually became obsessed with food, bouncing around from one restrictive diet to another to combat a constantly changing array of digestive difficulties.
Eventually I was miserable, eating at the impossibly small intersection of several diets that promised relief. I got frustrated, and found that one way to deal with my symptoms was simply not to eat whenever possible. Of course, I always had to eat at some point, and fasting made it more likely that I would eat something not sanctioned by my diet. I judged myself harshly for not being able to stick to my eating plan, and was convinced that straying from “legal” foods was the reason my symptoms never completely went away. I got thinner, losing weight as I ate less. Eventually, after over 4 years, I got fed up with the restrictions and worried about what my diet was doing to my body. I decided earlier this year to start eating an ordinary diet, and I found, surprisingly, that my digestive system worked just as well without all of the restrictions. Go figure. I also admitted to myself that I wasn’t restricting food just to treat a medical problem.
Why was I restricting then? I can’t give a clear answer to that. Part of it was my drive to do things “right” going into overdrive. Part of it was that I used food limitations as a way to cope with stress. But another, deeper, part of it was that I didn’t want to finish growing up. I was becoming a middle-aged woman and making my body smaller was a way to do some damage control, to put on the brakes, to turn back time.
For the last seven years, the ones that seem to have passed in the blink of an eye, I’ve been trying to stop time, and even to run it in reverse. I still want to be that woman, not yet 35, the one with the mane of hair, heavy breasts, and the enormous belly, the one just about to do the superhuman feat of giving birth. The one who could perhaps do anything. I’d even settle for being that partying 18-year-old that didn’t know what she was doing but didn’t care. Or the young girl who had so much promise and spark. Or the 20-something trying to figure out she wanted to do with her life, the one whose body didn’t sag at all. But I’m none of those women. I grew up. I’m not going to dream anymore the way a 20-year-old dreams. I’m not going have any more children. I’m not going get new knees or baby-soft skin or a firm belly or soft hair that stays brown all by itself. I’m going to have kids that keep growing up, joints that ache sometimes, body parts that sag, and coarse hair that I dye. This life I have created is a good one, but my joy in it doesn’t keep me from being sad that I’m no longer creating a new life, either for myself or from my body.
I got my first period over thirty years go. I remember bleeding all over the light blue plush in the back of my parents’ car. They bought me a gift, a wooden box with purple ribbon and pretty flowers. I didn’t really want it. I was embarrassed to mark the passage and admit that I was changing. Now I am perimenopausal, and my periods are sputtering along, winding to a close. I thought I was looking forward to this point in my life, but instead I am struggling against it, feeling disoriented. I know that I should accept the gift of this change, that I really have no choice but to accept it. But I am embarrassed that it should be so hard, that dressing rooms make me cry, that I have failed to take care of myself in the most basic of ways, that I do not have things under control.
I don’t think I went gracefully into puberty. I doubt anyone does. So perhaps I shouldn’t expect to go gracefully into middle age. But I do feel like I owe myself and my body an apology. I’m sorry for not giving you a gift. Make no mistake, I am not done struggling, but I am perhaps ready to apologize and see if I can start anew.