“Ewww, Mom, that’s disgusting,” he said as he glimpsed a sliver of the wrinkly, stretched skin of my stomach.
The moment had started sweetly. Miracle of miracles, the kids were ready to go to school early which of course, never happens. So my two youngest boys and I were enjoying a few minutes of snuggling before the rush of the day began. It was then that my 3-year-old spontaneously grabbed my shirt, lifted it slightly and playfully announced, “I see your belly button!” My 7-year-old, reacting honestly with the resources a young child has, made the fatal pronouncement: Disgusting. The familiar hot rush of shame threatened to overtake my face.
My war with my body extends much further into the past than the years that I’ve been a mom. But in so many ways, my post-baby stomach has become the crux, the metaphor, for the battle that rages. This is true for most of the women that I know, whether they have carried a child within their abdomen or not. The home of our hunger, the part that contains the power to either hold or withhold life, and the part that connected our bodies to our mothers’ bodies, no matter who we are. It’s the home of our intuition (go with your gut) and our anxiety (butterflies in my stomach). It’s the source of our defense system against a world that would threaten to overtake us (our immunity). To diminish the role of my abdomen would be to deny the truth that I am human.
There is another story about my stomach (I could tell so many). This one is of vulnerability and the healing that happens when, as women, we bless each other’s bodies. It was my second year of motherhood, when the physical and emotional upheaval of a brutal pregnancy and labor were still so fresh. The turmoil of my sense of myself circled around the questions of “Am I still beautiful?” and “Am I the only one?” Because in truth, the physical scars I carry tend toward the extreme. And yet they are hidden to most. I am not blind to the fact that many women look at me and say, “You are so lucky. You don’t know what it’s like because you are thin.” Yes, the pounds of pregnancy came off my body with relative ease. It can be so easy to hide. But I longed to share my pain with other women and to know that I wasn’t alone.
It was for this reason that I told a dear friend one day that I wanted to show her my stomach, and I asked her what she thought. She said I didn’t need to, but that she’d be willing to do this with me-what she knew was weighty. So I lifted my shirt and she didn’t just look from afar: she got down on her knees to take a closer look. She didn’t stop there. She put her hands gently on my stomach and examined it for just long enough. This is a brave woman. Then she stood up and met my eyes and embraced me. She let her tears flow for me, and I was able to join her with my own.
I’d like to say it was a magic cure, but of course, it wasn’t. That’s why, in the moment that my son verbalized my deep fear- that my body was disgusting- I was transported into my shame with lightening speed. But this time, shame had competition; it was the memory of being held with such great care by another woman that became the source of my ability to hold a blessing for my own body – just long enough to bless my son. Because I have gone to war for my story- to understand, grieve, and dance with it, I was able to hold the complexity of the moment and make a conscious choice for how to proceed in love. Because, in my shame, I have been seen and loved by another, my shame has lost some of its potency. If those hidden and afraid parts of me had not been tended to previously, they would have been lurking in the dark, waiting for such a moment as this to strike and inflict a wound in my son or in me.
That’s what happens with unaddressed shame- it is hurled at others who come too close, or it is used to carve deeper scars in ourselves.
But that day, I played ‘chicken’ with my shame- and I won. So I said to him that yes, it must be strange and confusing to see my stomach. We don’t see many mommies’ stomachs in pictures or out and about, so mine looks unusual to you. And he agreed, and then we remembered that there were teeth to be brushed still and homework to be checked and we went on our way with hearts full of reality and of love.
Who knows how far that type of blessing will extend?
Annie DeWaal lives in Edmonds, Washington, where she makes her home with her husband, 3 sons, and a wild beast of a dog. This is ironic, considering she feels most like herself in quiet solitude where her creativity and hopefulness come to life. When she gets a moment alone, Annie loves to get lost listening to music or writing songs on her guitar. Annie also works as a Mental Health Counselor in private practice, where she finds purpose by helping others to fully engage their messy, beautiful lives.