It’s a quarter past nine on a sunny September morning and I am posing in just my underwear in front of the full length mirror in my bedroom. My phone is silently snapping away as I’m taking lingerie shots from differing angles – but it’s not to send to my boyfriend or to feel sexy. It’s because just 36 hours previously I’d delivered my second son via planned cesarean section, and I felt overwhelmingly sure that this time, I didn’t want to hide away from my changing body.
Y’see, the first time around, things had been a little different. I’d had a long, and borderline traumatic birth experience, which meant that when I finally arrived home from hospital, three long days after I’d first mumbled ‘Um, my name’s Hannah Gale and I’m here for, um, I think… an induction?’ into the antenatal ward intercom, I felt completely and utterly broken.
I didn’t occur to me in those early days to really even look at my body – I guess partly for fear of what I might find and partly because so much had changed in such a short space of time, I wasn’t sure I could handle much more. So I didn’t take in the way my skin felt or the way my stomach still curved, and I didn’t check in on the exquisite surgical handiwork hidden just below where my pubes would usually begin.
It was only on the 6th or 7th day that I allowed my eyes to loosely focus on the figure in the mirror as I changed from day pyjamas to night pyjamas in the darkness. I fleetingly glanced at my reflection – without glasses on – and lit only by the hallway light, in an attempt to make some kind of early peace with the way my post-baby body looked. And in that dim light, the only thing I could see was fresh little lines creeping over my lower stomach; stretch marks that had only appeared once my son had been delivered from my womb. I felt my breath pause as I tried to make sense of my new reality, whilst floored by both crashing hormones and overwhelming sleep deprivation.
On day 10, as my midwife prepared to discharge me from home visits, she said: “You should really take a look at your scar you know, it’s really healing very nicely and the doctors did an excellent job. It’s not as bad as you think it’ll be.”
I ignored her advice for a few more weeks, because quite honestly, I wasn’t ready to begin to process what I guess I saw as a negative shift in my appearance. In hindsight you know, my midwife was right, that scar really wasn’t so bad. And it faded quickly, and was much lower down than I’d ever assumed c-section scars to be.
My pregnancy and birth the second time round was much different for many reasons – most notably that I was doing it through a pandemic which meant that my lifestyle completely changed. I’d also long ditched the scales and had no idea how much weight I’d gained and whether that would impact the way my body looked following a second pregnancy. But most importantly, this time I felt prepared – not just for how the birth and recovery might be, but for how I would engage with my changing body. I was prepared because I no longer feared it in the same way – in the two and a half years since my first baby, my personal growth in the way I viewed weight and not just my body, but all women’s bodies, had completely changed. I no longer tied up so much of my self-worth in my clothes size or bought into the complete bullshit that unless I looked a certain way, it meant I was lazy and worthless and greedy and out of control.
I was fascinated by my body (and my scar) this time – almost as if I was catching up on everything I’d missing the first time. I took underwear shots regularly, and marveled at the way a women’s body recovers and heals as if by magic in the time following childbirth.
I still made some of the same dumb moves as the first time: I still tried on jeans after three weeks and then felt deflated and ashamed when they didn’t go past my thighs. I still compared underwear shots taken weeks apart to see if I looked slimmer. I still felt a surge of unattractiveness rise up my throat as I tucked my loose tummy skin into my high-waisted pants. But none of it felt as all-consuming as it had before. They were fleeting thoughts I no longer feared. Thoughts that left my head as soon as they entered and thoughts that didn’t engulf my day in a cloud of negativity and self-loathing.
My body does look different after two kids than it did one. I gained new stretch marks (or tiger stripes as the hip and happening online mums in the random parenting forums I end up in at 2am are calling them) on my sides. But the ones on my lower stomach remained faded and silvery. My skin feels looser, and my wonderful ‘mum pouch’ feels more cemented into my body, although it’s definitely dropped a bit lower as my skin’s lost elasticity.
But this is me, this is my body, and it reflects the life I have lived. I’m not ashamed of that and I don’t want to change the story it tells. I am proud of who I am, and what it has endured and created.
I won’t love it every single day, but I accept it as it is, without hate or criticism. It housed my kids, nurtured them, loved them and protected them and honestly? How could I ever despise something that did all that?