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Joy Gabriel Headshot

Kate Middleton and the Mom in the Mirror

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JOY GABRIEL
Joy Gabriel

A friend of mine was totally shocked to see Kate Middleton's "still pregnant belly" the day after she gave birth. Sigh. Not only is that what you're SUPPOSED to look like after giving birth, it's annoying we're even TALKING about WHAT YOUR STOMACH LOOKS LIKE 24 hours after giving birth.

It's about the baby, not the belly.

My daughter Ruby was pretty obsessed with my belly while I was pregnant. Who can blame her? It is utterly amazing to watch a body shape-shift into a human incubator. Even if you're still a baby yourself and don't fully understand what's happening, you know the two things that really matter: Something's up and It's amazing.

I thought it was all-too-sweet the way she pulled up my shirt to hug and kiss my bare belly and was just devastated if she couldn't kiss "bee-bee" goodnight. I'd pull her close and tell her all about this miraculous thing happening to my body (and to our family!) while we snuggled. They were sweet and tender moments I will always treasure.

Obviously, her fascination with my belly didn't end when we brought her baby brother home. So, I don't know why it surprised me when one of the first things she wanted to do was touch my belly.

"Oh," I laughed, delighted by her curiosity, "the baby came out! No more baby in mama's belly. He came out and he's right over there!"

I don't think she had the slightest idea what I was talking about.

A dozen times a day, she came over to look at my belly, but I tugged my shirt down as fast as I could and tried my best to chirp happily and with a shrug No more baby -- just belly! I knew this was part of her trying to process this whole crazy thing, so I tried to be patient. She eventually got the message (or so I thought) and transferred her curiosity to the new little baby in our midst (she had so much poking to do!).

But then, seemingly out of nowhere, it started up again. She was suddenly consumed with my belly (and boobs! but that's another matter entirely) and my glib little answer wasn't working. She knew all about the baby. She wanted to know what happened to my belly.

Can I be honest with you? I didn't want to talk about it. I didn't even want to think about it.

I was exhausted and emotional and unspeakably overwhelmed by the unceasing demands of a newborn and his (understandably) freaked-out big sister. The last thing I had the energy for was to explain why my belly still looked pretty pregnant even though I wasn't. Or why none of my clothes fit. Or why my belly -- which was once a cause for such sweet and curious bonding -- had suddenly become The Thing Which Shall Not Be Named. Addressing any of that would force me to accept that my body was different now -- I was different now -- and that was kind of a lot to process when I was deep in the throes of just keeping a helpless little person ALIVE.

The persistence of that belly (and so many other vestiges of a rough pregnancy) made me feel like a total failure.

Shouldn't I be more... together?

I wasn't asking to be posing in a bikini on the cover of a magazine two weeks postpartum (because that's 12 ways to Crazytown) and even though I've done this before and should know better I was STILL HOPING that by six weeks postpartum (and now 12, oy) I would at least look like ME. Not, as someone so politely told me when I was pregnant -- me "in a fat suit."

I did not want to face the fact that the lumpy woman in the mirror could in reality be... ME.

So, when Ruby innocently tugged on my shirt to check out the state of things in my midsection, I was in no mood:

No, no, Ruby. No more baby in Mama's belly. Just fat. No baby. FAT. Mama's FAT.

I don't know what it was -- something about the way she looked at me... almost through me... that s l o w e d everything down so that the two, unblinking seconds we stood staring at each other felt like a lifetime --

but I knew she understood.

Not the nuance of my insecurity, of course (all those cultural expectations so much heavier than the baby weight)

But the two things that really mattered: After a belly comes a baby. After the baby comes the shame.

When I saw the look on her face I wanted nothing more than to swallow those words I had so thoughtlessly spit out. The only thing I had to be ashamed of was feeling ashamed of my body.

I thought I was keeping a safe distance from all this "post-baby bod" crap, but it must have snuck in the back door. Honestly, it's pretty hard to escape these days. Not just because it's splashed all over magazines -- but because it's alive and well on my own little street corner too. I ran into a neighbor last week who is currently pregnant with her second child and as we were talking about the fears and challenges that accompany an expanding family... including her constant worry that her body will never be the same again... she gestured to my stomach and said, "Is it weird to still look pregnant after three months?" Of course, I wanted to die right there on the spot, but I laughed and did my best impression of The Person I Want To Be and said, "Well I did just have a baby three months ago."

Because I DID.

I'm not sure when it became the highest compliment you can pay a woman to say, "You look like you never even had a baby!"

...Because I'm supposed to... pretend this never happened? Is my body supposed to pretend it didn't rearrange all my organs and open my rib cage and my hips and grow a new human person who has never existed before and then proceed to feed and nourish that person from the very same body that delivered him, whole and perfect, into the world?

After experiencing something so miraculous that the only real way to describe it is "godlike" ... I'm supposed to want to go BACK?

To what? Being 15?

Even if you somehow manage to look 15 again (which, why would you want to?) you will never BE 15 again (thank heavens). (Matthew Perry movies notwithstanding).

Once you cross the threshold into motherhood, there is no going back. You might feel instantly and with acuity "Help! What did I DO? I'm not ready for this! Get me offa this thing! I don't know what I'm doing!" but it's too late. The curtain is up on the most important role you will ever play and it's OK that you and your body have shifted so that it fits. More: it is right and good. You're not supposed to zip up your old jeans and slip back into your old life.

Babies change us.

It's designed that way.

If our bodies tell the story of who we are, this is a story I don't want to forget.

And that's what I want my Ruby to know.

I dream of a world where a new mother can leave the house in the morning -- in ill-fitting maternity clothes because nothing else fits her large and slowly deflating belly, with greasy hair and puffy eyes from the hours/days/weeks she's been functioning without sleep, with a leaking shirt from her breasts that are constantly churning and adjusting to make just the right amount of milk for the tiny young babe who depends on her for every last thing -- a world where this woman can leave the house with her babies in tow (up and out in the world because her toddler's need for playtime trumped her need for a blow dry. Or a nap)

-- And this woman TURNS OUR HEADS (not out of pity "oh bless her heart") and TAKES OUR BREATH AWAY (not because we think she looks like the "before" picture of an ambush makeover) but because she is LITERALLY The Most Beautiful Thing We've Ever Seen.

She is a superhero
She is a goddess
She is a Mother

Drop-dead gorgeous not in spite of the things that make her so, but because of them.

This is the woman I want my daughter to see when she touches my belly. This is the woman I want to see when I look in the mirror. Not the ugly truth. But the beautiful reality.

It's a thing I'm really struggling with at the moment.

Pregnancy is not easy for me. I'm pretty sure I'm allergic to it because my whole mind and body just kinda freaks out. This last one was brutal and and my body is still shouting that story from the rooftops. Six months of bed rest and 60 lbs, agonizing hormone shots, early labor, depression, migraines, insomnia, stretch marks (just to name a few). I will probably never look or feel quite the same again and that's exactly as it should be. I'm not the same. Bearing children has brought me a wealth of insight and experience I wouldn't trade for the skinniest pair of jeans.

Maybe some mamas can do all this in a size 2 right out the gate and good for ya. But I'd like to stop pretending that's the normal or even ideal thing. For me, there is so much more to mothering than how my pants fit. As a new mom, it shouldn't even CRACK THE LIST, but it does because people stop you on the street and say dumb things motivated out of fear they'll end up looking like you at 12 weeks postpartum.

Well, I'll tell ya something, friend. This is what motherhood looks like at 12 weeks postpartum.

I caught myself in the mirror this morning... and just about burst into tears when I saw that rumpled, lumpy, saggy woman staring back at me. This is not what I'm supposed to look like!

But now that my eyes are dry, I'm ready for a second look. Sure, I can see a What Not To Wear episode waiting to happen. OR I can see a body -- and a person -- who is neither a shabby "Before" picture or a sleek "After" one, but is every inch a walking advertisement for "Just Doing It." I see a woman who knows that makeup is great but making a baby laugh is even better. That a chic haircut will make you feel like a million bucks but rocking a baby to sleep is priceless. That working out feels good but not half as good as the look in your child's eyes when you drop everything to read a book or play kitchen or just be together. That every time you have to choose between worrying about yourself and caring for your children it isn't a choice at all. I see a mother who knows how to dig deep and do the work and carry on when it is almost too heavy to bear.

On my best days, I can see myself. And in those moments, I see the two things that really matter: I can do hard things and doing them in the service of something greater than myself is what makes me beautiful.

Now I'm ready to welcome my babies onto my lap.

Come, my loves. Let me tell you a story. Mama's belly is different because I had a baby. I had you! This is where I stretched and stretched so you could fit inside! See how even my legs and my knees stretched! Everything moved around to make room for you! I got these dimply thighs and these little purple veins and these roomy hips when I got you! Aren't they beautiful?

It's a miracle and it's the greatest story of my life.