She caught me off-guard if I'm being totally honest. I was there to meet the newest addition to the family, and before I knew it, she had me cornered. I wasn't even sitting when she gushed like an open wound about childbirth and child-rearing. She was harried and sleep deprived. There was a ravenous, desperate look in her eye -- something like a caged animal. The door to the bathroom was open, and her 2-year old was perched on the pot while her dad lounged on the tile floor distracting her with picture books for the second hour. It was a surreal sensory experience.
She fired words at me: sitz baths, catheters, witch hazel, diaper-sized ice packs, stitches, breast pumps. I know my mouth was wide open -- probably mirroring the 10 centimeters she demonstrated with her hands -- a measurement that seems like no big deal... until you're talking about lady parts and the circumference of a human head. I wasn't prepared, and I came to realize her nipple shield was hardly a shield at all -- at least not one that could have protected me from all the images. Just when I thought I'd heard the worst of it, she dropped this bomb: "And then part of my nipple fell right off." My mouth slammed shut and my nipples retracted like turtle heads into their shells.
It was days before they felt safe coming out again. It was days before I recovered from our "conversation" that unfolded more like a monologue and ended with, "No one told me it could be like this."
She didn't mean for me to drive to the nearest pharmacy and order a lifetime supply of birth control, though when I considered the nipple, the thought crossed my mind. Her point was to give me information, intimate details that challenged the air-brushed glow of the magazine ads we've all seen in the waiting rooms of our OB's office. It's not at all the peaceful goodnights in a Pampers commercial. There's far less cuddling than we've been led to believe. Maybe there's something to the weird inspirational "Achievement" poster hanging on the ceiling above the exam table in my gynecologist's office. Maybe.
I left that visit years ago with the mission to tell my girlfriends that their nipples might fall off, but they won't be alone. There's power in that, knowing you're part of a club, knowing that motherhood isn't necessarily easy (but then what fulfilling things are?), knowing that women are warriors -- not fragile vessels, but something so much more than that.
Since that "chat" years ago, I've had three children, and I've got another one percolating. Several of my friends have had one, two, three, six children. Everyone has managed to keep their nipples, as far as I know, and I would know because women are talking about motherhood -- the triumphs and the not-so-much. And for those without the luxury of dinner dates with close friends or cathartic vents on playground park benches where the shape and consistency of mucus plugs might be discussed, message boards and blogs are essentially Truth or Dare on a global scale. Even the kids who sat on the periphery during the torturous middle school game get in on the internet action, sharing their truths and daring others to do the same. Sure, there's misinformation, but there's soul-saving stuff, too, the kind of stuff that makes you walk away thinking, "I'm OK. I'm normal. I'm going to get through this." And in the throes of pregnancy or motherhood, that's a gift.
What to Expect When You're Expecting is a pregnant woman's bible, no doubt, but message boards and blogs read like conversations between friends where one is willing to share that pregnancy has made her nether region look like it has cauliflower ear and another who offers that her entire body is covered with a layer of hair, some of which is black and wiry and angry.
Because women are being honest about motherhood, the woman whose "pregnancy glow" is really just an oily t-zone feels a bit more human. And when pimples and gray hair sprout on the same day, there's bound to be at least a thousand women who stand up and offer a "hell yes, sister, and let me tell you another thing!" And while that thing may be cringe-worthy like "my kids make words with the stretch marks on my stomach" or "I farted every time I took a step for at least three months of my pregnancy," or "sometimes I hide in the closet and eat Nutella directly from the jar," or "I went hours before I noticed poop under my nails. I had just finished my fries." While the absolute horror of it all -- the gore and the rawness -- is terrifying, it's also empowering because in spite of it or maybe because of it, you come out stronger or at the very least you survive.
And that is a beautiful thing.