Body by Baby

I have had several painful conversations with friends and acquaintances recently about the effects of pregnancy on our bodies. I am so saddened to watch women near tears over their weight gain and changing shape. Yes, hormones don’t make it any easier, but neither does a culture that glorifies the female body as an object, rather than celebrating the beauty of being a woman, especially when with child.

I was so angry when celebrity fitness trainer Jillian Michael told Women’s Heath Magazine about pregnancy in 2010, “I’m going to adopt. I can’t handle doing that to my body.”  What a profound disservice to women. Rather than celebrating what makes a women unique and elevates her, the ability to bear children is feared and denigrated, something to be sidestepped at all costs.

I remember my insecure days of disordered eating and excessive concern about my body.  Thanks be to God, grace, marriage and motherhood have made that a thing of the past. Counterintuitively, watching the miraculous way that my body can enlarge to cradle and care for new life has helped me escape from the culture that is excessively concerned with the superficial rather than the transcendental. As the quotation From Cardinal Mindszenty on our sidebar says, “A mother is the most important person on earth. She cannot claim the honor of having built Notre Dame Cathedral. She need not. She has built something more magnificent than any Cathedral — a dwelling for an immortal soul, the tiny perfection of her baby’s body.” What could be more beautiful than this life generating change in our bodies?

Part of the equation is an unconditionally loving, supportive husband.  I think it is Kat’s husband that always says “there is more of her to love” when she’s pregnant. And he really, really means it. It is the sweetest thing. My husband has helped me to learn that being a woman whose body changes to nurture the fruit of our love is truly beautiful.

Yet I am sometimes at a loss on how to convey this beautiful truth to other women, especially the two non Christians with whom these issues have come up (I’m not speaking of the inevitable discomforts of pregnancy, but the physical changes). They are embarrassed and insecure about their changing bodies. I try to talk about the beauty of being a woman and the great, God-given gift it is to bear children.  This is what makes women unique. It is a gift, another life. I know women who are unable to have children who ache and yearn to be in their shoes.

On another level, I also reassure them that they will want to exercise again after the baby is born. As an athlete, the freedom of movement that returns after childbirth is so liberating that I usually want to run a marathon within days of birth (even with the extra pounds). I am so sad that many feel that the miraculous changes wrought are something to be ashamed of. How do you present the dignity of the vocation of motherhood to others who do not share your worldview?


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  • Becky Elmuccio

    Fantastic post! I loved being pregnant and watching my body develop and envelop the little one inside. Thanks for saying what needed to be said about embracing and celebrating this time in a woman’s life.

  • Jane

    Great post! I think the most important thing we can do is believe what we’re saying and put it in practice in our own lives: when we’re pregnant or postpartum, don’t complain about the pounds or clothes not fitting or whatnot. u00a0Talk more about how miraculous and beautiful it is to be carrying a child than about how huge you feel (much easier said than done, of course!). u00a0Extend compliments to a friend about how beautiful it is to see her with child than just about “the belly.” u00a0In terms of postpartum, I think it helps to spread realistic expectations. u00a0Don’t say, “Breastfeed and the pounds just melt away!” u00a0Some might experience it that way, but many will not. u00a0I think this is just one of the many areas in which our attempts to explain why someone should feel different may do a little good, but our attitudes will do the most.

  • Melinda

    You share some wonderful thoughts, TM.u00a0 I would add, though, that depending on how a woman is feeling in her pregnancy her body image may just be au00a0place to focus her general feelings of exhaustion and depression.u00a0 I am always really grateful for weeks 4-5 of pregnancy because they are a time when I can really be excited about my new baby before I get hit with about 12 weeks of nausea and exhaustion.u00a0 At a time when lots of women I know are keeping their pregnancies a special secret within their families I am putting on maternity clothes due to the 15 lbs I have gained from my “frequent protein snack” attempts to avoid puking.u00a0 During those 12 weeks I often feel quite blue about the way I look – my puffy face feels like one more part of the way my body just isn’t working well!u00a0 When the nausea lifts, however, I start to feel the things you describe above.u00a0 By 7 months I feel spectacularly beautiful!nnAfter four pregnancies I also have the comfort of knowing my husband will love me through all these changes to my body, but during first pregnancies women haven’t yet built that security.u00a0 Even if their husbands are saying all the right things, they still may feel that the person he fell in love with is changing beyond recognition – not just because of weight gain but also mood swings and fatigue that make them a little less fun to be around.u00a0 It is good that your friends have you, a mom who has been through multiple pregnancies and who can help them see the “end game.”nnOne thing that always helps meu00a0is keeping track of exactly what is happening with my baby.u00a0 Maybe this would help your friends, too, as it brings the focus back to the amazing things your body is doing – you can say, “I helped build a nervous system this week,” instead of, “I gained two pounds and pukedu00a0outside a grocery storeu00a0this week!”

  • JMB

    I don’t know if there is anything you can do to help someone who has deep seated weight issues or some type of body image dysmorphia.u00a0 Pregnancy can unleash a swirl of hormones and issues.u00a0 I have one friend who has battled anorexia for years and the most she could do was have one child.u00a0 For her, that was a tremendously heroic and self giving act.u00a0 I also have a sister who has struggled with an eating disorder for years (bulimia and excessive exercising) and she too suffers tremendously during pregnancy.u00a0 I think the most you can do in the face of this is just be kind and be an example by your life, not by lecturing or sounding sanctimonious.u00a0 We all have issues – sometimes they are hidden and sometimes they are open.u00a0 nnThe most effective thing that I did to get a better grip on my body issues was to start working out.u00a0 There’s nothing like being in a room under florescent lighting with giant mirror, no makeup and a bunch of women of all different ages pushing themselves physically, mentally and emotionally to see that nobody has a perfect body and that the beauty of a body is what it can do – I am grateful every day that I am mobile.u00a0

  • Anonymous

    Thanks, Jane. You are so right about our example and attitudes!

  • Juris Mater

    Tex, this is an amazing post and the topic hits home in a BIG way. I wholeheartedly embraced the weight gain with my first pregnancy, until at 20 weeks right after my beautiful “it’s a girl!” ultrasound the male doctor sent his female nurse in to talk to me about my excessive weight gain (just shy of 20 lbs at that point), to tell me that less than 1 lb of that was baby and the rest was my being overweight and I’d have a uphill battle dealing with all that extra weight after delivery. I promptly switched to a very supportive midwife practice, never have gone back to any OB, and since then have hated every pound of weight gain every pregnancy. It’s a horrible attitude, and I’m so grateful for your post Tex, because I know many of us have struggled since the teenage years with body perfectionism and all these pregnancies are an opportunity to overcome that in the ways you describe.u00a0nnIt can be very hard to watch yourself swell with nothing you can do about it, it really is all the body image fears unleashed without the ability to control what’s happening.And, lastly, as you mention, the culture can really get to even those of us who are completely pro-life. I somehow have the idea in my head that all my pregnancies will be less culturally-controversial, with fewer people scoffing or looking at me like I’m pitiful, if I’m not getting all fat too : ) It’s much more acceptable to be “all baby”.u00a0

  • Anonymous

    Melinda, thanks for your honest and thoughtful comment. Both of these moms are first time moms and I hadn’t even thought about how psychologically helpful it can be to have been through pregnancy to know that your body will return to (some semblance of) normal, and your husband will still be there on the other side. This is a great point.u00a0nnAlso, I may be not fully crediting the role of hormones to make us think certain things. (For me, PMS is worse than pregnancy hormones, so it is somewhat of a break for me) But the culture is still far from revering mothers!I love your idea of focusing on what is developing in the baby. What a great way to redirect towards the miracle of life!u00a0

  • Juris Mater

    Melinda, you’re so right, having a few pregnancies puts it all in much better perspective–knowing that you will lose the weight (just in time to get pregnant again), and your husband truly continues to love and desire you, and your friends really do think you’re glowing and not pitiful. AND your children think you are a total rockstar bringing them all these new siblings and they don’t notice the extra weight gain one bit.

  • Melinda

    Yes, JM, as my family grows I do feel this awful pressure to make pregnancy “look good,” which is definitely NOT a realistic goal for me!nnI guess the bottom line is that it may be too much to ask a woman to feel beautiful or good during pregnancy, no matter what her spiritual formation.u00a0 While not participating in superficial self-pity (oh, my poor bikini line!), I think the most helpful thing we can do for a woman feeling down about her body is acknowledge that pregnancy IS a sacrifice.u00a0 That language alone turns the focus back on the baby and also subtly brings the spiritual dimension into view – even if a woman doesn’t have the vocabulary to “offer it up” she can see heru00a0sacrifice as being “for” someone.

  • Right Said Red

    Some very good thoughts here Tex.u00a0 And Melinda I really agree with a lot of what you are saying as well.u00a0 nnAs an aside, I feel terrible when pregnant, but not because of body image.u00a0 Instead, I suffer from anxiety, mild depression, general discomfort and pain, sleeplessness, and then more anxiety.u00a0 I think the body image struggles were present in only the first few months of my first pregnancy with Therese.u00a0 After her pre-natal diagnosis, I am aware each time that my baby could die, and so anxiety about the baby becomes the source of my insecurity.nnI am one of “those” people who is told that I am “all baby.”u00a0 I do gain at least 40 pounds with each pregnancy, and while my babies are big, they are not that big, so there is plenty of weight gain in the rest of my body!u00a0 Being tall helps disperse the weight gain, and since my babies are so large, my belly looks enormous, which draws attention away from the other areas that have gained.u00a0 So I think it is often true that those who are “all belly” are just having a big baby and are tall.nnI get a lot of comments from others about my large belly when pregnant, and while rude and quite unhelpful, with time I have learned to think of these comments as amusing.u00a0 I will share some below–nnAt the end of my pregnancy with Gianna, I only had one t-shirt that fit, a bright orange, extra, extra large GO TIGERS shirt that I wore to P-ton basketball games.u00a0 I was wearing it at the law school and a father of 7 children said to me in passing, “Wow, that’s brave.”u00a0 Ouch.nnIn the second and third trimester, I am asked almost weekly if I am having twins (and in case you don’t know, this is rude).u00a0 When I say no, I get the following responses–nn1)u00a0 “Oh, well you must be due any day now.”u00a0 (I am usually only 5 or 6 months along at this point, so that follow up comment is very unhelpful)nn2)u00a0 “Oh, wow, you must be having a huge baby!”nn3)u00a0 “Oh, do you have excess amniotic fluid?”u00a0 (this comes from women who think they know something about childbirth, but I don’t find it helpful)nn4)u00a0 And my least favorite all time comment, “Oh, you must be having a girl because you look so big.”u00a0 Seriously?nn

  • Kat

    All of these comments are great – Melinda, I love the “frequent protein snack” reference, LOL :)nOne thing that I find can be helpful is to remind moms that every pregnancy can be different, so while they may not feel great this time around, it may just be this particular pregnancy. Conversely, they may have had one easy pregnancy and are now struggling with feeling badly about themselves in a second pregnancy, which can be upsetting to many women – they think that they are doing something wrong, when really it’s just that every pregnancy can be different! Being pregnant can be a struggle physically, and I love the suggestion to bring the focus back to the baby’s development. Thanks for this post, Tex.

  • Kathleen

    I gained way too much weight with my first (50 pounds!) and it took a long time to work it all off with diet and exercise. The last two pregnancies I’ve gained a much more reasonable 35 pounds and look much more “all baby.” u00a0My struggle however has been the horrible terrible varicose veins. u00a0We aren’t talking spider veins, we’re talking “a brain fell into my thigh” (as my mom called it) kind of veins. u00a0It was a struggle to look amish for my entire pregnancy with medical hose and skirts with tennis shoes in the summer. u00a0I couldn’t look cool if I tried. u00a0IT took some growing pains to realize that it’s not about me, it’s about giving life to another. u00a0Veins can be stripped some day, but babies last forever! 🙂 u00a0

  • Mary Alice

    I love being pregnant, so I struggle much more with the nursing.u00a0 I don’t want anyone to touch me, my older children or my husband, and I feel almost like a slave to the nursing child.u00a0 It feels to me like a totally “body” experience and not at all a sweet or bonding one.u00a0 I also leak a lot, so I often feel gross while I am nursing.nnThis is also when the hormones kick in like crazy for me, pregnancy is a happy, calm time for me, but postpartum is a roller coaster.nnThe solution that I have found to this is to be alone, as much as possible, when I nurse in the first month or so, going in to my room and shutting the door, putting on music or even reading a book.u00a0 In that way, my nursing time becomes introverted time rather than another person taking my time, and I begin to appreciate the baby giving me this quiet time.u00a0 nnMy need and desire to be alone also limits the amount of outside help we do well with in the first six weeks post partum.u00a0 I find even the ringing doorbell when someone brings a meal to be an invasion, since I just want to sort of cocoon for a while.

  • B-mama

    KMommy, you are a beautiful person–I can tell just from reading this. u00a0How brave you’ve been to face your husband’s sin and love him through it. u00a0We will be praying for you both during this uphill battle. u00a0God bless.

  • Right Said Red

    KMommy,nnI’m so sorry to hear about this stuggle in your marriage.u00a0 I’m sure you know this, but it isn’t your fault.u00a0 Have you considered couples counseling?u00a0 While your husband needs to get help and break the addiction, you also need healing and grace to forgive him and help him move forward, and it might be beneficial for you to seek counseling with him.u00a0 Please know you are in my prayers, I said some extra ones for you this morning.u00a0 nnAnd as for your questions regarding pregnancy and pain, I struggled with excruciating hip pain during my pregnancy with my daughter Claire (my 5th).u00a0 Good Memory!u00a0 I think the pain was from delivering my 4th very large child (he was almost 11 pounds), and I damaged some of the ligaments during that delivery.u00a0 I was pretty much sofa bound during the last 4 months of my pregnancy with Claire b/c of the pain.u00a0 After delivery, I started doing exercises to strengthen those muscles, saw a chiropractor regularly, and was very serious about working out.u00a0 My hip was much better during this last pregnancy, I think because the muscles were so much stronger.u00a0 The pain wasn’t too intense until after 30 weeks, and so it was only a bad month and half or so.nnAs for a “decision” about whether to have a 6th child, we didn’t really make that choice ;-)u00a0 My husband and I are NFP teachers and Josie was our first “surprise” baby–very humbling!u00a0 At the time of her conception I was on some medications for my allergies and I didn’t realize how strongly they could impact my cycles.u00a0 In addition, I was in and out of the hospital with my then 3 year old son Gus.u00a0 He was extremely ill for almost 2 months.u00a0 I fully admit that I didn’t feel great joy when I first saw those two pink lines!u00a0 But I was blessed with a relatively easy first and second trimester (compared to my other pregnancies), and of course we are now OVERJOYED at Josie’s life and her place in our family.u00a0 I faced a lot of complications in my 3rd trimester, complications which have a chance to reoccur with future babies, and while I have yet to sort through my own feelings about this, I’m sure at some point in the future I will be ready to do so and it will be the topic of a post ;-)nnPlease be assured of my continued prayers for you and your marriage.nn

  • Anonymous

    Kat, you are right that each pregnancy can be so different. I was fully convinced that I was carrying multiples this time around because I gained weight so fast and am measuring so big. I think what I was trying to get at was my great sadness that these women feel so negatively towards pregnancy and so judged by others and I feel somewhat helpless to help them.u00a0

  • Anonymous

    KMommy, Your honest and humble comments have touched my heart and I will pray for you and your family.u00a0nnAt the end of the day we are all sinners, I think the firm knowledge that we are daughters of God must be where our true security lies.

  • Lisa

    ” I think the firm knowledge that we are daughters of God must be where our true security lies.” — that is *such* a powerful statement – thank you for the reminder.