I am 33 years old. I have been pregnant six times, and I’ve given birth to four fantastic children, ages 8, 5, 2, and 7 months.
I married my best friend straight out of college and got pregnant with our first child about two years later, the second month we tried. We were both in graduate school at the time, so our financial situation was not ideal, but we had planned the pregnancy and were very excited. Our first son was born shortly before my 25th birthday.
Growing up, I’d always been skinny and had never had any real body issues. My weight crept up in the years following high school, though, and I began my first pregnancy at the high end of what is considered healthy for my height. Looking back, I realize I was beautiful, but at the time, I just felt fat.
I gained 40 pounds with that pregnancy, much of which was water weight that was shed easily and quickly after giving birth. Twenty pounds stayed with me, though, as did the stretch marks that had made a fierce and furious appearance at around 36 weeks, long after I’d thought I’d dodged that bullet.
I had never seen anything like my stretch marks postpartum. My breasts and belly were covered in angry, purple stripes. I remember asking my dermatologist how I could get rid of them. She looked at me like I was crazy. I had become a mom and was finally learning one of the best-kept secrets about real women’s bodies.
It took me 18 months or so to lose the weight from my first pregnancy. My body was finally my own again, and I felt great! I began thinking of the stretch marks as momma tiger stripes, battle scars that showed just how well my body had grown and nourished my son.
We started trying for a second child shortly after I lost weight. Unfortunately, we were not as lucky this time, and I experienced two, consecutive, first-trimester miscarriages. The day I was to start Clomid in the hopes of attracting another sticky pregnancy, I found out I was pregnant for the fourth time.
I was so worried about losing another baby that I really didn’t worry much about how my body looked during that pregnancy. I was just happy to be pregnant! My body was working as it should; it was supporting another pregnancy.
My beautiful daughter was born when I was 28. She didn’t leave me with any new stretch marks, but she did encourage the old ones to crawl a tiny bit up my breasts and abdomen. My stripes, which had grown pale and silvery, were again tipped in purple.
My third child, another boy, was born three years later. In utero, he had always preferred one side over the other, and was born a full pound larger than my first two, so he left my belly lopsided. The apron of skin to which I had grown accustomed from my first pregnancy hung down further and more to one side than the other now.
When we conceived our fourth child, I weighed the most I’d ever weighed at the beginning of a pregnancy. My weight had always fluctuated quite a bit, but this was a maximum. I was embarrassed I’d let my body deteriorate, and I was worried about gaining even more.
My fourth child, and my third son, was born seven months ago. As big as I was when I carried him, he was my smallest baby, a few ounces shy of his oldest brother and sister.
I weigh more now than I’ve ever weighed without being pregnant. When I think back to the body I inhabited when I got pregnant with my first child, the change over these past nine years is astounding.
I’m starting to understand that I am done bearing children. I feel like I’ve been through a war, and I finally have time to stand back and survey the damage. This is the body I’m left with. It is the only one I will ever have, and it will never, never be the same.
I have stripes now, permanent stripes that mark where the skin on my belly stretched as my babies pulled it up over their bodies like a blanket. The muscles under these stripes have separated and become weak. My skin hangs, lopsided. I have breasts that hang too, breasts that have nursed babies for 59 months (and counting). Pendulous, striped breasts, with brown areolas where there used to be pink. My legs are bigger. My arms are bigger. I have a double chin, crow’s feet, and sprinkles of gray in my hair.
I wouldn’t change any of it, but at the same time, I can’t say I love my body. I see beauty in other women that I just don’t see in myself. I look in the mirror, and my body doesn’t reflect me. Staring back is someone who looks tired, someone whose physical transformation has left her with a body that is virtually unrecognizable.
I want my children to have a mother who loves her body. I just don’t know how. I want them – my daughter, especially – to grow up understanding that there is a wide range in what is beautiful. I want them not only to see beauty in others, but also beauty in themselves, every day of their lives.