Of Mothers and Beauty (Michelle L)

Your age: 30
Number of pregnancies and births: 4


“I hate using maps,” I said to him. Amongst sculptures and artifacts, oil canvases and mixed media, we wandered aimlessly and tirelessly. Hours passed like seconds. Nothing mattered to me but the air that he was breathing. The walls melted in the winter rain falling outside the plate glass windows, and the sun sank somewhere deep into eternity beneath the puddles of water. I followed him everywhere. The corridors seemed unending; like a house of mirrors that reflected a false doorway, one after the other. We passed through centuries of art, through wars and peace, across the world and back, and yet still, time loosed its hands and we lost grip of where we were, who we were, and even what we were. The only identities left were my reflection in his eyes, and his reflection in mine. Everything about him stuck to me like honey. Any time I turned a corner and he did not follow, the honey pulled itself into thin long strands of gold between us like spun sugar. This, I know, was when I slipped into love with him.

Now eventually, time returned. After the ink on the marriage certificate dried, bills were arriving in the mail, babies were crying, jobs were lost and discord began to settle in with the dust. I needed guidance. I looked in my reflection and saw a mother of three young babies with more stretch marks on her belly than pennies were in her bank account. I was stuck in a job making a living but not actually living. Life spun on an axis of baby bottles and stacks of mounting bills, all co-existing in an apartment with less than 1000 sq ft of living space. The grip around my neck could not have gotten any tighter without cutting off all of my air supply. That is, until I found myself pregnant for the fourth (and last) time when my youngest daughter was a mere four months old.

But I still hated maps. One day in a Psychology class, I read that spatial orientation can affect one’s ability to properly read and follow maps. I self-diagnosed this as my problem. Every road has a map; every step goes in a direction. My inability to identify with direction was surely my downfall, or so I assumed. Maybe my failing spatial orientation was the missing piece of my maternal progression. Maybe the two were meant to be entwined, and the thread between my failures and successes unraveled at some point in my life. Maybe I needed to stay positive. I fixated on the latter. If maps were written in a language that I could not comprehend, I could find another direction; one that would supersede my inabilities and guide me through the dark corridors that held the centuries of my soul, and now, the corridors of four very small children. No one is born into the earth without carrying a seed of all who were before him. I owed it to my children to find myself. This, I reasoned, was why I needed a different sort of compass to find my way. The ancients had sundials. Others had wind currents. Surgeons had x-rays, and lovers had intuition. I, however, had none of these things. I only had the stickiness of my soul and clouded words that sometimes became cohesive thoughts. As I grew in sentence structures, words became my guide.

Martin Luther King once quoted Amos at the Mason Temple in Memphis, TN when he said, “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.” It was a quote so poetic that it sank deep into my thoughts by the mere symphony that seemed to resonate from the syllables. Later in life, however, it resonated with me for different reasons. I slowly began to understand the booming voice of Dr. King and the purpose for which he gave his life. What I didn’t understand, however, was how we as mothers never adapted his passion and sharpened his words as a weapon to defend ourselves from our own superficial society. Dr. King identified the poor of America as one of the wealthiest group of people on the earth because of the strength in their combined numbers. “Never stop and forget that collectively, that means all of us together, collectively we are richer than all the nations in the world, with the exception of nine.” Collectively, we as mothers are richer than all the men in the world because of what we have given to our societies. As the poor are trampled upon because of their lacking economic status, so we, too, are trampled upon because of our lacking status in magazine covers, Victoria’s Secret catalogs and a number of other superficial outlets. There is no public praise of sagging breasts that gave our babies their first meal; thighs with cellulite because we rocked our babies to sleep every night instead of handing them to a nanny; deflated bellies that held our children so close to our hearts that their muscular walls gave out and left us with empty skin. There is no acknowledgment of mothers because it seems we denote something from which we all search frantically to run – true love, unconditional love, love that extends its arms from time into eternity. We are a few generations that span across a 16 and Pregnant era, a “Love Kills Slowly” era, an era of sordid affairs, broken homes, and an era in which The Real Housewives have overtaken the maternal role of June Cleaver, Carol Brady and even Lucille Ball. But we are the richest group of human beings on the face of the earth, if for no other reason than our ability to bond with a human life. When we stop scrutinizing ourselves long enough to look around us, absorb what is hurting the mother beside us, and acknowledge that we, too, suffer from the same – this is when our justice will roll down like waters and our righteousness will flow like a mighty stream. When we embrace ourselves, our streaming stretch marks that roll down our bellies, our voices that overtake like a mighty stream in our children’s lives, then and only then will we see freedom in ourselves and in the world around us.

It is vital for us as women to return to the core of ourselves, and not merely in a moment of gratitude. In band societies, such as the San of the Kalahari Desert, the hunter who kills an animal to provide for his family is not the owner of the kill. Rather, the maker of the arrow that was used in the kill is the owner of the meat that is brought back to the tribe. Let us always remember that our children are our arrows. No matter what religion you are, remember the Psalm of King David that said, “Like arrows in the hand of a warrior, so are the children of one’s youth. Happy is the man who has his quiver full of them; they shall not be ashamed…” (127:4-5). Let us never be ashamed of who we are, where we are, or what we have given to our world around us. Though it takes a village to raise a child, let not our society take the gratitude that is to be bestowed upon each of us as the creator of the arrows. Let us teach the world more than how to raise a child – let us teach them to respect the shape of a mother by first respecting ourselves.

Mirror, Mirror on the wall….who’s the most damaged mother of them all? (Mary)

“Look at those ugly stretch marks!” the mirror sneers as I hurriedly change my clothes. No matter how hard I try, my eyes always seem to wander to my disappointing reflection staring back at me, “You’re disfigured and they’ll never go away you know. Never.”

Tears pool in my eyes as I try to shut out the hurtful thoughts, I glance in the glass though and agree, I am hideous. My body is marred all over from three pregnancies, scars that seem to burn and scream “You’ll never be attractive again.” I pull on my pants and long shirt and breathe a sigh of relief, clothes have become my mask and my shield, for with them on I feel normal and I can pretend my body is perfect, I’m still however, conscious of my flaws. My shirt could ride up and someone might become grossed out by my bread dough belly or I might bend over too far and accidentally show my uneven breasts. Oh the horror! Being nude is a nightmare for me, I dread showers, and lovemaking is done under the covers whilst wearing a top that covers my torso despite my husband’s vows that I’ve never looked better.

I go through stages of self-hate and berate myself for not trying harder to prevent the damage I had done. I forget the sweet moments at night when my husband would lovely run lotion on my belly, amused by the little feet trying to kick his hands. Instead I moan about regretting not smearing lotion on my body every second of the day. I dismiss from my mind how hard I worked to eat healthy, charting and researching to make sure I was giving my body and baby every nutrient they needed. Instead I think that I would have ended up happier if I had starved myself to keep the weight off. I obliterate the sweet memories of the long walks we would take together every night, laughing as I tried to climb hills while holding my massive belly. Instead I wish that I had taken out a loan so I could have spent every day at the gym with a personal trainer. I sink down in the belief that I am the only mother that has let herself go. I even convince myself that I have proof. I see all the newspapers and billboards with perfect mothers and wonder why I don’t compare to their fit bodies. Even my favorite parenting magazines are filled with ads showcasing taut bellies and breasts. And as far as I know, all the mothers in my life have no stretch marks or flaws either for they never mention otherwise, surely if they were feeling as low as I am they would have said so. The mirror doesn’t lie; I’m the only mother alive whose body has been destroyed. I’m alone. I’m the only mother with these thoughts and I’m ashamed.

I decide surgery is my only option. I can only feel whole again if I cut out the glaring marks that giving life has given me. I look in the mirror and think that only a tummy tuck or a breast lift would improve my appearance. I have never had much time to spend online before but I make time to start searching the internet for options, knowing I could never afford the fees but determined to research anyways. Surprisingly I do find the hope I was seeking online but not from medical sites, instead I find communities of women who look and feel exactly as I do.

I find theshapeofamother.com, a site that brings me to my knees in sobs, a site where I find answers, acceptance, and understanding. It’s where mothers from all over the world go to post photos and accounts of their bodies to show all other mothers that they are normal. I read pages and pages of stories, crying and smiling harder with each one. Their words are my thoughts, my fears…I’m connected to them all. I am no longer alone. I find forums where groups of mothers gather to discuss everything from cooking to gifts to yes, their new bodies as opening up to strangers is so much easier than pouring out your feelings face to face. I even find sites that show before and after photos of air brushed models and for the first time realize that *I* am the normal woman, that those in the ads are the unnatural, enhanced, and unrealistic versions of womanhood.

I start to see my own body in a new light, to remember what’s it like to look in the mirror and smile, and to feel confident once again. It didn’t happen overnight but slowly over the months I start to change. I stop wearing clothes that are too big on me as I no longer feel the need to hide beneath them. I take my children swimming for the first time in a public pool, no longer ashamed of what my swim clothes reveal. I celebrate my amazing body that has given me so much and marvel how I could have disliked it for so long. I apologize to myself and promise to never let go of my self- worth again.

And one night, after the kids are safely tucked in bed, I decide it’s time to show my husband my new confidence. I ask him if he’d like to do a tasteful photo session of my body. He’s surprised but happy, and we start our boudoir experiment. I stand under the bright lights, 100% unclothed, with nothing to hide beneath, and bare my soul and body to the man who’s been by my side for so many years. At first I was timid and shy but with each snap I hear his words of encouragement and I can see in his eyes that he loves what he sees, flaws and all. I feel my self esteem blossom and grin and I wish that this feeling could be shared by every mother. When I see the photos I’m shocked by what lovely pieces of art they are. “I’m….I’m stunning.” I whisper.

I turned towards the mirror and see a positive glow surrounding my body, it’s my self-respect. I touch my stretch marks and say “I’m glad they are here, for my babies are growing, and soon will leave my nest, but their marks will always be a lovely reminder.

Right here, see this little one? That’s where I first felt my first kick me; I sat up all excited and yelled ‘She moved inside me, I felt it!’ I sat there for hours stroking that spot, in awe that a life was growing inside of me, waiting for her to move again. Why would I want that marvelous mark she left me to fade away?

And here, see this short, deep one? That’s where my second’s foot stayed for 3 months, I was always worried about him because he didn’t kick much but I could always feel his toes twitching right there, telling me he was holding on. Even now, when my special boy is having a hard day, I unconsciously touch that spot and say ‘You’ll get through this buddy, just hang in a little bit longer.’ And he does.

And feel this long one here, that starts at my hip and crawls all the way up over my belly button, higher than all the rest? I watched this one creep up a tiny bit higher each day with my third. I would laugh and say ‘Silly boy you don’t want to get lost in the mist of your older siblings do you? You want to make sure your marks can clearly be seen, good for you, you’ll go far in life and I’ll root for you the whole way.’

“I’m sorry.” I tell my body “I was wrong. They are beautiful aren’t they? Each one tells its own amazing story.” I look in the mirror and smile and love what I see. And behind me I see all the other mothers of the world, touching their marks, and smiling along with me.

-Photo attached, taken by my husband.


Updated here.


I took a bath by candlelight and my belly was a beach illuminated by the flame as though by the last dim rays of the setting sun. And I walked my fingers down the sloping dune of my breast and onto that beach. There were stretch marks there, but they were as sand beneath my fingertips, gentle ripples to echo the motion of the tide against the shore; the swelling tide of pregnancy and the receding tide of birth. And I walked my fingers across that sand and into the sea. Around my fingertips the plants of the sea swirled in the dreamy circling way that water plants have. I knew if I went further, to where my fingertips could no longer walk but must dive and reach, I would find the beginning, the cradle of life. For that dune, that beach, that secret place among the water plants…those were sacred places. Those were living places. I took a bath by candlelight and my belly was a beach. It was the most beautiful beach I have ever seen.

I took a bath by candlelight and I highly recommend it.