Vessel: thoughts on motherhood and the body

People kept telling me I didn’t look pregnant. At 5 months, my sister-in-law studied the slack of my shirt over my flat tummy.

“Can I touch it?”

I hesitate. “Sure.”

There’s nothing there but the slight pouch from my slouchy posture, a relic of adolescent shame about my 6’0 stature.

Taylor and I attended his high school reunion at the five month mark of my pregnancy, and I wore skinny jeans, a floral print t-shirt, and a leather jacket.

“I thought you’d be showing by now,” said one friend, giving me a vertical scan.

“Yeah, I don’t know,” I say, as if I hadn’t noticed until this very moment.

But at seven months my body bows with the pressure of a growing baby boy. My legs look tiny all of a sudden, but it’s only because they now live in the shadow of a mountain of belly, stretched out pale and taut like a drum.

I wear a sweatshirt every day that I can because I feel naked in t-shirts, the way they hug my tummy, offering a glimpse into the biological process of division and growth that feels primal and private.

Louise Erdrich writes about how she eats with her baby’s body in mind. Thinking of her tiny nascent fingernails, she eats Jello.

When I snack or cook meals, I mostly think about the moment I will step onto the cold, unforgiving metal scale at my doctor’s office.

After gaining almost no weight the first trimester, she commented that I’d gained an entire 5 pounds in one month.

“Weight gain is,” she pauses, reading the numbers, “reasonable.”

My world tilts and sways.

“And your blood pressure looks great,” she carries on, “still taking the vitamin D.”

But I’ve lost her completely.

“What do you mean ‘reasonable’?” I interrupt her.

She looks up from her computer. “We don’t usually like to see more than five pounds in one month, but you were underweight to begin with.”

I can’t hear her the rest of the appointment. I know she mentions something about childbirth classes and finding a pediatrician, but the details are lost to me. I’m a net through which all the minnows and goldfish can pass. I only catch the whale.

As a kid, a friend and I would always complain that we were fat, waiting on the reassurance of the other that we certainly were not. She was the fat one. No, I would say, am.

One night on the pull-out couch of my parents’ basement we rehearsed our roles again, spooling out the dialogue like a prayer rug bare at the knees.

This time she paused. “Some people say they’re fat just because they want people to tell them they’re skinny.”

I blinked in the darkness.

“Well,” I said, groping for an answer. “I just don’t like the word ‘skinny’. I mean, skinny. It sounds gross. Like you have too much skin or something. Like an elephant.”

I wasn’t as gifted at improvising as I was reciting a script.

But in truth, I loved the word. All the words. Slip, sliver, waif.  I loved them all. I wore them like a beauty queen’s sash resting on my neatly defined collar bones. Matchstick pants and cigarette jeans and pencil skirts.

“You’re only six months?” said my mother-in-law’s housekeeper when she saw me at a Christmas party. “You can’t hardly tell.”

The woman is as tall as me and probably outweighs me by 75 pounds. She’s carried and birthed ten children, and now presides over a small army of grand babies.

“Yeah, not yet,” I say, holding my sparkling cider. I run my fingers around its lip. “Probably soon.”

“I guess you’ll blossom all at once,” she says, smiling.

I try to start using words like this. Blossom, bloom, flower, bud.

But it’s hard to think of these words without also thinking of wilt, wither, droop, pucker, fall.

When panic grips me and I start googling celebrity mom beach bodies, I try to remember how scared I was to get married. Even in love, I wondered how much I would miss the attention of other men, gathered piecemeal in sidelong glances at the grocery store, in the lingering conversations I had with cops I worked with at the hospital.

But then I did get married. And it was like I’d been scraping dew from blades of grass my whole life because I never realized there was a river behind me.

I threw away my bucket and went to swim.

And maybe this baby will be like that too. Maybe when I put a face to the kicks and jabs, the pounds and inches, the small deprivations, I’ll be glad that he grew inside of me, stretched and molded me. Into someone more maternal and less self-involved. A bigger, better vessel for love.

2 thoughts on “Vessel: thoughts on motherhood and the body

  1. Thanks for this Caroline. Wryly, delicately done. You’ve told your story with a wonderful spareness – slender if you will – that doesn’t bog down the reader with the unnecessary bits.


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