Last week my daughter, Miya, turned three.
“I’m free!”, she says, holding her thumb and first two fingers out generously to anyone who asks, the last two digits dancing a bit on their own off to the side. While her hand representation of the number “3” is notably un-American (Americans push out the pointer, middle, and ring fingers with the thumb locking the restless smallest “pinky” finger down), I feel proud and happy that she says it in English, as 80-90% of her spoken language is Swiss German. I also love that the word, “three” coming out of her mouth sounds like FREE. “I’M FREE.”
…A fantastically profound statement of toddler-ese. Even though freedom is not necessarily what she means, I am not sure she can yet fathom the full meaning of the number three, or that this connotes in some way how long she has been out in the world breathing oxygen and consuming food with her mouth, rather than through a cord attaching her belly to an temporary organ inside the uterus of my own. AND, as I contemplate her innocent and absorbent mind, I am also struck by the notion that for now… for some temporary precious time until she starts understanding and processing the societal messages about her body… she IS FREE. She breathes deeply and her belly moves with her breath without any sense of holding. She runs naked without a care through our house, laughing and enjoying her body and all it can do. She tells me repeatedly, with gusto, how beautiful I am. When I ask her in turn if she knows how beautiful she is, she nods without a shred of doubt and says enthusiastically, “THANK YOU, MAMA”.
It’s fucking incredible to witness.
In light of Miya’s self-assured appreciation of her body and her personhood; her freedom, so to speak, I have spent some time reflecting on my own lack thereof, in practice and writing… to contemplate where it went along the way.. and to ponder what it would mean to reclaim some (or all) of that freedom.
It’s been three years since Miya and I unplugged ourselves from one another’s soft and vulnerable abdomens. Three years since the stump of her umbilicus was cut before it would heal and fall off to reveal her own cutest belly button. And it’s been three years of my struggle to reclaim the identity of my own belly, still very much a work in progress.
Happy birthday, dear belly. You are three.
I have written in the past about parts of my journey with Diastasis Recti (DR) and my ongoing process with healing and reacquainting myself with my postnatal belly. It has been at least a year since I wrote to any extent about this process so perhaps it is time for an update.
To be completely transparent about my own post-birth journey, I should also share what I hold in common with many, many, many women: the forgotten capacity to love one’s body or feel at home within it. Somewhere along the way I stopped nodding smilingly and saying “THANK YOU” without a pause when someone told me I was beautiful. Somewhere I stopped being FREE.
Body image issues are no stranger to me, as is true for many women. After a long and pretty severe rendezvous with bulimia which began in my college years, I managed to kick the habit of binge/purge in my mid 20's, but never the disdain for my body that went along with it. I know this kind of story is grossly common. I share it out in the open now because we still don’t talk enough about the overwhelming numbers of women hating their bodies. This is perhaps a larger discussion for another time, but I also share this point to further underline the intensity of the last three years as I’ve tried to come to terms with my new body, and primarily my new belly… which is also the story for many, many women post-partum.
For those who haven’t read about or are unfamiliar with DR, my rectus muscles, the “six pack” as they are known in fitness and swimsuit magazines worldwide, separated sometime near the end of my pregnancy, something that happens to over 90% of pregnant women. My six pack, however, (which were never in my life anywhere near a “six pack” by the way), did not return to their original position after birth, and instead stayed separated by a few centimeters at the widest point. DR can create a reduced capacity to properly engage and transmit force across the core muscles, resulting in everything from low back pain to hernia to uterine prolapse and more. There are many “rehab” programs out there which claim to help this issue. Some are good and some are not, but the truth is that while DR is shockingly common, it is also poorly understood and under-studied, and up until the last 5-10 years has gone largely under the radar in women’s health. The tides are shifting, but we are still way behind in understanding DR.
I have personally healed my own DR to a great degree with a lot of personal study, patience, modification and alteration of movement practices, and sustained effort. While I spent about two years strongly modifying and adapting my yoga practice, I learned a vast amount about my individual as well as general human physical propensities and body mechanics. In the last year I have shifted my fears of “worsening” the DR (a real issue while tissue is still compromised) to building a confidence and strength I have never known in my physical body and practice. You may have heard before that injuries are great teachers, and in this case, a split down my center has shifted my whole perspective on teaching and movement… for the better.
Thank you, dear belly.
I also am choosing to share that the process of healing my core muscles has coincided with one of the most difficult periods of my life. After moving to a new country, in a new culture and a language system that feels insurmountable*, I had a baby within a year. Motherhood is isolating and uprooting enough in modern times, but as an immigrant in a new and unfamiliar place, I was also uprooted not only from my dearest friends, many of whom are newer mothers, but my vast network of yoga, movement, and wellness colleagues in the states. After realizing that my DR was not going away on its own, I succumbed like steps in quicksand through the process of trying to find doctors, bodyworkers, therapists, and anyone else who could help me here in Zürich, while my long-time colleagues with knowledge and great connections were miles away across the ocean. In short, I didn’t find anyone in Switzerland. What I did find through my search, however, was a much larger, worldwide network of people working with this issue, and a deeper appreciation for my own capacity to persevere. I would not have branched out in this way, nor known this kind of appreciation or capacity if it was not for my abdominal separation.
Thank you, dear belly.
Because of my DR, and because of other factors, I never “bounced back after birth”, as the terrible phrase goes; I sunk. I actually gained weight for the two years I breastfed; I didn’t “shed the pounds” as you hear so often. Because of the abdominal separation, I couldn’t practice the yoga I loved in the ways I had always practiced before, and so a dependable outlet for stress and discomfort was no longer my saving grace. I was wrought with anxieties from new motherhood, common for many women, but they felt suffocating in my loneliness and isolation. I questioned my career and my abilities as a teacher, watching my classes dwindle while I navigated my new body and practice paradigms. I never tried to diet or restrict my food intake while breastfeeding, as I wanted my daughter to be well nourished and because I felt this kind of inner restriction would somehow pass onto Miya in a negative way. And while I adored and cherished my daughter, I felt like a shell of who I once was in almost every other sense beyond the act of mothering. I hated my body, particularly my belly, and held onto all of my old clothes hoping upon hope for the day when I could slip them on again. For a lot of my wardrobe, especially pants and bras, it still hasn’t happened.
Dear belly, I am sorry.
If I could say one thing that is true about me, it is that I am a fighter; a warrior, through and through. In the last year despite the challenges I faced, I opened my own home studio, and expanded my business more than threefold. I have taken my strength and movement training to new levels, and have seen great successes with my clients, students and public offerings across the board as my expertise and clarity in movement has increased. My body has changed through my struggles; I have grown stronger, more capable, and more confident in my practice and teaching. After coming up against dead ends in healthcare here in Switzerland, I have pursued working with doctors, therapists, and health care professionals I trust, even if they are across the ocean, to make shifts in my physical and mental health and wellbeing. Finally, I have shifted my career objectives to include and empower other teachers, especially women, who I believe are sharing vital knowledge and walking the talk, in part because I have felt so alone and cast out in my professional life here compared to the vibrant community of outspoken women that surrounded me in New York City. I feel proud of all of this, even if at times I still get stuck in some of the limiting factors I mention above.
As I have traversed through all of these layers of new motherhood, new body, new me, I have simultaneously watched my daughter blossom from a helpless tiny baby into a strong and capable little girl. I have observed the beginnings of her truly loving herself and seeing beauty and perfection when she looks in the mirror, a natural state we are all born with. I have marveled at her candor and assuredness when she chooses clothes and dresses herself. I have savored her ability to deeply and simply enjoy being beautiful. It is an honor to bear witness to someone who enjoys being herself in every cell of her being.
I have learned so very much from her.
Even though my DR is healed… even though I am stronger… and even though I have lost 70-80% of the weight I gained with pregnancy and breastfeeding, my belly remains a little softer and protrudes a little more than I would like if I am very honest. As I have watched my daughter grow into receiving her beauty openly, her perfect FREEDOM has stood out in stark contrast to the silent aggressions and discord that played out in my own head every time I glanced in the mirror.
I am not sure if I can shake twenty years of hating my body in a few months, or years, or ever… but I am giving it a shot. In recent months, I have committed to thanking my body, and especially my belly as a practice of gratitude; a ritual of recognizing all it has and continues to do for me, including growing and birthing my beautiful daughter. There is also the reality of our own impermanence and fleeting nature, which perhaps hits all of us more as we age and begin to lose those people who are most important to us. I contemplate the reality that one day I will no longer have this physical vessel to inhabit, and it saddens me that I would disregard and despise it so willingly. And so when I awaken and when I fall asleep, when I sit to meditate or practice yoga, I try to take a moment to offer gratitude. I try to catch myself glancing in the mirror with disdain and instead I pause and touch my belly with kindness.
What a shame that we somehow transition from tiny, beautiful, free beings to bigger, older, wiser beautiful beings who somehow hate what they see when they look in the mirror.. I have committed to freeing myself, to whatever degree I can, of the story that I am not enough, that my body is not ok or not beautiful or not capable. I am attempting to emulate my daughter, and be FREE.
Happy birthday, dear belly. You are three.
Happy birthday, dear belly. You are FREE.
*Switzerland uses “high” German for its written language, but its spoken version of German “Schwiizerdutsch” is often indecipherable from the “high” German counterpart, thus requiring one essentially learn two languages to fully integrate into the German speaking part of the country where I live.