Faith, Mamahood, Trauma

Growing Hope

The afternoon before Jacob is born, I trudge up the stairs to my bedroom to lay myself down. September sun filters through the window, casting shadows from the orange leaves of the tree onto my bed.

As I crawl under the covers, I think, this is what hope feels like, and I exhale. I’ve been holding my breath for a long time.

I pull the comforter up to my chin, but not before hefting a body pillow between my legs. The comforter is soft and white and provides just the right amount of weight for a day like today, when I am all nerves and energy, waiting.

The shadows from the orange leaves dance across my body.

Something in me shifts—and it is good and it is holy—much like it did the night my therapist first said “it was rape” and my body filled with fire and rage and finally, acceptance.

I knew in my bones something was changing then. In my belly, new life was forming—new life given by God, and by my husband, who sat on the therapist’s couch next to me, and who only hours before had shown me his love in that way that only true love can.

A similar sensation burns in me now—not only am I growing a human but I am growing hope, too—an ember, but it is there and it is glowing. All that came before—all the confusion, the pain, the anger—will be redeemed in a new story. This body of mine that was once so ravaged is now bursting with the joy of new life.

My Creator, my Father, who designed me to carry this boy, has designed me to carry these stories as well. This is good, and I am not alone.

My belly is taut, but my heart is soft. I know in an instant, because hope does not disappoint: my son will be here soon.

Standard
Faith, Mamahood

The Miracle of (im)Perfect Timing

img_2113Two kids under two was never part of my plan.

My husband, whose sister is a mere 14 months his senior, assured me having kids close together would be not only good planning (get those hard years out of the way) but also a good investment in their friendship (he counts his sister and her husband among his best friends). My brother is six years younger than I am, and as much as I have always adored him, the years between us often seemed like eons. I figured there was probably a happy medium. Perhaps we’d try for a second baby after the first was potty trained. Or in preschool.

I am what you might call a “small plate person” – introverted, prone to daydreams, preferring a whole afternoon alone with a book to an adventure with friends – I don’t do well with multi-tasking. I knew myself well enough to know that having two kids in the span of two years would be asking a lot of myself, especially if I wanted to do it well and with any semblance of grace.

Which is why it was so strange to me that, when my first was 10 months old, I found myself saying to my husband, “Maybe I don’t want to wait much longer to get pregnant again.”

Now, if you think this occurred to me because first children are often a breeze compared to their loud and feisty younger siblings, let me set you straight. Our first, our wonderfully vibrant Jacob, is anything but easy. He (and therefore I) didn’t sleep more than 45 minutes at a time for the first two months of his life. And this was just the beginning. Often a solo parent due to my husband’s rigorous medical residency schedule, I spent the majority of my days intently interacting with my very extroverted, very loud, very intense son. I couldn’t even leave him on the play mat for the two minutes it would take to reheat my coffee without him screaming as though a piece of heavy furniture had fallen on him (this tendency did not help with my postpartum anxiety).

So why the change of heart? Partially, because at 10 months, Jacob was slightly less challenging and more solid and less prone to breaking. He had teeth and could eat Cheerios and was cruising and laughing and snuggling. We had fun together, even inside jokes. I could see the light at the end of the tunnel. The newborn months may have been terrible, but they suddenly felt light years away.

I had survived. I knew I could do it again.

I began to think about my upcoming 34th birthday and how I only had a year before my womb would be considered “geriatric” (can we please come up with a better word for this?).

Originally my plan had been to wait another year, after moving the following summer, wherever the Army would send us. But then I began to think about the potential for my husband to deploy (even though he assured me it wasn’t likely to happen so soon).

Also, it may have been momnesia.

My husband was ecstatic. When can we start?

So, when Jacob was 10 months old I quit taking the pill. You know how it goes: we weren’t trying, but we weren’t trying to NOT. After one particularly romantic evening, I thought I felt a twinge in my belly and I thought Oh my – did we just make a baby? A couple weeks later I took a pregnancy test and with mixed feelings read “negative.”

Mostly I was relieved. I started doing the math and realized if I had been pregnant, the due date would be a mere six weeks before the Army moved us God knows where. I thought to myself, Maybe we should wait a couple more months so we’re not moving with a newborn and a toddler.

Five days later I realized it was time to take another pregnancy test. This time it was positive.

When the first trimester nausea hit (so much worse this time around), and each morning I found myself sprawled out on the floor eating saltine crackers in front of Daniel Tiger with my son, who couldn’t even walk yet, I thought, How am I going to do this?

I comforted myself with the idea that this baby was meant to be. It might not be my timing, but it was the right time for him or her. The last time I checked, God doesn’t consult me about his plans.

I told myself if we had waited, we wouldn’t be having this baby. This baby is the one who is meant to be ours.

And sure enough, in May, seven weeks before we had to move, our sweet Henry was born. We knew right away he was my husband’s son. He looked just like him, and, unlike Jacob–intense and emotional like his mama–Henry eased into life with a gentle spirit and a love of sleep.

There was a peacefulness about him that drew us in, a quiet calm that almost had us fighting over who got to put him to bed. During a stressful move, quiet time with Henry became a welcome respite. When we learned my husband would have to deploy only a few weeks after starting his new job, Henry’s presence became not only an anchor to the present moment but the embodiment of hope in our family’s future.

In the face of our fears, his slobbery kisses were like christening, his coos a benediction.

Sometimes, I catch myself wondering how different life would be now had we waited to get pregnant with our second, especially during this time of transition and separation. Certainly, Jacob and I would have more quality time and fun adventures to the beach and the park. I’d get more sleep. I’d only have one nap to plan my days around, one bath time and bedtime, only one size of diapers to buy (and change). Life would be simpler. Easier.

But then, I wouldn’t have Henry.

At seven months, he still looks just like his daddy, except his daddy has teeth (and, now that he is deployed, a “silly mustache,” as Jacob would say).

When he smiles at me, I see my husband: his kind blue eyes, his impish grin, his calm and steadfast love. What a gift.

And I have to think, as I rock him to sleep, maybe the timing was pretty perfect after all.

Originally appeared on The Good Mother Project

Standard
Faith, Mamahood

Naked and Ashamed

water-767211_960_720As I anticipate birthing my second son in just a few short months, I recall a vivid experience I had just a couple of weeks before going into labor with my first. It was otherworldly and practically unbelievable. Terrifying and hopeful. But that’s the God I believe in: wild and full of grace.

My breath comes short. My shoulders heave. My body is a sob. The shower is hot, as hot as I can stand. Steam envelopes my nakedness. I am naked and ashamed.

I look at my belly, rounded, obscuring the view of my toes. I rub my hands along the curves of my new body, along my stretched stomach, my heavy breasts, my rounded hips, my aching back.

This body, so foreign to me in its peaks and valleys, so voluptuous, so striking – I can’t hide. When I leave the safety of this shower, this room, this house, all eyes are on me. Everyone watches. They want to look at me, really look at me. They want to touch me.

My breath is shorter, faster.

In a few short weeks, strangers’ hands will reach inside this body, inside the searing pain and extract an alien being—the alien being I’m told is my son—from between my bare legs. It is unfathomable. This love that I feel for this unknown child is unfathomable. This fear, that I will tear in two and never be the same, is unfathomable.

The white tiles on the wall to my left seem closer than they were before. I reach out my left hand and place it against the cool ceramic. I can’t stop thinking about childbirth, the unknown, the pain, the rending of skin, the veil torn between myself and the rest of humanity. Between living for myself and living for another. There is no going back. Fear hangs heavy about me, dripping down the sides of the shower, clinging to the droplets of water on my bare skin, seeping in from the outside.

I’ve read books on childbirth, on how to breathe through the pain, on how to train your mind to relax your body. The hours I’ve spent meditating and breathing and listening to self-hypnosis cues have set me up with peaceful, productive images to call upon from memory at a moment’s notice: a crystalline mountain lake, a rose blooming between my thighs.

But I know better.

It doesn’t matter how well I prepare my mind. My body has tales to tell, secrets. My mind and body were disconnected many years ago, severed by the unwelcome touch, the unwelcome violence enacted upon this skin, upon these breasts, these hips; on me, in me.

I squeeze my eyes shut, salty tears washed clean by the shower spray. My body is a minefield. What will set it off? The hands of a well-meaning midwife? The pain of what should be an empowering natural birth? Or worse: the paralysis of pain medication intended to relax, to soothe?

The water is still running hot as I wrap my arms around my chest, grabbing each shoulder blade and squeezing as tightly as I can. I was made to do this, I think. My body, this woman’s body. Designed for new life. I am caught between this courageous thought and the fear of total destruction.

He could destroy me, this child. Through the trauma of birth. This boy could be the traumas of all traumas, enough to finally wipe my beautiful, tender soul off the face of the earth. A final disconnection from all that is holy and true. I cannot seem to pull myself out from under this despair.

But then a thought: I am a new creation.

My breath catches, eyes open wide. Instant warmth radiates from the core of my belly, from the secret quiet place where my son dwells in darkness. Goosebumps prickle my skin.

I am not alone.

“Do not fear, for I am with you,” I whisper into the spray, into the heavens.

He will see me through this birth.

What if it is true? What if the very presence of God is here now, waiting for me to fall into his arms, naked and unashamed?

Something in me shatters. A guttural cry like the mourning of Eve. And then—like a miracle, like grace—I barely, just barely—feel arms. Strong arms. Wrapped around me.

I look at my belly, rounded, obscuring the view of my toes. I rub my hands along the curves of my belly, for perhaps the first time feeling like I have permission to touch myself in such a way, to touch myself with love. The love that is not just for me. It is for the tiny baby floating in my womb, curled up tight and sucking his fingers, I imagine, like my husband and I saw on the sonogram.

Standard
Faith, Grace, Identity, Mamahood

Survivor Mama: New Life after Sexual Assault

ErinC-009

source: eran jayne photography

Today I am seven years a survivor. So grateful to the Good Mother Project for publishing this piece yesterday. It’s time to use my voice again. It’s time to speak the truth. 

When I got pregnant, I didn’t realize I was a rape survivor.

Mere hours after my son was conceived,  I sat in our counselor’s office with my husband, gripping his hand tightly and holding my breath as she said the word: rape. It was rape. She was referring to an event that had happened six years before, something I had miscategorized in my mind. I had told my husband a bit about that night, but I had only shared vague details:  it was always “the night I regret,” “a huge mistake,” “taking advantage.” But: Rape? We had never used that word.

I wasn’t sure what to do with this new information. My entire world as I knew it, as I had constructed it around me, was changed. I had endured violence of the most vulnerable kind and my brain had protected me from the knowledge of it. For six years. Six whole years I had been living in a haze of despair, uncertain of its cause. Now I knew it wasn’t anything I had done, and yet somehow I still felt responsible. I read the books, I repeated the words (it’s not my fault). Still, a sense of shame and feeling of filth lingered, like cigarette smoke you can’t get out of your favorite sweater.

Two weeks later, two little blue lines showed up on a pregnancy test. The baby my husband and I had been praying for.

I was ecstatic. I was terrified.

I spent the first three months of pregnancy curled up on our couch in the fetal position. Despite the standard exhaustion and consistent nausea, my physical symptoms weren’t bad. But mentally and emotionally, I was a wreck.

The anxiety that built up within my quickly changing body manifested in ways I could easily blame on pregnancy: hiding in my house, watching Netflix for hours, ignoring phone calls from friends and family. I felt like I was too full of emotion—filled to the brim—and any additional stress would send me over the edge. How could I have normal, happy conversations with people about my pregnancy when I had such a dark secret lurking beneath it all?  I thought about it much more than I wanted to, but I didn’t know how to stop, or who I could talk to. No one wants to hear you say you’ve been raped. Especially when you’re supposed to be joy personified, bursting with excitement about your unborn child.

When I did have the emotional energy to speak with loved ones, I was truthful about my excitement and fear (who isn’t afraid of childbirth?), but I never felt as though I was being completely honest.  As someone who generally wears her heart on her sleeve, this was exhausting and painful.  So, I spent most of my free time in full-on hibernation mode. My one goal was to incubate my growing child, protecting the precious, innocent life still unknown to me. I built myself a cozy little nest of blankets and books and read everything I could about preparing for birth.

Close to the end of my second trimester I finally got up the courage to see a prenatal therapist. She was calm and nurturing and made me feel safe. Still, it took weeks of therapy before I was finally ready to tell her exactly what had happened to me the summer of 2008. With great kindness, she listened to me, validated me, and also helped me admit to myself that one month before the rape, I had been sexually assaulted.

So there I was, very pregnant, very hormonal, very emotional, preparing for birth, and also trying to come to terms with the fact that I had been violently violated not once but twice—and I hadn’t let myself recognize the truth.

Any shred of security I once felt was lost to me. Suddenly everything and everyone seemed a threat to my safety. Trust was a dirty word. It didn’t help that at the time, our neighborhood was experiencing a wave of break-ins and burglary, and my rock of a husband, working long, hard shifts as a medical resident, was hardly home. My sleep, fitful and hard to come by, became punctuated with horrific nightmares.

It seemed impossible to escape the reality that I lived in a violent, terrible, evil world where women are raped (and children are molested and teens get addicted and men are tortured, and so on). And I was bringing a baby into this world. How could I protect him—how could I be a good mother—if I couldn’t even protect myself?

Yet I smiled for pictures. Shared my growing bump online. Dressed up for baby showers. I clung desperately to whatever joy I could find.

As my due date approached, the anxiety I felt around childbirth was palpable. I practiced self-hypnosis, imagery-based meditation, breathing, prayer—anything I could think of, and it still wasn’t enough. I was terrified that in the midst of labor I would be triggered; routine pelvic exams were difficult enough. Pain could be a trigger. Medication could be a trigger. Mentally, I could shut down. And even if I wasn’t triggered? This baby could rip me in two. He could destroy this body, already used and battered and worn. I could die. He could die. There was no way to know how labor would go or how I would respond.

I was completely vulnerable.

In the end, it was this very vulnerability that made room for the hope that saved me.

Interspersed with my fear and anxiety was the shimmering hope of redemption: my body, my story could be made new again. I thought about the strange and almost supernatural timing of my son’s conception: could it be a coincidence that in the hours I was first recognizing the truth of my past, he was being knit together in my womb? I began to meditate on the feeling of release I experienced when I learned I was a survivor: the way my shoulders dropped, as if letting go of a heavy weight; the way my entire body warmed as though melting away years of falsehood. The new life inside me was a promise of what lay beyond the empty devastation caused by acts of violence so very long ago. This new life, my son, was created out of joy and laughter and the love I shared with my husband.  

God began to feel very present to me, even amid my pain and fear. I felt very certain he had a hand in the timing of my pregnancy, that he was preparing my heart to be a mother as he led me through the hard truth about my past. The strange co-mingling of revelation and gestation began to feel like a gift. In my final weeks of pregnancy, a steady confidence began to build within me. Somehow, I knew I would survive birth and deliver a beautiful, healthy child.

God would get me through it. He had gotten me through much worse. I knew he would, not only for me, but for my son. Despite my fears, the sun seemed to shine a little more brightly, the air began to feel a little more crisp. The colors of early autumn seeped their way through my skin and stirred up my soul, reminding me of the beauty and goodness and light that can keep the darkness at bay. I was reminded of all I wanted to offer my son: the adventures we would take, the stories we would tell, the love we would share.

Today, my son is almost 10 months old, a sweet, active little boy with a mischievous grin. After all my worrying and wondering, he came into the world with relative ease. Oh, there was pain. And there was fear. I had to battle anxiety throughout the entire process. But I did it. I made it through. And in the end, I held the most precious gift.

So, why tell this story now? Why share something so private, so painful, so raw? I write these words because I know I’m not the only woman who has felt broken, used, and afraid. I share my story because I am confident that the evil of this world will not have the final say. I am speaking out because I want to be a witness to the beauty that has risen from the ashes of my life. I am reaching out in sisterhood to other survivors to say you are not alone.

jakeI’m telling this story because I want to teach my son by example. I don’t want him to live in fear or feel the need to hide from his past.

This journey of mine isn’t over. I still have days I’m overcome with anxiety, faced with the certainty that no matter what precautions I take, there’s only so much I can do to protect my child from harm. Each day is a practice in trusting and letting go.

Each day is a practice of faith.

Someday, I will tell my son about the half marathon I walked with him at eight months pregnant. I will tell him about the heat that beat down on me as I walked, feet swollen but heart bursting, through the brilliant beauty of Stanley Park. I will tell him how I thought of him the whole time, how I wanted to show him his mother was strong.

I will tell him how he taught me to be brave.

This post originally appeared on the Good Mother Project.

Standard
Identity, Mamahood

The Joy of Surprising Yourself-and Others-With Who You Really Are

IMG_5325This past weekend, at almost 35 weeks pregnant, I drove to Vancouver for the SeaWheeze Half Marathon and walked 13.1 miles.

Was this planned? No.

Did I train for it? No.

What happened was I got up Thursday morning, decided to try and walk 5 miles, and when I did so successfully, I figured I might as well give the half marathon course a shot. Maybe I’d get 7 miles in and have a story to tell my son someday: “I didn’t walk the whole thing, buddy,” I’d say, showing him a picture of me at mile-marker 7, “but I did show up and I put forth my best effort. And that’s what’s most important.”

And yeah, I do believe that’s true. Just showing up can be—for me, at least—the hardest part. I signed up for this race back in January, before I even knew this little life would be accompanying every step I take. When I found out I was pregnant, I knew my plans of running were shot. Even the thought of walking it? Crazy talk.

Here’s the thing: I’ve always been the cautious, look-before-you-leap, rule-following type.

Even as a child, I wanted things to be black and white and as painless as possible. The idea of walking a half marathon (at 8 months pregnant) is not something that jibes well with my personality…at all. First, you’re supposed to train to RUN a half marathon. Who wants to be the girl walking at the back? Not only that – is walking even ALLOWED?

I was worried I might get in trouble. (I kid you not; this is how my brain works.) Second, pregnant women (especially in the third trimester) are supposed to take it easy. What if I gave birth in the middle of Stanley Park? What if all this childbirthing prep with my team of midwives was for naught and my sweet little boy was welcomed into the world by an Australian medic on a bicycle who doesn’t know the first thing about labor? (Ok, that’s cheating, I didn’t imagine this person beforehand, she’s actually someone I met on the course…who told me to please not give birth along the sea wall of Stanley Park because she was not trained in midwifery.) And third, walking from the house to the car is enough to make my pelvic bones sigh in agony. Why would I put myself through the pain?

Well, the simple answer, I think, is because I woke up on Saturday morning believing I could walk a long distance and be safe. Believing I could breathe through the pain. Believing this was something I had to try, if only to prove to myself that I have the courage to try something I never before would have believed I could do.

The more complex answer has to do with the matter of childbirth. Um, hello – that’s happening in less than five weeks. This body has to give birth to a tiny human (with, we are assuming, a rather large head, given the size of his parents’ skulls, Lord help me). I’ve always known I wanted to have kids, but when it came to the subject of birthing said kids, I always chose the route of denial, the route of “yeah, well, I guess we’ll deal with that when the time comes…” Well, friends, the time is upon us. This kid is coming whether I’m ready or not.

And sadly, when it comes to pain, I’m kind of a wuss. I prefer the terms “low pain threshold” or “highly sensitive person,” but who are we kidding, I cry when I stub my toe and want my husband to kiss it (my husband, a physician trained in emergency medicine, does not, in fact, kiss my boo-boos, which is probably best for the both of us). Once, when I was three, I tripped on the sidewalk, skinned both my knees, scared the neighbors with my screams, and very earnestly asked my mother if I was, in fact, going to die. This is what we’re dealing with here.

So, anytime the topic of childbirth came up between my mom and me, the message was clear: there’s no shame in getting an epidural.

And thank goodness for my mom’s wisdom, because I still hold that statement to be true. There is no shame in any way a woman chooses to give birth to her child. Only she knows her body and her history, and I am not one to judge either way.

But here’s the thing: when I first got pregnant, I was pretty convinced on the day of labor I’d march into the hospital and demand the drugs: “Give them to me now and do with me what you will!” The sentiment was just get this dang thing out of me. But I have to tell you, over the past 8 months, something has changed within me. Spending time with this new little love and watching my body metamorphose into a living, breathing cocoon for his body to be knit together has been the most beautiful, empowering thing. (I know, I know – some of you are probably humming “pregnant women are smug” right about now, and I’m SORRY. I really am. You can skip this part if you like.)

The more I get to know this new body of mine and the more I read about birthing and breathing and the beautiful design of a woman’s body to bring new life into the world, the more confidence I have that I CAN DO THIS. No longer do I want to march in and throw my life and the baby’s life exclusively into the hands of a doctor. I want to be an active participant, working with my midwife and team of nurses to create the best environment we can to facilitate the birth of my son.

But friends, I will be the first to tell you that this does not necessarily mean I will give birth without drugs. Or that I won’t end up with a C-section. Or that I will be disappointed in myself if I do march in and demand the needle just as soon as the anesthesiologist can get his butt in gear, any more than I would have been on Saturday if I had walked 5 or 7 miles rather than 13. Medical interventions and the care of good doctors are not something to be ashamed of, nor is non-medicated birth an issue of courage over fear. That’s not what I’m saying at all. But for me, it’s an opportunity to try something I never thought I would, or could. And I think I want to take it.

My word this year was “Flourish,” and the main sentiment behind the choice was that I wanted to lean into being more of who I truly am, unafraid of surprising or disappointing others if I acted or spoke in ways they aren’t accustomed to. And while I have to chuckle at the reaction some family members have had in the wake of some of my decisions (mostly pride mixed with disbelief), what’s even more illuminating is the way I have continued to surprise myself.

As introspective as I am, I thought I knew myself pretty well (INFJ, Enneagram 4, harmony-seeking koala FTW!). But in the past few months I’ve heard myself saying “I might be a crazy person, but I think I might try to….” more times than I’ve ever said in my entire lifetime (even more times than during my semester abroad in Sydney, which included skydiving, snorkeling the Great Barrier Reef, camping in the outback, and kissing Midwestern boys, just so we are clear). For some reason I feel it’s necessary to add a disclaimer to all I’m attempting to accomplish as crazy in their scope, apologizing, almost, for taking the path less expected. And yet I am deeply, passionately committed to seeing what kinds of creative solutions I can come up with to accomplish all that is burning in my soul.

But maybe I’m not crazy.

Maybe I am more ambitious than I ever knew.

Maybe I just hadn’t tapped into the things that were most important to me.

And most beautiful?

Maybe I don’t need to apologize for who I am and who I am becoming: a baby-toting, grad-school attending mama with a book manuscript stirring within her.

I tend to believe that God created each one of us uniquely with the opportunity to grow more into who we are meant to be, if only we stop holding on so tightly to what or who we think we are supposed to be, or what the world wants from us. It’s so clear to me that this year has been one of awakening, of pushing boundaries, of opening doors, and of continually asking the question, “Well, why not?”

Because maybe, just maybe, sometimes just showing up with an open mind and open heart are all you need to finish that race.

Originally appeared on Stratejoy

 

Standard
Identity, Mamahood

Why I Post My Belly Bump Pics

babybumplumpsMy husband and I are expecting our first child at the end of September. The hope of a child is a precious, beautiful thing. Being pregnant? It’s strange. It’s humbling. It’s intensely surreal.

People like to talk crap about mommy blogs, but I have to tell you I’m thankful there are so many out there these days – especially the ones where the mamas and mamas-to-be are kind but frank about the realities of pregnancy and motherhood.

I’m thankful that women are creating a space where it’s okay to tell the hard truths (What? Not everyone is elated to find out they’re pregnant? Not everyone spends the whole nine months glowing? Along with extra weight and nausea, pregnancy can bring congestion, extra saliva, hair in weird places, acne in weird places, and a WIDER NOSE? It’s true, people).

I’m thankful for this space, but you know what? It’s still hard to practice.

Sure, I have felt a ridiculous amount of freedom in telling friends about my body woes (and reassuring friends who are also pregnant that they are NOT ALONE in any matter of ailments or fears).

And I am grateful for the grace and the compassion with which my truth-telling has been met. But there’s still this sense of confinement, of working out my inner demons, the hard reality that even in this sweet season of expectation, I have to face myself in the mirror.

And….WHOA, is that image changing.

Since we live thousands of miles from family and many dear friends, I decided to share my pregnancy progress over social media.

Since week 14, each Tuesday I post a photo of my growing belly to Instagram and Facebook and announce which kind of fruit or vegetable is comparable to the baby’s size. And friends, I worry that you may think this is shameless self-promotion, that I am just so in love with this new body and I think you should be too. Nope. In fact, each week I wonder if I will lose another Facebook friend because they are just so tired of seeing and hearing about my belly, certain that I am becoming one of those women.

Friends, this is HARD. For the girl who has been trying to perfect the selfie since before the advent of camera phones with front-facing screens (“Husband! Arm shot!” has been a common refrain in our marriage), I am much more comfortable with close-up pics of faces and smiles. After years of cropping photos to hone in on silly facial expressions (and okay, I’ll admit, my sometimes fabulous hair), I’m exposing my body to the masses – at one of the most vulnerable times in my life.

Vulnerable because: when I discovered I was pregnant, I was already 25 pounds heavier than my ideal weight. Heavier than I’d ever been in my weight-shifting lifetime. At my first prenatal appointment, my nurse asked if I was starting out at my “normal weight” and I burst into tears. I launched into a blubbering explanation of how much transition I’ve been through in the last few years and the stress it’s brought on and the plans I had been making to get back in shape and how the girl in the mirror and in pictures isn’t the girl I expect to see – and she kindly stopped me and said, “Oh, honey – you’re fine! I was just thinking what an adorable pregnant lady you make. Don’t you worry a bit.”

I was thankful for her reassurance, and I wanted to believe her…but I also knew she was trying to calm me down. Sure, I could be heavier, unhealthier, and my situation could be worse. But I also knew that for my height, my age, and most importantly, for me, I was overweight.

This wasn’t just about the number on the scale.

I wanted to be stronger and healthier so I could be better prepared to carry a child. And before I discovered I was pregnant, I was on that track.

I had just committed to training for a half marathon, and had spent hours mapping out a daily exercise plan in my day planner spanning the next eight months, including two shorter races in the spring.

I had begun easing myself into running again, and had been feeling good about the progress I had made.

But now – I was pregnant. And nauseated. And exhausted. And honestly? I felt a bit blue.

My whole plan to get stronger and feel better in my clothes had just flown out the window. Oh, yes – you can definitely exercise when you’re pregnant. And yes – every doctor will tell you to do so. And some women run half marathons while carrying a child, and do it well. But you can’t start training for a half marathon when you’re pregnant and have just spent two months on your couch nursing nausea and watching the entire series of Gossip Girl. You just can’t. Well maybe you can. But I didn’t.

And of course there are other ways to exercise while expecting. But the truth is, running has always been my go-to body-image and body-sculpting cure. I spent three torturous years in elementary school and middle school battling weight issues and the teasing that came with it (kids can be so mean), and it wasn’t until my parents purchased a treadmill the winter of seventh grade that I finally felt like I had some kind of agency over my body.

I laced up my shoes, turned on Sheryl Crow or Natalie Merchant, and ran until the weight melted off.

It’s been something I have turned to time and time again – no matter the season, running has not only helped me lose weight, but has also kept me sane, alleviating stress and promoting creative thought.

And to be honest—I am cringing as I type this—it has often helped me reach my true goal: to be trim and considered pretty.

I will be the first to tell you that I have always had – and still have – ridiculous body image issues. And the worst part is, I feel like I should know better.

In my professional life I’ve been privileged to learn so much from experts in healthy behavior change, body image, and disordered eating. I know that diets don’t work (in the long run). I know that the key to lasting change is eating nourishing food with delight and mindfulness and moving my body in a way that challenges me and brings me joy.

I refuse to participate in “fat talk” and try to challenge (and encourage) friends who are preoccupied with talking about what they should and shouldn’t eat and how they need to lose weight. I’m a passionate advocate of self-kindness coupled with accountability. But dang, it’s hard to do for myself.

Through the months of April and May, my Elevate sisters and I took on challenges to work towards a more positive body image. One challenge was to practice looking into the mirror with kindness, compassion, and love. To sometimes even speak out loud the words of affirmation that we truly long to hear (but don’t always believe). To smile at ourselves rather than grimace at every perceived imperfection.

So I began to spend more time looking at this ever-growing belly, practicing grace. And I committed to snapping a picture and sharing it each week in celebration – no matter how I felt about the image looking back at me.

On a Tuesday morning a couple of weeks ago, I stood in front of the mirror, wearing a maternity dress I hadn’t yet tried on. I loved the way it clung to my curves, showcasing my bump and growing breasts (friends, I’m sorry if that’s TMI, but this A-cup-lifer has to celebrate). And I snapped the picture. I loved it. Until my eyes traveled down and saw what the camera noticed, and I had not: my love handles, captured so delicately in shadow. And I thought –

I’ll try a different angle. No luck. Still there. And then I thought – I’ll just change clothes, I’ll put on something black, I’ll find a drapey cardigan to cover up this mess.

This mess?

My heart sank. The whole point of this exercise was to learn how to look at myself with kindness, to celebrate the changes within me, to embrace the beauty of the woman who is here right now. Without the aid of PicMonkey (um, hello airbrush, weight loss tool, and wrinkle remover!).

So, I took a deep breath and I posted it. And yeah, there is a part of me that recognized I would probably get fewer likes on that picture than the photos where I am carefully draped and posed. But hey – we’ve all got our body issues, we live in a fitness-crazed culture, and I realize some folks aren’t going to feel comfortable giving a thumbs-up to a woman who obviously has not been working out every day of her pregnancy. Maybe I’m wrong about that. I really hope so.

The point is, I am working on being brave. And being brave requires also being vulnerable. And here I am, swimming in the vulnerability pool, buoyed by my love handles. I’m effectively inviting you to go stare at, as Bridget Jones would say, my “wobbly bits.” I’m calling attention to the place on my body I would least like you to see, much less contemplate. I’m inviting you, in a way, to objectify me, like I’ve objectified myself. Like I’ve been doing since I was 13 years old.

But I’m also inviting you into a safe space, a space where we can all be honest about our fears and our hang ups and perfectionistic tendencies and realize that we’re not alone. And inviting you to recognize that speaking the truth about what we battle sheds light on what’s been hiding in the darkness. And there, in the glow, we can see that these fears do not need to hold power over us.

Because now that I’ve put this down on paper, I’m starting to think – who cares about love handles? Is this really what I’m going to spend the day thinking about? And now I’m laughing because – maybe no one even noticed.

My hope – my great, wild hope – is that in exercising this type of vulnerability, I’ll reach someone else who maybe doesn’t love her body today. Who maybe looks at old pictures of herself and longs to be 18 again. Or wishes she looked like her friend who seems to make life look so easy and perfect.

We’ve all got our secrets, friends. We’ve all got our struggles. Let’s be kind to ourselves and each other.

And may we celebrate the beauty we find today – right here, right now, staring right back at us from the mirror.

Originally posted on Stratejoy

Standard