“You have a squishy belly.” She watches you dress, your belly a shiny object of distraction from her breathless monologue about the world at three feet. She seeks. You can’t hide. She is four years old.
You are thrust into the cold periphery of your memory to the moment the technician said, “Congratulations, it’s a girl!” You asked her if she was sure. “Yes, she’s not shy in there.” She spoke in a sing-song while pointing out how boldly your daughter spread her legs for you all. You twisted in a self-spun web, sticky with illogic, emotion and hormones, each move a wrong move down strands of standards and self-contempt, hatched from a lifetime of shadow fears, shame, and fighting for space.
Your husband asked if you are ok.
He knew you were not. He knew not to pursue. You began to script and edit before wiping the goo off your belly.
She will experience the same injustices, reductions, and tacit rules, but you will teach her not to be afraid. You will show her how to navigate the gossamer, once you figure it out. You cram for motherhood, the world and its wolf whistles like an active crime scene. Your hips and belly and breasts grow and you take up space. People step aside.
Your daughter arrives and squalls with mighty and unfettered lungs. You bleed, you almost bleed out. You recover, but your body softens and curves, hugging in on yourself, cradling the extra flesh. You’re told to be ashamed. You’re told to lose it. You’re told to not worry about it. You wonder why everyone cares. You feed your child. You stroke her cheek. She regards you curiously but with faint familiarity.
She grows. The world lies in wait until she is old enough to be diminished and wobbled, to tell her, tittering behind a faux modest hand, that it can’t unsee any imperfections she dares reveal. She will be tested.
Your belly stays convex, tested and stretched from being temporary housing. It knows your mood before you can name it. It holds pain and excitement and is a truth detector. Your daughter learns to eat and you relearn to eat, your stomach straining against your waistband. You fight to not push your plate away, and your triumph is awful. It is an uneasy partnership between you and your belly, but one grounded in respect.
Your daughter’s feet never touch the ground. She is electricity and curls. You watch the world from your small god position wanting her to never land.
She notices differences. Venn diagrams of you and me and us and them. You try to stretch that overlap so that We and They are more alike than different. She accepts and repeats and internalizes and loves so easily.
Then she notices that your belly is squishy. This moment. You tower over her, reaching to her from a place of trustworthiness and love and care. She is at belly-level right now, maybe that’s why she’s noticed yours and probably others. Bellies are squishy or not-squishy. An acceptable binary, but one that jolts awake your monster. You are a mish-mash of parts. Pretty or not pretty. Good or bad. Wanted or unwanted. You are afraid of this moment dooming her to all that you know.
“Yes, honey. I do have a squishy belly.” You attempt insouciance. Your daughter inhales to respond and your shoulders draw into each other.
She pulls her shirt up a little bit and looks down at her tummy. “What about my belly?”
It takes only a moment for you to tickle her until she folds double. “Aha! You have a perfect tummy.”
“Yay!” She crumples against your belly, exhaling. You bend down and inhale the sunshine of her hair. She pulls away and out, satisfied. She is happy. She is four.
*Note From The Editor: This piece is so important for so many reasons. How many of us had these same fears as we prepared to welcome our children? How many of us battle our own demons, both for our own well being and out of fear of passing them on to our beloved little ones? In the United States, 20 million women and 10 million men suffer from a clinically significant eating disorder at some time in their life. It’s an epidemic that crosses gender, social, racial and economic lines. And it’s one I wish we all talked about more, because there is no right way around it, and none of us are exempt. We’re all in this together.