Loving Your Postpartum Body With No Baby: Learning Gentleness With Servant of God Catherine Doherty
We all know that women struggle with their body image in pregnancy and after childbirth. We've seen the motivational posts: fleets of flabby bellies and pruney newborns sailing down our Instagram feeds, reclaiming public permission to have bodies that change. Articles are shared by the thousands about this or that woman's campaign to normalize stretch marks, or saggy breasts, or cellulite. They share a common message: My body is more than its looks. It does not exist to please the men who look at it, or to live up to unrealistic public expectations. My body is powerful: this stretched out stomach, swollen breasts, this new fat; all these tell the story of the beginning of my child's life. My body has done amazing things, and for this it deserves honor, respect, and patience, from myself and others. The work my body has done deserves to be celebrated.
Whether or not this rhetoric has changed attitudes toward women's bodies (and I think it has), it is good, and so needed in a world that, in many ways, prizes appearance above all else.
But for many women dealing with pregnancy loss, this good message is a thorn in our sides. After a late loss, milk comes in, clothing doesn't fit, we lose hair, we have gained weight and likely will continue to do so in the postpartum period. Our changed bodies are badges of honor, proof of our motherhood, and mementos of our babies' lives. But they are also constant reminders of their deaths. After an early loss, our relatively unchanged bodies remind us of how short our child's life was. This tiny person, gone, perhaps even before their body was distinguishable from the blood in which they were delivered: their anonymity was so complete that it seems not even their mother's body bears witness to their existence.
My body has failed me and failed my child, we think. Not only does its appearance not live up to expectations, but it can't even do the most important thing, the thing it was made to do. My belly does not deserve to be flabby, my arms have no right to be fat. My body is broken; what good is it? If it can't grow a baby, the least it could do is be pretty. It wouldn't come close to making up for its inadequacy, but at least it would be something.
After my first two losses, at six weeks and eight weeks, I did what so many women do: I decided to fix my body. I researched for hours at a time; I spent a small fortune on supplements. I found a doctor who would prescribe me progesterone and test for things others refused. I did the Whole30, twice, and learned to run even though I hate running.
None of this behavior was inherently unhealthy, and it seemed like a good thing for a while. I lost weight and liked the way I looked. I loved being able to run further than I could before. I felt powerful, like I was purging my body of whatever it was (I still didn't know what) that had killed my babies. I was teaching it, forcing it, to do its job, since it clearly couldn't be trusted on its own.
After a few months, I started to notice that I was genuinely afraid of food. I could no longer enjoy meals at other people's houses because they might serve me cookies made with the wrong type of flour, or something with a sweetener I was avoiding. At some point, I became aware that I was literally afraid that yogurt and granola would kill my future children, and that I felt guilty for days after eating toast, and I started to back off from my rules. But the transition back to sanity was difficult, and once I was pregnant for the third time, I tried my best to stick to many of them, despite cravings and morning sickness. I stayed as "safe" as I could.
And guess what? My baby still died.
Cue Catherine Doherty. Catherine was a Catholic convert from Orthodoxy, a social activist, speaker, Russian immigrant to Canada, and founder of the lay apostolate communities Madonna House and Friendship House. She is a Servant of God, and the website detailing her cause for canonization describes her as a bridge between the East and West in the Church. One of the most important concepts she talked about was poustinia, which is a physical place someone goes to be alone with God, as well as the constant remembrance of the presence of God wherever one happens to be. A poustinik is a person living this vocation. There is much more to be said about this, but as you read the following paragraph from her book Poustinia, you can substitute "Christian" for poustinik, and "home," and perhaps also "soul," for poustinia.
"The poustinik should have a gentle attitude toward himself, toward other people, and toward all of God's creation. In other words, the attitude of the poustinik is one of cosmic tenderness, a tenderness toward all God's creatures. But that tenderness and gentleness begin with oneself, a proper love of oneself. Gentleness leads to a good kind of order--order in the poustinia, order around it, a caring for the trees, the plants. The poustinik is possessed by a gentleness in loving himself, creation, and all others in the way God loves everything. God said that everything he made was very good, and the poustinik has a gentle care for this goodness."
(Catherine Doherty, Poustinia, "Basic Spirituality")
As I worked my way through Poustinia, this paragraph stuck with me. I think most people need to hear this message, but especially postpartum mothers without their babies. Listen:
You are good, and your body is good. Not because of its appearance. Not because of its strength or weakness, or what it can or can't do. Not because of its success or failure. Your body simply is good, is good, is good.
It is because of this fundamental and profound goodness that your body deserves to be treated with the same kindness, gentleness, and patience that any postpartum mother's body needs. It doesn't matter how much or how little your body has changed, or what problems it has. It doesn't matter that you are not breastfeeding or taking care of a newborn. It doesn't matter how much like full term labor your labor was, or how long your physical recovery takes, or what your hormones are doing, or how much weight you've gained. You need and deserve your own gentle care.
As you recover, physically and emotionally, do nothing to your body that gets in the way of an attitude of tenderness and respect toward it. This doesn't mean that you have to like everything about it; it's okay not to like something about how you look, and to be angry about your baby's death. But rethink that new way of eating or exercise routine if you are doing it to seize control of something at a time when everything is spinning out of control, or if you are punishing your body. Ask yourself if you are getting enough sleep, and take steps to help make it happen if you are not. Exercise in ways that feel good to you, and eat satisfying and delicious food.
You have time. Give your body permission to recover at its own speed, and care gently for yourself in this time, as you would if you had a living baby. You, body and soul, exist to love and be loved. You are not a problem to be fixed, and neither is your body.