Most women struggle with body image. Most feel they are overweight, whether they are in fact or not.
This summer I unexpectedly became self-conscious about my pregnant size and weight, because I’m too small.
First I didn’t want my belly to show, because I hadn’t yet told all my family and close friends. I wasn’t ready for it to become public knowledge. When we finally announced, I was more than ready to embrace my swelling belly and step into maternity clothes that made it cute. Or womanly. Or motherly. Clothes that made this stage look good on me and boosted my pleasure in being pregnant. Though I wasn’t that big, I was proud to carry my baby, imagining myself with that pregnant mama glow.
Then we got the crushing news that our baby had multiple defects and likely would not live. All of a sudden I wished my belly could disappear. I didn’t want to deal with questions, congratulations, or any talk at all about my pregnancy. I didn’t want my belly to be a conversation starter. It was too painful to have to explain over and over about our news. I don’t know which was more painful: to listen silently to people’s congratulations and excitement for me, politely pretending I was happy, so I didn’t have to explain anything. Or to watch people’s faces fall when I told them the reality.
People don’t know how to handle other people’s grief, especially when it surrounds something so universally joyous like a pregnancy. It’s awkward to feel like you, the grieving mother, have to comfort the other person. Or apologize for ruining her day.
My most recent self-consciousness –that sense of grief, loss, and unfairness rolled into one—stems from the smallness of my belly.
Yes, I feel bad about how small my belly is.
I used to feel a certain sense of pride, or at least uniqueness, about this. My mother kept her first pregnancy (me!) a secret until five months. I did about the same with both of my longer-term pregnancies. I liked people commenting about how tiny I was, or celebrating me finally starting to grow a bump.
When I told one friend how far along I was and she glanced at my belly, I took her joking response of “You make me sick!” as an admiring compliment. Now the memory of those words rings in my ears like a taunt, and my flesh wants to retort with all the reasons this isn’t my fault.
I see other mamas’ happy posts about their baby bumps at various stages of pregnancy, and I realize in my various pregnancies, I have always been smaller than everyone else. Josiah was born at 37 weeks, but I was never huge. I had only gained 16 pounds.
With my second pregnancy, I compared myself to another mama who had a noticeable bump at 10 weeks. I miscarried at 11 weeks, never having started a bump at all.
During this pregnancy, another girl showed off a voluptuous bump at 9 weeks when I was further ahead and not even showing. Near the end of my second trimester, I was stunned almost into bitterness seeing a Facebook post of a first-time mama showing off the same size bump than I had, though I was nearly 10 weeks ahead of her.
All these pieces of my past and present pregnancies started gelling into a sense of shame and loss. I can’t even do pregnancy right! At 20 weeks I had barely gained 3 pounds. Even though I ate all through my nausea. At 22 weeks, my belly measured one week behind. At my high-level ultrasound the following week, all my baby’s measurements were up to 3 weeks behind actual gestational age. At the next month’s prenatal checkup, my belly measured 5 weeks smaller than it should have, and even farther behind at the following checkup. Months ago, according to my What to Expect When You’re Expecting book, my uterus should have been two inches above my belly button. It was barely up to my belly button then, and now at 34 weeks has maybe, barely, risen those two inches that it should have long ago.
With only 6 weeks left to go, I can STILL wear some NON-maternity clothes that are larger-wasted or elastic. Before, this felt like a blessing—more clothes to choose from!—but now this seems like a curse, like I’ve been robbed of my rights of passage. I’ll never have a huge belly like 3rd trimester mamas get. I might never grow into my larger maternity clothes! I already know I won’t get to fit into the mama-of-a-newborn club. Now I won’t even fit properly into the pregnant mama club!
Suddenly, seeing that post of a younger belly bump the same size as mine, I felt insanely jealous. I wanted to make a snarky comment like “You’re that big ALREADY?!?!” But that would only reveal the bitterness of my own heart.
It used to feel like a victory to say I was 10 weeks, or 17 weeks, or 23 weeks. After 2 miscarriages, it WAS a victory, a celebration, to make it to each successive week of gestation. Now, I no longer feel excited to answer questions about how far along I am. My belly belies my answer. I feel like a fraud. Or a failure.
I can’t grow normal babies.
I can’t even grow a normal belly.
I guess if my baby and pregnancy were healthy, it would be fun to be able to hide all that baby somewhere in my slender torso. But the knowledge that my baby is not growing properly makes my abdomen also feel abnormal, adding to the weight of my feelings of loss, grief, and unfairness.
Drowning in all my bitterness, I need to choose to be thankful and remind myself of a truth from this year’s Vacation Bible School: “God gives good gifts!”
I am learning to look at the bright side of a small belly. Late summer heat isn’t as horrible for me as I anticipated. I haven’t had trouble sleeping comfortably at night. I’ve actually had more stamina to work in the garden at 8 months than I did at 5 months. (I even had energy to freeze 5 dozen ears of corn and can a half-bushel of pickled red beets! I hadn’t expected to be able to do much this harvest season.) What a huge blessing to be able to pursue a passion that is therapeutic for me and helpful for the family.
As I get over my self-focused grumblings, I am learning to see the beauty of my belly despite its smallness. The gift of getting to carry a life, created by God, is beautiful.
I guess it’s not a competition to see who can grow the biggest belly. I guess the size of my baby bump is not a measure of my motherhood.
Just as I can love my baby while I have her, I can also love my belly as it is. Thank you, God, for this gift of acceptance.