In her book, Mum Face, Grace Timothy asks why, when we gain a baby, do we lose ourself?
3-6 months: losing weight
Once breastfeeding was assimilated into Things I Do Now – I’d done it in public, standing up and even on a packed bus – and it was no longer a bloodbath/novelty, I grew less aware of my t*** and started to consider the rest of my body. Along with the rest of the world, apparently. Because what struck me was how much everyone talked about when I would lose the baby weight.
Friends and family would routinely reference it in the same breath as “how’s she sleeping?” and “how are you feeling?” “Are you back in your jeans yet? Wow, you’ve dropped a bit since we last saw you. Hey, Spanx are great though, eh?”
The midwife, as she stepped over my blood pooling on the floor of the delivery room, told me breastfeeding would help (I hadn’t asked), the health visitor cautioned me not to live off cake (I hadn’t asked), and then the NCT girls started booking in group workouts and discussing jogger prams while I liked the sound of a stroller infinitely more. Strolling sounded mega. I hadn’t asked ANY OF THEM for advice, but it was just accepted that it was something we’d all want to know about.
‘Losing the baby weight’ gets way too much airtime, so I’d sooner not address it, or just flood the pages with all the kind of stridently positive thoughts about how fabulous I felt and how empowered I was by the whole process of pregnancy and birth. “I love me as I am!” I crow. “I won’t change for anybody!” Well, yes, and no. Full disclosure: I felt a bit lost in this body. How I looked contributed to how different I felt now I was a mum. How MUM I felt. There were so many bits of me that were unrecognisable.
So I chose to ignore it. Plus, it didn’t bother me that much because I felt like everything was still in a state of flux – who knew what I would end up with? I knew my belly wouldn’t just suck itself back in like a whoopee cushion the minute my baby vacated the womb, but losing weight sounded a bit… premature.
And I was too consumed with other things to make room for this concern at first. As time went on, I was simultaneously being encouraged to fatten my baby up as quickly as possible and drop the odd pound that was keeping my midriff warm every time I had to lift up my top to feed. It’s like a transaction must take place – baby put on weight, mum lose weight – and all at the same rate.
Look, I like clothes that fit and being able to run for the bus without my thighs chafing as much as the next person, but lose weight?! I was just trying not to lose my mind. Sorry, did I not just drop 7lb 9oz of baby weight out of my vagina? You also want me to make my arse… what, higher? Smaller? Maybe I should have been scoffing kale and cakes made from sweet potato (not a cake – that’s a savoury scone at best, but basically, a pie). I don’t think so!
I wore leggings and a shirt or a massive jumper EVERY SINGLE DAY, so I wasn’t worrying about what to wear. For the first time in my life, what I wore didn’t matter to me, as long as my undercarriage was warm and I could get my t*** out on demand. I was layering up, cloaked in coats and scarves. I was sitting down a lot. I honestly didn’t really know what it all looked like underneath.
But when I did look down at my belly, now a soft, wrinkled paunch that literally hung between my hip bones, I struggled. Of course I didn’t like it! It was like somebody else’s body had eaten mine. In the bath, my breasts spread apart to nudge my arms and this belly wobbled in between. The stretchmarks were like wrinkles rather than scars, so that below the smooth ridge of what were once upper abs, there was this old-lady jowl flopping about in the water. My belly button was a huge hole in a ring of flesh – like a wet doughnut.
What I had to get to grips with was that the new belly wasn’t ‘mumsy’ as there is no such thing as a motherly stereotype – we all have different bodies and to continually bastardise this word is to do all mums a disservice.
Originally, I’d grown this softly curved belly during the ‘90s, arguably the most unforgiving decade for the midriff. Crop tops, the knotted shirt, jeans slung so low you had to shave your entire bush off lest it peek over the top… Combat trousers that squeezed your love handles up and out like a sausage from its skin. And satin – satin going-out tops, dresses, all bodycon and skimming and squeezing. Belly buttons never look right under satin – innies look cavernous and outies look like hernias. I refused to be satin’s b****.
So at 16, I consciously honed my stomach by eating just Melba toast during the day and quite often burying my supper in the garden come evening. I fainted a lot, I did 100 crunches a night. I smoked a bit to stave off the desire for a cheese sandwich and I accidentally overdosed on probiotics until I shat through the eye of a needle. But no matter what, I still had a curve under my belly button.
It was punishing – flattening it, squeezing into knock-off Spanx from the market that left livid red marks across my hips. I spent hours putting on tops and taking them off again, scrutinising the way they sat over my belly, pinching and smacking the flesh. I WANT TO LOOK LIKE BRITNEY IN THE SLAVE 4 U VIDEO, DO YOU NOT UNDERSTAND, YOU USELESS BIT OF SKIN?
But ultimately, I only ever showed off my burgeoning abs at the weekend since I was still in school uniform the rest of the time, and eventually gave it all up, taking instead to self-consciously placing a hand over my lower belly and wearing empire lines.
Just as my mum had warned me then, I now look back on those days with a loving nostalgia for how smooth it was. Yes, it was curved more often than not, but it was so smooth. I should have shown it off more if anything.
So no, I didn’t like this new wobbly belly or the stretchmarks, which looked like I’d been savaged by Winnie the Pooh on crack, but I was more forgiving. Thanks to being knackered and the fact that this time my body had served a purpose. I started to think: “Yes, it’s changed, but this is a grown-up softness, it has housed this most brilliant of kids. It has stretched and is probably unable to snap back now.” I was fairly sure that if the skin was permanently torn, the muscles were most likely shot to s***, too.
I did want to feel less heavy (I don’t mean when I jump on the scales – which I never have, never will – but when I lugged myself and my kid around, I wanted to feel strong and lithe and quick… Thinking about it, I could have just put the changing bag and the buggy down, couldn’t I?). But, did anyone actually CARE what I looked like at this point?
I was lucky, too, that the kind of adulthood I felt like I’d been thrust into wasn’t built in the image of supermodels, who for me are always frozen around age 21. In my head, a beautiful adult woman was Kirstie Alley, Daryl Hannah, my art teacher Miss Codd and my mum. All busty girls with solid thighs and arms who could swing at anyone who suggested they “lose the baby weight”.
I felt I had a good distance from the misogynistic nonsense of post-baby diets and the airbrushed models who lost ‘the baby bulge’ after two weeks of breastfeeding, probably because I’ve worked for magazines – I know it’s all jiggery-pokery behind the scenes, and not much of it is true enough to trust just with the naked eye.
The only thing that threatened to undo all this burgeoning body positivity was when I said to a friend’s husband as said friend stood grinning at their baby, something along the lines of: “Doesn’t she look great?” And he replied: “Yeah, but she’s worked hard at it. You’ll get there.” Well, f*** me, I thought. I don’t want to work, I’m on bloody maternity leave. That’s the whole point! It hurt, because for the first time my own idea of how I looked – basically, fine – was called into question. I was aware that a lot of mums saw yoga and Pilates as much-deserved ‘me time’, but I did not.
Ultimately, my body – like every other woman’s – was still up for debate, but luckily I wasn’t privy to it. From “How you’ve grown!” as a kid, to “Is she sexy or not?” as a teenager, I was now entering the bit that comes just before “Isn’t she ageing well?”, the bit where other people consider whether you’re staying on top of things.
But amazingly, after that initial sting, I realised for the first time in my life, I didn’t care. I thought, his opinion of how I look just doesn’t matter. Imagine the worst – he’s sat at home thinking I’m fat and lazy. Do I care? Does that really bother me? Will I mount a treadmill because he may or may not be thinking that? No. It just made me more determined that by the time my daughter had grown (or not grown) breasts, she wouldn’t hear a single comment along the same lines, ever. I felt smug about this personal development. I was a better person for this sense of perspective.
I would still go wild when I couldn’t snaffle up my belly into a pair of leather trousers, of course, but I didn’t fear or dress up for other people’s gaze, or long for their approval in the same way. GROWTH!
I didn’t just care about how this issue affected me any more, but ALL PEOPLE. I made a point of telling other mums how wonderful they looked, pointing out sparkling eyes, warm cheeks, a colourful scarf, ANYTHING, as I knew they too were often hearing: “You look knackered!” and “Oops, no longer eating for two though, are we?”
I put a picture of my jelly belly with all its stretchmarks up on Instagram, because #millennial, but also in a narcissistic attempt to prove to myself I didn’t care any more. I was in control of the consumption of my body. The feedback was warm – they didn’t want me to feel insecure, they wanted me to celebrate my body so they could celebrate theirs.
It’s like the snaggle-tooth that jumped out of line as soon as my retainer came off, and the birthmark on my nose. It’s there, why try to hide it?
Mum Face by Grace Timothy (£12.99, Harper Collins) is out now
Photography: Evangeline Modell