The Post-Partum Body

Simon_First Smiles_December 2015

Above: The Reason Behind My Six-Month Leave

In January I returned to training after a six-month maternity leave. I was fifteen or so pounds heavier than what I had been pre-partum. I had a poochy stomach, and I had fat where I used to have muscle.

I was afraid that I would neither regain my shape nor my technique. It was my third pregnancy. I was old. I was tired. I might never recover.

On one hand, I want to live with my post-partum body, partly because our society despises it. Conversations following birth revolve on how quickly you return to your pre-partum weight. “When did you fit into your jeans?” we women ask each other. When my newborn was one week old, women (always women) ran their eyes along my midriff as if to assess where I could be slotted on the post-partum weight-loss continuum.

The female body and the maternal body continue to be central topics of gender wars. Some artists are trying to re-value the mother’s form. Jade Beall’s stunning book of photographs of mothers, The Bodies of Mothers, counteracts cultural body shaming and creates a media platform on which mothers can see reflections of themselves. I’m grateful for this and others’ attempts at exhibiting and appreciating the real maternal body.

I’m enjoying my own. I’m proud of what it has done (given birth) and what it’s doing (breast-feeding.) My son is growing from drinking breast milk only—the female body’s ability to nourish another body is a feat that continues to astonish me.

On the other hand, I miss my athlete’s body. My first Sensei used to talk about the pleasure of experiencing a freedom of movement that comes from having a strong, thin body. I worried about the impact of his words on students who were not rail thin or those who had eating disorders. But lately, as I’ve been losing weight and rebuilding muscle, I find myself remembering his words and partly agreeing with him.

In January, I returned to the dojo with my seven-year-old son. Each Saturday, I drag my transition-shy boy out of the house, into the white glare of the winter sunlight and, recently, into air sparkling with silvery snow motes.

Once we’re in the community centre’s gym, my son starts smiling. He loves karate. In the dojo, he doesn’t experience any of the mild behavioural challenges he faces at school. The instructors are strict but not intensely so. He adores them, in particular one of the men, who feigns to come at him with devastating punches. Once again, I’m faced with the gendered nature of experience: My son reacts better to male teachers than female teachers.

As for me, I’m finding the return to being a karate-ka slow. I had a complicated birth and my lower back and pelvis continue to recover. A weakness in my left leg is preventing me from kicking properly. But everything is improving. And I’m re-experiencing the sheer pleasure of being able to move again, the ecstasy of kicking and jumping.

Regaining my past athleticism is necessarily slow. I will continue to breast-feed my infant. Like the philosopher and feminist Lauren Bialystok, I find breast-feeding both instinctive and wonderful and have no intention of sacrificing it on the altar of body image. And I won’t be attending more than one karate class per week this year. I want to spend time with my baby and with my other children. Instead of class, I go to the gym, and supplement my training with yoga classes, which are shorter than karate classes and more suited to my tightly-packed days.

I’ll live with, and sometimes appreciate, my jiggly body. To hell with those who run their eyes along my maternal curves and bite their lips in judgment. I want my relationship to my post-partum body to be a personal one. I want the link between self and body to play out not on the public stage but in the private realm.

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Our Family Adventure in Japan

 I apologize to my readers for my prolonged absence. I’ve spent most of the fall and winter of 2013 neck deep in a fiction project. Because it’s the school holidays, I’m taking a moment to pause for breath. (Apart from reading Harry Potter with my seven-year old, doing crafts with my four-year-old, and cleaning my half of our home office, I’m taking a break from almost everything). I also made a pledge to myself to return to my blog, and here I am.

Also, an update on the aforementioned, upcoming comic strip. In the fall, my collaborator and illustrator became pregnant. Due to a difficult first term, she was unable to work. She’s feeling better, and we’re back at work! More to follow in the coming months….

Last fall, we flew the whole family to Japan. My youngest being four and a half, my oldest seven and a half, we thought it not a bad time to travel halfway across the world to a foreign country, one with a thirteen hour time zone difference. And while the experience was challenging (my son ate only rice for three weeks), it yielded numerous rewards.

For one, being in a completely foreign culture strengthens family bonds. For another, we had the reward of experiencing a country we’d wanted to go to for a long time, one rich in nature and culture.

I spent a relatively short time there, so I don’t want to pretend I’m an expert on Japan—I’m not. But two things struck me: one, that Japan is parent and child friendly. I also noticed how rooted Karate-Do etiquette is in Japanese society.

Japan appears to be structured around family. Given the relatively low birth rate, I find this curious. Nevertheless, many things seemed to be made with the needs of the family in mind. The bathing culture in particular is family friendly. (Can I rave for a minute about how much I love Japanese baths. For one, I love lounging in water. I also appreciate that young girls witness women’s nude bodies in all their varieties, a healthy counter measure to media images of unrealistic women’s bodies.)

One village bath, in Yakushima (a small island south east of mainland Japan), had a wooden crib in its change room. I watched a young mother leave her baby in the crib while she went to bathe herself and her two other children. Old women gathered around the crib. The baby, who must have been three or four months old, squinted up at them, gurgling as the women cooed and fussed. In my own lonely months as a mother of young children, I would have given everything I owned for that kind of communal support. I found it hard enough to get away for a shower!

The degree to which the Japanese have solved those little everyday problems we encounter in modernized society astounds me. They seem particularly attentive to parental needs.

In many public washrooms in Tokyo and Kyoto, small, hanging booster seats are found not only in cubicles, but also beside the communal sinks. Mothers can seat the toddlers in the boosters while they themselves use the washroom or wash their hands.

Only a parent can fully understand the benefit of these hanging seats. No longer will you have to teeter off the toilet to try to grab a toddler attempting to crawl under the cubicle door, while you simultaneously try not to pee on your feet. No longer will you have to leave the sink prematurely in order to pursue a child, your hands dripping a trail across the floor, under others’ disapproving stares.

Visiting Japan, I understood for the first time where Karate-Do etiquette comes from. Everyone went out of their way to be helpful. We don’t speak a word of Japanese, but Japanese people were willing to work on understanding us.

And people bow, of course. Not only that, though. They are extremely attentive. When you speak to someone, they are fully present. Their bodies are still. They listen. Then they do everything possible to meet your needs. Everyone we met seemed to practice loving kindness, a practice undoubtedly rooted in Zen Buddhism.

I’ve often been told that Japan has a very low crime rate. I have an uncle who works in the police force in Paris. He informs me that Japanese tourists in Paris are often victims of crime, simply because, coming from a somewhat crime-free society, they’re unusually trusting.

On the day we left Tokyo for Kyoto, my husband forgot his wallet beside a subway ticket machine. Our train tickets, credit cards, and the cash we had just retrieved in preparation for our travel day (many places in Japan run on cash only) were in that wallet. Leaving us at the train station, he went back to our point of departure in the hopes that someone had retrieved the wallet. I sat the kids down on their mini suitcases at the side of an underground corridor, where thousands of commuters tripped briskly back and forth between subway and train lines. For the next two hours, we read books and, to the kids’ delight, ate vending machine chips and chocolate.

Two hours later, he was back.

He told me the story. The wallet had not been at the ticket machine, and, desperate, my husband approached the ticket collector. By dint of gestures and the Google Translate feature on his phone, he communicated his predicament. The collector pointed him in the direction of what turned out to be the Lost and Found room. There, my husband found his wallet. Train tickets, credit cards, and several bills were there, all untouched.

 

 

 

On Big Biceps

Last week I went to my five-year-old daughter’s first grade-school concert. The concert was held on stage, in a community centre theatre that looks exactly like a real theatre, complete with galleries and spotlights. Kids of all ages sang out of tune and, more surprisingly, in tune. Some of the expressions on these kids’ faces were terrified, others earnest. I made a great effort not to weep.

A twelve-year-old girl stood out. Like her classmates, she wore all-black. What distinguished her from the others was how much skin she showed. She wore clingy leggings and a black tank top, highlighting a hefty musculature. Because although she was skinny, this girl was strong. From halfway up the audience, you could see each arm’s tough little bicep, the swell of each tricep. You couldn’t see, but you could imagine, the sinewy strength of each forearm.

Because the school community is small, I know this girl informally. She’s a gymnast and, at twelve, she trains a minimum of four times a week, after school and on weekends. She’s dedicated. So, on one hand, she wanted to show off her hard work. What was clear from her body language was her lack of self-consciousness. On the other hand, she had that awkward tilt of the head, the small, unevenness of the shoulders typically affected by adolescent girls, which showed that she was still wrestling with her body image.

After thirteen years of practicing karate, running, swimming, and doing yoga, I’m blessed with a pretty strong figure.  And, until a few years ago, I was proud of my musculature. It symbolized my hard work. I considered it half sexy, half tough. (When I was twenty, my favourite film character was Sarah Connor, the Terminator’s toned nemesis in the movies by the same name). Then, two years ago, I started training for my black belt. My quads grew. This was okay: I could hide them under a pair of jeans. I was worried about my arms, though: they swelled until I looked like a mini sumo wrestler in drag. Now, I was more tough than sexy.

I asked my husband, “do you think my arms look big?”

He looked at me. “Are you crazy? They look good.”

I continued to worry. I perused women’s fashion magazines: their arms were matchsticks. If women in the fashion world worked out, they kept it in check. I considered my closet and wondered whether I should replace all tank tops with quarter-length-sleeve shirts.

Then I saw this girl on stage. Clearly she was struggling with uncertainties that were also mine: what to do when one is strong, in a culture that undervalues women’s physical strength and the mark it leaves on our bodies. Her smile, though, showed me that her regard for her body — not for itself, but for what she could do with it as a gymnast — was winning over other doubts.

I still worry about the size of my arms. But seeing this gymnast reminded me of what I like about my body, which is that it practices karate, and a lot of it. It made me happy, seeing that tough young girl on stage, her head up, her face flitting from tentative joy to all-out, radiant, red-cheeked pride.