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.

On Staying Put

I have a confession to make. I haven’t been practicing karate. This feels like an impossible situation because I can barely tolerate not moving, let alone not practicing karate. I once read that Philip Roth posts a note above his work desk that reads “stay put”. He is, of course, reminding himself to persevere. But he’s also referring to the physical act of sitting. I cannot “stay put”. I often wonder if I have what it takes to be a writer, since I find it agonizing to sit for a half an hour, let alone the requisite four or five hours a day necessary to write a book.

In December, I injured myself. The mistake I made was that after it happened, I didn’t pay it any attention. I kept training, thinking the pain would go away by itself, as it usually does. But this time, it didn’t.

It started when I experienced more-than-usual tension in my shoulders. In class, I practiced break falls and rolls. A couple of times, I landed awkwardly. Then, one day, I threw a punch and I felt a sharp twinge on the left side of my neck.

Cue in the throbbing headaches, the tingling back ache, the needle-like neck pain. At this point, I decided it was a good idea to cool things off. I decreased training. I focused on lower body techniques such as kicks and stances. I hopped onto the cross-trainer at the gym and worked the machine with my legs only.  Trouble was, even when I wasn’t supposed to be tensing my neck, I was. And the pain wasn’t going anywhere.

I did what had to be done. I took a complete break from karate. I started walking. I embraced a regimen of shiatsu massage, acupuncture, and physical therapy.

As a result of not practicing karate, here are some of the things that are happening: I’m slightly depressed. I’m impatient with my kids.

Clearly, I’m addicted to training. I love the pure joy of doing kata: the movements, the “phrasing”, which, if you’re a musician, is like what you experience when you play a piece of music with the intent of bringing it to life. I love the sensation of elongating my limbs, which reminds me of leg extensions I did in my childhood ballet classes. And, as I told a friend of mine when I was preparing for my black belt test, I love working hard.

Not training is making me miserable. On the plus side, since I’m not training, I have more time to do other things. I’m writing more. I’m spending more time with my kids. I’ve also learned a couple of lessons.

The wise and talented shiatsu masseuse who’s been treating me has told me:  “You need to balance will with relaxation.” I’m starting to think about how this applies to everything in my life. I’m also thinking about how it applies to karate. If you’re a karate-ka, I challenge you to think of it too. When you’re practicing karate, are you alternating tension with release? Are you pulling your punches back too stiffly? Ask yourself, too, if you’re using the right muscles. When you’re kicking, for example, are you using your neck muscles when you should be exercising your core, legs, and feet?

I’m looking forward to going back to karate class, to teaching my students about relaxing their necks. I’m excited about all of us rethinking how we train. I’m hoping that we can all pay attention to the nuances of Roth’s words, his admonition to “stay put”: persevering, then letting go.