On Bodies, Motherhood, and Daughters: Rambles at 38 weeks

Growing up, I believed that Santa Claus concerned himself chiefly with children’s oral hygiene and proper undergarments.  Every year, amidst the red and green Hershey Kisses were, invariably, the multi-packs of Crest whitening paste, toothbrushes, floss, altoids, and Trident sugar-free cinnamon gum that formed the bulk of my Christmas stocking treasures.  My brothers’ and my stockings were always a little differentiated: while Hunter and Nelson pulled jumbo packs of tube socks and boxers from the depths of their stocking, I excitedly tore open packages of practical white underwear and pale pink socks with bows on them. While my mother put the finishing touches on gifts downstairs and my father brewed an extra large carafe of coffee, my brothers and I passed those early dawn hours before we were allowed to open presents chomping Hershey kisses, donning our new socks, and then jamming several pieces of gum into our mouths.

Christmas at the Hoffman house was over-the-top, my mom tending with her photographer’s eye to every last detail: the perfectly whimsical curls of the ribbons atop the brightly-colored packages; the tiny twinkling lights she strung up on the dollhouse she built for me when I was six, the home’s family room a mirror of ours, with a tall tree and packages spilling across the floor; the holy sounds of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir balancing out the greedy glee of her children. My mom did Christmas magnificently; even institutionalized, she somehow managed to pull off a Martha Stewart-worthy affair. She’d send moving boxes of gifts weeks in advance of the holiday with special instructions for my dad tucked inside on the Christmases she was too sick to travel, or she’d arrive to Milwaukee with three overstuffed duffles and spend her two-day visit alternately doped up on Valium or maniacally decking the halls.

By the time I was ten, the contents of my Christmas stocking reflected a subtle shift in Santa’s concerns for me. Joining the multipacks of dental floss and underwear were jumbo boxes of Jolene Cream Face Bleach, for example. It’s true, I had a mustache, but this inclusion sparked a deeply-rooted idea that real women didn’t have excess hair. This belief became pathological in the early years of my adulthood when I developed a paranoia that I suffered from an undiagnosed endocrine disorder and, in more obsessive periods, that I was a well-disguised, but certain, hermaphrodite.  When I started seeing an OB-GYN as a teenager, I’d pepper her with questions about hormone regulation and facial hair and insist that she run a full hormone panel. “Are you sure I’m normal?” I’d implore at the end of our appointments, screwing my unibrow into a furrow. Rather than refer me to an endocrinologist, she wrote me a script to see a therapist. I finally cashed in this referral when a reading of Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex for an undergraduate course sent me into such a tailspin of research about intersexism that I had to ask for an extension on my paper.

One Christmas in my late middle school years, a paperback copy of The Atkins Diet was shoved into the bottom of my stocking, making this otherwise cozy sack of yarn full of sharp edges. While the boys stuffed themselves with chocolate and candy canes, I learned about the ways I should change my body. Skinnier was better. But of course, it wasn’t from Santa I learned these messages of unworthiness.  Opening packages of Gap Kids skirts that year, I told my mom, “Um, these aren’t going to fit me.” “Really?” she replied, “I’ll take them. They work for me perfectly.”

In addition to schizophrenic, my mother is anorexic, subsumed by a decades-long eating disorder that has left her with a hollowed-out body and a mind that, already plagued by psychosis, is muddied further by nutrition deprivation. I’ve seen my mother destroy her body and mind. As a child, I watched her refuel from a ten-mile run with a light yogurt and eschew the beautiful Thanksgiving meals she prepared in favor of a single serving of frozen squash. As a teenager, during a painful family therapy session at the institution where she lived most of my growing up life, I’d angrily cry,  “Why can’t you just pretend to be trying to get better, at least while we’re here?” I’d scoff when her placid Freudian therapist would ask, “Holly, how does your daughter’s anger make you feel?” I’d glower as the social worker tentatively suggested, “Holly, instead of water, could you put skim milk on your bran flakes tomorrow morning?” My mom wouldn’t respond, instead setting her jaw and then spewing back, “You run too, Sarah. How much do you weigh, Sarah?” In the past year, my mother’s weight has plummeted to a historic low, a weight I haven’t seen on my own body since, perhaps, fifth grade, and my mom hasn’t managed to stay out of a hospital for more than a month or so at a time.  In a recent conversation I told her, “Mom, I’m waiting for the phone call that you’ve died of this eating disorder.”

To be clear, my mom is a generous, thoughtful, artistic, kind, and funny human being. She possesses strength and resilience that astonishes me at times. Further, I have been blessed by many women in my life who model strength, nurturing, authenticity, vulnerability, and self-acceptance, and my father raised me with selflessness, kindness, and unconditional support. I am unequivocally lucky.

And yet,  my mother has passed down to me a deeply-rooted belief that thin is better. I have witnessed the destruction caused by this belief, and still this ideal of thinness is intrinsically wrapped up in my experience of my worthiness as a woman, and, more generally as a human. For much of my life, and like many women, my self-acceptance has been mediated, at least partially, through my body: how fat or thin I feel on any given day. I have read basically every diet book published. I can recite the calorie count of any food, without looking. Up until two years ago, I could count on a single hand the number of rest days I took from running in any given year.  I have devoted an embarrassingly large part of my brain to obsessing about my body. And I have experienced the embarrassment and shame that all this thinking doesn’t manifest outwardly as thinness.

Two years ago, when Jared and I first began talking in earnest about starting a family, Jared pointedly asked me, “Do you really want to pass this baggage on to your child?”

I have wanted to be a mother for as long as I can remember. In pictures from my early childhood, I am almost never without my babydoll Elizabeth in my arms. On trips to the mall, I’d make my mom stop at the central fountain so I could breastfeed Elizabeth, who rode in an extra car seat on our outings. At age six, I authored a two-part baby-rearing book. Part one outlined rules I felt essential to parenting, like, “Give the baby a birthday,” “Make sure the dad does not smoke,” and “When you go outside, put baby galoshes on the baby.” Part two was a list of baby names A-Z, plagiarized directly from The Baby Name Book.  I was fascinated by all things mothers. I’d sneak surreptitious peeks at my mom’s edition of Our Bodies, Ourselves and ogle the black and white close-ups of the vagina during delivery. Conflating my stomach and my vagina, I’d stuff Elizabeth underneath my dress, squirm underneath my bed, mimic Kirstie Alley’s Lamaze techniques in Look Who’s Talking, and practice my vaginal-cum-C-section home birth.  I requested dolls for Christmas at the same time my peers were asking for makeup and tube tops for the middle school dance. I said I wanted to be a mom when I grew up until long after it was socially acceptable. “Err, I mean, I want to be a lawyer,” I corrected myself during an early conversation with my freshman year roommates.

In preparing to have children, Jared asked me to confront my shadowy bits, to abandon the ideals by which I judged myself and replace them with unwavering self-love. Two years ago, I began an active campaign for a whole-hearted embracing of myself. If this sounds self-helpy, it is. I gave up the daily running habit I started at age twelve and immersed myself in yoga. I donated over forty diet books at the used bookstore and bought a copy of Brene Brown’s Daring Greatly, which I’ve read at least four times. I started seeing a body-centered therapist who, with equal parts empathy and exigence, forced me to cast a blazing light onto the system of worth I had set up, whereby my assessment of myself as a woman, my ability to love myself and to receive love from others, was measured by thinness and beauty.

As any pregnant woman can attest, pregnancy is open-season for commentary on the female body. Strangers will offer opinions about how big or small you’re carrying and warn you about the hemorrhoids you’re sure to get on delivery. “All I have to say is Frozen. Witch. Hazel. Pad,” a woman shared with me sotto voce in a grocery check-out line. Well-intentioned family members will tell you, “I knew weeks ago that you were pregnant.” According to their assessment, you developed the mom pooch at conception. Best friends will say, “Enjoy those boobs now.”  After I announced during a family reunion that I was six months pregnant, a distant cousin (male, obviously) replied earnestly, “Oh, thank God.  I thought you had just let yourself go.” So yes, I’ve had moments where insecurities have boiled up inside me.

When I found out at ten weeks that we were having a little girl, I was totally undone, excited beyond measure. I also felt the weight of responsibility, a desire to be the type of woman I’d want my daughter to model. Pregnancy has literalized for me the connection I know exists between the way a mother treats her body and the development of her child. For the past nine months, I’ve inhabited a space – my own body –  in which expansiveness is the ideal, not smallness. I’ve have felt stronger and more beautiful than I ever have before in my life. I’ve watched in appreciative awe as my belly has grown to accommodate this little person inside me.  Generally someone who avoids being seen in a bikini, I have taken (and shared) belly pictures left and right. I thank the strength in my arms as I gracefully maneuver my heavier body through a chaturanga in yoga class; I appreciate the muscle of my legs as they carry me through a miles-long autumn walk. I laughed the day I realized my private parts had become private even to me.

As I write this, I am ten days out from my due date, and I am equal parts excited and scared about becoming a mother. Mostly, I feel gratitude for the way this person, my daughter, has already changed me; she has given me the space to be a bigger, braver, more loving version of myself. I hope I can give her the same gift.

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