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Lit Thursday: A New Mom Questions Everything She Once Knew About Her Body

Read an excerpt from Molly Caro May's Body Full of Stars.

Body Full of Stars book cover

June calls me out of the cave.

It is time to birth myself back into the world. But it's a strange world to enter again. My shoulders have curled around my daughter. My eyes have become a telescope focused on one scene, my world small. Names of other places on the globe evaporate, country, continent, town. Is this how people become tribal and insular? My language has pared down.

I place Eula in her car seat and chug down the road. Just us. I am ready to feel autonomous as a woman in the woods with my daughter. Integrate back into the world. Come down from the astral plane. We are going to take ourselves up to a canyon to hike among lime green leaves.

Everyone comments on her large cheeks.

They are my cheeks, straight from the DNA strand. When Pat-Pat saw a photo of me, her first grandchild, at eight-months old, her words to my mother were: "Oh gawd, look at those cheeks."

As if my cheeks were a problem. My mother still talks about it. "Can you imagine?" she says to me. "My first precious baby and that is what my mother says." I like to hear my mother defend me. I am already defending Eula's cheeks. I will take anyone down.

Eula agrees to face inward, to rest her gorgeous sweaty cheeks on my chest. I hold my breath with the ease of it. Please stay. Please stay. Sun pours through cottonwoods and dapples the ground. We pass an older couple hiking with poles, then a mountain biker. Dogs run past us. I am a woman walking in the woods with my sleeping baby. I am a woman walking in the woods with my sleeping baby. I am a woman walking in the woods with my sleeping baby. And I haven't peed. Is this actually happening? I could burst into a sprint. My feet could lift from the ground and take us to the golden dome of motherhood where, together, we will cartwheel and I will show Eula how to climb trees and roll down hills and jump rope and leap from just high enough places because I will be that mom who is body alive.

I start to make plans for everything we can do now.

As we approach the creek, I hear water rushing and stop. Do a Kegel. Do another Kegel, pulse them now. But it doesn't work. I let go. I let go right there. Pee runs down my legs. It soaks my pad. It overflows, breaks the dam through my pants and into my socks and into my shoes and down into the cracks of the ground. There is nothing I can do. Denial starts to creep toward me. I'm not a senior citizen. I cannot be incontinent. It must be temporary. Once we get past the newborn stage, my body will be fully healed. I rock my body back and forth and shush Eula and watch the coppery water of the creek flow by. I will walk the sticky mile back to my car. I wonder if any other new mothers walk around like this.

***

What I learn: The wounded woman archetype lives on the pocked streets of our everyday. We are not immune from her. Should we be? I am not immune from her because I am her and — truth — have ached to become different iterations of her my entire life. We have grown up watching her in films, reading her in books, witnessing her in each other. Unlike other women, she is given cultural permission to lose control, go wild and express the unexpressed. Of course, both men and women judge her for what appears to be weakness but that doesn't stop her. Where does she come from? How old is she? When patriarchal rule swept over the world in the early 1200's, it began to overtake and bury land-based, matriarchal ways. This sounds like a gross overstatement. It's not. Mother Earth, and by proxy, women, became feared for their femaleness. Enter the dominator culture. Enter suppression. Enter extreme imbalance. Fast forward to modern life where very little has changed. These days, in the coastal space of new motherhood, I stand on a weedy edge. What do I feel? What do I watch for? What has festered within me for years? Where am I in my conversation — because every woman is somewhere in her conversation — with the wounded woman?

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***

Because we are a culture focused on the singular act of birthing, no one tells you what comes before or after birth. Not really. How can they? It's different for every woman. There may not be one narrative. However, there is one truth. Before and after are not times where all you do is glow. These are passages full of rocks and caverns and shards of light. Maybe we protect the uninitiated women (and men). Maybe we hope they won't lose themselves like we did. Maybe time passes and we forget what we wanted to tell them in the first place.

Maybe we are scared to put the words baby and hardship in the same sentence.

During our final check up, I lean toward my midwife and hide the subtle anxiety I am feeling with a joke.

"My vagina still feels like it's falling out. Seriously."

She assures me some new mothers feel this way. Somehow I grew into a body focused thirty-three year old woman and didn't know this sort of thing happened at all, or was common. Do not worry. Oh, good. Even though I'm prone to pre-anticipate problems, I've assumed these physical issues fix themselves. I've had to in order to get through my days. I assume all the mothers out there are simply women who now walk around with a new demographic label: women-mothers. They may always have a belly pooch and wider hips, but I assume the body does eventually return. They run and leap and show their kids how to cartwheel. They make love. They walk twenty blocks no problem. They groove on the dance floor. They run marathons. They work manual labor. They scale mountains. They carry children and books and groceries and canoes and computers and bags of garden soil on their backs. They go back to moving like they used to.

I'm not wrong.

That is most often the case; or, it has been historically. But the path ahead for me will not be so textbook. My body has something else in mind. My body apparently needs to breakdown to get my attention.

I lie back for my internal exam. Chris dances around the room with Eula, swoops her up and down and sings to her. My midwife asks me to do a Kegel around her finger.

"Can you squeeze?" she says again.

"I did," I say, lifting my head. "I did, I am, can you feel it, I am right now, I can feel it, can you?"

"No, I can't. You have very little vaginal tone," she says. "But I can feel my tone," I say. "Let me try again." "It's okay, let's sit down."

We get comfortable on the couches. I reach my arms out for Eula and lead her to my breast. It's been six weeks. How could it be? I am ready to feel the collective warmth of leaving this pregnancy and birth journey on the high note of how easy and lucky breastfeeding has been for us, how healthy Eula is, how fine I am too. After a few wrap-up notes, our midwife shares how great it has been to work with us. Behind her smile, I can tell she has more to say; behind her calm voice is a seriousness I don't recognize yet. She writes down the name of a nurse who works for an urologist, a woman who is "really so nice."

I'm not sure why I need to see a specialist. I don't know any other new mothers who have been to a specialist. And why does she feel the need to tell me that she is really so nice? I wait. I wait longer. Let the pause hover between us like a balloon. The world before me goes blank. I can't locate myself in my own future. She takes a breath. "Molly, you have to trust that you will regain bladder control again, you will have satisfying orgasms again, you will feel strong again, you will experience vaginal tone again."

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I nod my head.

I act as normal as you can act when a bus slams into you.

It hasn't occurred to me not to trust any of that until this exact moment when she tells me with such concrete sentences that I must trust it. Because now it's clear I've been in a sort of denial — a woman who has told herself all of the strange or bad would go away, away, away. Three days before Eula came into the world, I sat in the forest and made a verbal declaration about the birth: I will soften and attune to my animal body and all will be well. It's as if I called in what would be a continued request of myself from myself for years after.

I don't know where this all leads. I'm not ready. All will be well. But all is not well. Little do I know this moment is the middle of the beginning of a two-year quest for my health, a crawl across the parched desert where I will question everything I once knew about my body, about what it means to heal, about the woman-mother I so wanted to become.

I'm about to lose my whole sense of self.

I'm about to pull those I love down with me.

I swallow, stand up, and thank her for her services with a hug. When we walk out the door, I step into the sun a shattered woman.

Copyright © 2018 by Molly Caro May, from Body Full of Stars: Female Rage and My Passage Into Motherhood. Reprinted by permission of Counterpoint Press.