The day I came home from the hospital, I cried. I was in the shower, taking my first bath since I had the baby. The hot water hit my bare back as my hands searched my body for familiar contours. They found none. I cried because with every touch, my body didn’t feel like mine. It felt like a stranger’s. It’s a hard feeling to describe when your palms don’t recognize the body they’re a part of.
My stomach was still tender and loose, decorated with purple stretch marks smattered all across my stomach and hips. My breasts were heavy and drooping. My back was hunched, under the assumption that I still carried my 5 pound baby inside me. I had sagging skin on my upper arms and my non existent butt was now very much in existence.
My first meal after having the baby was a hospital tray of pasta, broccoli and soup. Giving birth had unleashed in my stomach an endless pit that no amount of food could satisfy. So I ate. 24 hours after delivery I ate four pieces of French rolls generously slathered with salted butter. These French rolls were the kryptonite to my postpartum period. I ate them everyday for a month.
The days following the birth were rough. In the postpartum, women are expected to eat nutritious food. In the Indian context it means ‘eat all the food’. The congratulatory calls I got often ended with advice about food: eat well, only then you will produce milk; eat more rice, remember, your baby can eat only if you eat. I was suddenly aware of how much of my nutrition was connected to my baby’s. The pressure was on.
My milk took time to come in. Everyone gave me prescriptions for lactation. Eat fenugreek, eat carbs, eat ghee, eat fish, drink water, don’t drink caffeine, don’t eat sweets and definitely nothing cold. I was desperate and tried everything. My breakfast consisted of two eggs, cheese, and three slices of toast. In a couple of hours my stomach would still feel empty so I ate French rolls and butter as a mid morning snack. I’d follow this two huge bowlfuls of bone soup. At lunch my mother would heap a mound of rice on my plate, drown it in gravy and drizzle it with ghee. Breastfeeding mothers are often asked to stay away from caffeine, but it was my only respite so in the evening I’d have my tea with a snack. Dinner would again be large quantities of whatever my mother cooked. This was my diet for two months. Its safe to say that I didn’t lose much of my pregnancy weight but instead gained a few pounds.
Two months went by in a flash and my parents returned back to India. It was me and the baby through most of the day. A good day was when he’d occupy himself for 20 minutes while I caught my breath. On bad days he’d fuss all day and wake up multiple times at night. He would nurse for hours to fall asleep and wake up the minute I put him down. So for the most part he took all his naps on me. He still does. I’d wear him in my sling as I peed. I’d shower twice a week. Thrice, if I was lucky.
Reyhan is an awful sleeper. For the first six months he slept next to me on the bed and would nurse throughout the night. It’s a habit we are working on breaking. By morning my back would be twisted and I would wake up more tired than I was the previous the night. Sleep deprivation sucker punched me in the gut and it has drained every positive feeling from my body. Since I couldn’t do the things that made me happy like sleep, read, leave the house without a crying infant, I ate. Out of exhaustion and out of the need to do something fun, I ate. All the snacks, all the chips, ice cream, breads, cheese, pasta, chocolates, take out. I ate and ate to make sense of my current life.
By his seventh month, Reyhan started sleeping a little better at night and he was comparatively easier to handle. We decided to make the dreaded seventeen hour trip to visit family. I was so excited. Packing took a week. Before I packed each outfit, I tried it on. Over 80% of my clothes didn’t fit me. Many tops didn’t go beyond my neck. None of my pants fit me. In the end I just packed the only things that I could remotely wear and unbutton lest my baby required a boob. This narrowed it down to eight tops and two pants.
The trip home was fun. We spent time with family, Reyhan met his great grandmother, I met all my friends, had a great time with my niece, it was wonderful. I didn’t do any shopping for myself. The fear of not fitting into any clothes was crippling. Even tops that were marked XL and 2XL didn’t fit me. I stayed away from malls. Instead I got my tailor to stitch long, loose, kurtas that hid every curve of my stomach. It was the only thing I was comfortable in.
Every day people would come over to visit me and the baby. It was amazing watching Reyhan socialize with others. He charmed my cousins, aunties and basked in the attention. While everyone were thrilled to see Reyhan, they were shocked to see me.
Many women managed to contain their astonishment, having had children themselves. But the men, oh the men, were disappointed in me and did not hesitate to voice their opinions. About twenty seconds in to meeting my uncle says, “Enna Zarine, gundu aite!” (Zarine, you’ve become fat!). The initial shock of someone commenting on my body the second their eyes laid on it was jolting. I couldn’t fashion a response quick enough. He persisted, repeating himself. I just smiled and ignored him.
One incident, I thought to myself, one incident of one man who doesn’t know the pitfalls of childbirth despite being a father to two sons. I let it slide. He was my uncle.
A few days later there were two more instances of two different male relatives telling me the exact same observation within the first few seconds of our interaction. Again I was taken aback but couldn’t dignify their statements with a response because it felt beneath me.
I discussed this with my sister in law and we both mused about how crazy it was that all the three incidents involved men, fathers themselves, surprised that I had added on the pounds. Their ignorant, we decided. Educating these men will do nothing for them since their ignorance is well rooted into their psyche.
The last two days of my stay saw plenty of relatives being washed ashore to my house. One cousin sister, a mother of two children said to me, “Nalla veite potturruku”. (You’ve put on a lot of weight.) Not a question, just a statement that lingered in my living room. Another relative said to me “You are just like my daughter! She was also fat like you after giving birth!” .
Women. Mothers. Grandmothers. All having been through various instances of birth, all having experienced what birth entails have been disappointed, amused even at my body. None of them realized it, but every comment on my body, the most personal space I know, my essence, which already feels foreign, made me feel more distant from myself
How do people feel comfortable throwing judgments about other’s bodies? Maybe I do not live up to their expectations. And why should I? I’ve experienced how fragile postpartum can be. I don’t need to go through a catastrophe to have a bad day. One look at the mirror will do it for me. But the audacity that people in our society have to so freely throw these statements shakes me. Are they so secure in their life, in their bodies that they have the right to point out others flaws? Or do they say these things because they have no filter and just plainly do not care? I think it’s the latter. It’s the way some people talk. They just don’t care enough to realize the damage these words can do. It’s a habit of saying things without a second thought. Sometimes its done to elicit a response, to see how far they can push you before you pounce back. I have been around far too many people who say the most ridiculous things because its just who they are. It’s how they’ve always communicated. It’s how they’ve lived. And talking this way is the only way they can hold a conversation.
It took me a few days to recover from this verbal disaster. I still have good days and bad days. I still haven’t attempted to try on a huge portion of my old wardrobe, having donated half of it in frustration. I’m slowly learning to feel better about myself by not letting these harsh judgments penetrate my shaky self esteem. I thought I was doing good enough. I felt okay about myself. Until I attended a dinner party a few weeks ago. I met a woman whom I had never seen before and she said to me, “I saw you five years back and you were so much thinner then! Now you’ve put on weight!”.
This from a lady I had just met and whose name I still do not know.