People hated me after I had my baby. I was back to my pre-pregnancy jeans in less than two weeks and didn't have a single stretch mark. Family, friends, and strangers alike enjoyed commenting on this.
"It looks like you never even had a kid!" they would exclaim.
I would reply with a shy but proud, "Oh, ya know, I do what I can," as though the combination of good genes and better luck was second to the fact that I had the occasional salad and went to the gym quarterly.
Then my baby got sick. Trivial conversation about my torso's degree of curvature came to a halt.
At just 12 weeks, he caught RSV, which developed into bronchiolitis. In an older kid, it's a really crappy cold. In someone this young, it can be deadly. My baby boy spent nearly a week in the ICU with breathing and feeding tubes in his nose, an IV in his arm and monitors on his toes and chest. He was hooked up to unwelcoming machines that filled a hospital room bigger than my kitchen.
I dreamed of him for a year and carried him for 9 months, but was terrified of only getting to know him for 12 weeks.
No longer was "You don't look like a mom!" a compliment. Becoming a mom was the greatest thing that ever happened to me, and the thought of losing my baby was the worst. I found myself wishing I had those stretch marks—mommy medals, tiger stripes, marks of a warrior.
If there was a chance he would die, I wanted him to leave physical proof of his short time here—proof that, yes, I was a mom, and not just any mom—Gray's mom. Stretch marks would have been a tangible reminder that he was here, he is loved, he will be missed.
In a matter of days, I went from one extreme to the other. I woke up one morning proud of my flat stomach. By the end of the day, I was in tears over my smooth skin. I then spent days bouncing between other extreme thoughts.
I would pat myself on the back for the mother's intuition that led me to pick him up early from daycare two days before the doctor thought medical intervention was necessary. At the same time, though, I thought I was a deplorable mother for letting him catch RSV in the first place.
Despite all of my contradictory thoughts, one remained constant: I love this boy more than it should be humanly possible.
While holding his hand through the rails of the hospital crib, I mentally went over our family's budget to justify how I could be a stay-at-home mom, so I would never have to leave his side again. Then while walking to get coffee at 2 a.m., I wondered how my English and Philosophy undergrad degrees would translate to med school, so could save all those kids in the ICU.
I saw how fragile this little person was, his size XS hospital gown blanketing his tiny body while he struggled to breathe. But I also noticed how much my baby had grown. He had real opinions on when to be swaddled and worried about missing out on fun when he needed to sleep.
More than that, this baby, who just a few weeks ago wouldn't even open his eyes for more than a few minutes at a time, was now talking to me with his expressive blue eyes. He looked to me for comfort, to tell me he was scared, to ask to go home.
Despite all of my contradictory thoughts, one remained constant: I love this boy more than it should be humanly possible. I had always said "I love you" as an emotion, as something you feel. But toward my son, it was a concrete fact—a fact that infiltrated every thought in my head and atom of my being.
Thankfully, he has since made a full recovery and won't remember his almost near-death experience.
But I am changed.
Though I don't despise my flat stomach like I did during our stint in the hospital, I still kind of wish I had a stretch mark or two. Instead, I wear all the subtle badges of motherhood I do have with pride—the dry-shampooed messy bun, my purse filled with diapers, the faint smell of spit up—because they are signs of my thriving son.
These days when people tell me I don't look like I had a baby, I smile sincerely and know it's because they can't see my heart.