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When You Still Look Pregnant But Don't Have Babies Anymore

Photograph by Getty Images

I stand in front of the bathroom mirror, scrutinizing for far too long. I start sideways, looking at my profile and then turn painstakingly to inspect the other side. I suck in as much as I can, but I can’t really suck in very much anymore. I try to pull my jeans up higher and add a tank top under my T-shirt, hoping that the layers will help camouflage my tummy.

My daughter catches my swollen middle and her eyes twinkle with excitement. “Baby!” she exclaims. “Mommy has a baby growing in her belly?”

So much for camouflage. “There’s not a baby growing in there, that’s just mommy’s body.”

She continues to insist that there’s a baby in there. I try to respond with confidence and body positivity. I also address her hopes of future siblings. Maybe someday. Maybe not.

I have always carried my weight in my midsection. No matter my size, I have a belly, a gut, some pudge. I used to proudly sport a food baby after a large meal. I would joke and rub my belly, sometimes even naming it. Due to a perfect storm of genetics, estrogen, stress, lack of sleep and digestive issues, that weight is now constantly visible.

I am a mom. While I am technically back to my pre-baby size, I am not back to my pre-baby shape. Buttons and seams strain against my swollen belly.

I have two children. Their age spacing was intentional. My son was born two years and six months (minus nine days) after his older sister. He is now 2 1/2. If I had continued the same age spacing, I would be nursing an infant right now. If I were having more babies, I should be having them now.

I have always wanted more than two children. Three children, four—some days I even imagined myself as the mother of five. Embracing the chaos and energy and love of a large family. I always imagined myself surrounded by a gaggle of playful children, running exuberantly through a field of wildflowers. I would probably be giggling or dancing along like something out of the "Sound of Music." I imagined that I would be an amazingly patient and kind mother, always knowing what my children needed and easily able to provide it.

I didn’t imagine that my children would have medical complications. I didn’t imagine being constantly exhausted. I didn’t imagine struggling against the mental load of a marriage that had suddenly taken on gender stereotypes that had never been present before. I didn’t imagine anything would actually be this hard. I didn’t imagine real life.

I don’t want her looking me. I don’t want her to see me like this. I don’t want anyone to see me like this.

These feelings stare back at me when I catch myself in the mirror. When I catch myself rubbing a belly full of food instead of full of promise. Those sunken eyes are so accusing, reminders of not being strong enough or patient enough or hard-working enough. Of failing so constantly to live up to my own expectations of motherhood, or marriage, of adulthood, of life.

I want to be the mom throwing the perfectly orchestrated themed party. I want to be the mom in joyful family portraits, everyone looking in the same direction, everyone’s outfits perfectly coordinated. I want to be the mom who stays up all night packing perfectly balanced lunches constructed into creative shapes. I want to be the mom who plans perfectly balanced days full of gross motor, fine motor, outdoor and sensory play.

I don’t want to look into the mirror and see the tired mom who woke up five times to breastfeed last night. I don’t want to look into the mirror and see the dirty mom who smells like stress sweat and drool, maybe her own, maybe her children’s. I don’t want to look in the mirror and see the mom who is no longer attractive or desirable, who wouldn’t randomly get hit on at a bar, who wouldn’t even know what to wear to a bar anymore.

I don’t want to see the mom who is barely holding it together to make it through this day.

I don’t want her looking me. I don’t want her to see me like this. I don’t want anyone to see me like this.

I loved my pregnant body. Finally, my belly was something to be proud of, to own, to display. When I was pregnant, I felt powerful. I knew my own strength. I valued my contribution to my family, to society. I was creating and growing and nurturing and purposeful. I loved looking in the mirror and catching glimpses of my belly.

I’m not ready to have another baby. I’m not ready to care for another human, to be needed or pulled in another direction. I’m not ready for the moments when I didn’t love my pregnant body. I’m not ready for the exhaustion or the vomiting. I’m not ready for the hip pains, the back pains, the heartburn, the back sleeping. I’m not ready to trade what I’ve finally gained back in independence and autonomy to give of myself all over again.

But when I look in the mirror, I’m ready to feel proud of myself again. I’m ready to feel purposeful, to feel valued. I’m ready to feel the power of what I have done and what I still have left to do. I’m ready to feel comfortable with my belly, swollen—not with life, but with life experience.

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