I’ve suffered from a strange ailment for years: I enjoy running. Long distances. When no one is chasing me. Six months before I found out I was pregnant, I ran my first marathon. A few weeks before I saw that little plus sign, I ran my fastest half marathon. And then I heard a tiny heartbeat, and the real marathon began – the mamathon, if you will – and it’s the longest, hilliest and most beautiful course I’ve run.
I recently hit 80 weeks of motherhood – 40 growing a tiny human inside and 40 nurturing a tiny human outside – and while I’m hardly an expert, I think I’ve cracked the code: Motherhood is about growing and shrinking.
The body’s the very obvious tip of the iceberg. When I was pregnant, I’d take a detour on my way to bed. Every night, I stood in front of the mirror, checked out the belly from the front and the side and forced my husband to assess the day’s growth. I think it’s holding steady this week. It’s doubled since yesterday! It’s the same size, but why does it look so…pointy? For exactly 40 weeks, my body grew in the most bizarre and miraculous ways. It got bigger, yes. It changed shape, rearranging the furniture to make room for a new tenant. It sent a hormone cocktail through my veins, set up a complex dairy operation and, precisely when the turkey thermometer popped up, it birthed a sweet baby girl.
And then I’d do the same thing, in the same mirror. How did that enormous belly just…disappear? It’s half the size it was yesterday. Was it all just a dream? My jeans zipped. I sold all my maternity clothes on Craigslist for $100. I ran again. While the scale crept back to where it was before (which is still 5 pounds more than it says on my driver’s license, obviously), my mom bod won’t ever be exactly the same as my pre-mom bod – not better, not worse, just different. Because the growing and shrinking of motherhood leaves its marks.
But it’s not just about this body that’s done a 360 over the past two years. A few days after our little critter arrived, I looked up at my husband from beneath a snoozing baby and tearfully said, “Honey. Oh my god. I’m still in here.” Forty weeks in, I maintain that becoming a mother hasn’t fundamentally changed who I am – but I’ve grown in some ways (instinct, creativity, capacity for blind-siding, heart-stopping, slap-you-across-the-face-at-3am love) and shrunk in others (perfectionism, uncertainty, need to please anyone other than a screaming baby). The swift and significant growth of my confidence as a mom was the most surprising to me – I went from not knowing the first thing about taking care of a small creature to doing most of the right things in my sleep (literally). But I find myself cleaning poo off the wall and that confidence shrinks right back down. The growing and the shrinking of motherhood: it expands you, it narrows you and it knows how to put you in your place.
And if I’ve learned anything, it’s that moms are chameleons. The role of motherhood is all-consuming, all the time. But it’s not always the same. In those precious early days, my girl needed my body to feed her, hold her, rock her, repeat. The physical labor days. Fast forward six months to a hyper-alert, ever-curious and partially mobile baby-kid – she of course still needs her mama (and her brawn) but she also needs me to babble my part of the conversation, wave that bent-hand baby wave and cheer when she pulls herself up or nails a controlled butt-fall.
As my little one changes, I grow into what she needs and shrink back from what she doesn’t. The growing pains (What does she want, and how do I do it?) are real, and so is the string of shrinking (My big girl doesn’t need me to [blank] anymore. Hold on, speck of dust in my eye.). I know the next 40 weeks, 40 months and 40 years will be this way, too – growing where she needs me, shrinking where she doesn’t.
I think back to the starting line of that last half marathon before cruising into Baby Land – I was blissfully unaware of how this little person would bust into our lives a mere 40-some weeks later. My husband paced me during the race. I felt great, and we pushed the speed a little at a time. During the final mile, he sped up his long, gazelle-runner legs even more and – with a grin still on my face – I panted, “I’d love to, truly, but right now I’m asking my legs to please speed up and they literally will not go any faster.”
Growing hurts. Shrinking hurts. Stretching to the absolute limits of exhaustion, of joy, of what bodies and minds can do hurts. I crossed the finish line, better for having been on the journey, wrapped myself up in a foil blanket and rode the high. I forgot the pain and – before I even took my shoes off to check for blisters – signed up for my next race. Because the best remedy for the sting of shrinking is the wonder of what will grow next.