On communion days, I used to sing this song, Jesus’ words at the last supper set to music: “This is my body, broken for you.” I sang it in an automatic way, or at least without connecting myself to the brokenness, not really. Until motherhood and its holy awakening, its spiritual reckoning. Why didn’t anyone tell me about that, either?
Birth is a breaking open, always, no matter how you get there. There is no other way. But I wasn’t prepared for how motherhood, again and again, would break me open, lay me bare. Nothing I have encountered has been more vulnerable and strong, more generous and sacrificial than pregnancy and birth. Our bodies make space where there is none, go without, bear pain—so much pain that we think we might die--and then the breaking open, new life, new relationship, new identity. Nothing is ever the same as it was before.
We knew we would be giving things up in exchange for these beautiful children, right? I know we did. I knew I would lose sleep, but I was ill-prepared for how much and how long it would last and how competent I would be expected to be without it. I hoped my marriage would shift and adjust, worried as it groaned under the weight of all these extra people to take our attention, felt relief with its eventual expansion to accommodate all this love we had made. I knew my jeans might not fit again. But nothing prepared me for the spiritual sacrifice it would feel like to give up this body, or how readily I would do it, almost without thinking, again and again.
No one told me my body would never be the same. I might return to the same weight, but everything wouldn’t be where I left it. My hips would be wider, my chest flatter. Wrinkly marks would radiate down from my belly button, marking its expansion to flattening four times. Veins I never saw before would snake themselves down my legs long after the weight is gone. My body reads like a map, but that’s not all. Studies show that a baby’s cells alter the DNA of her mother for years after her birth, and this makes sense to me; it must be true. How do you recover from creating life, then birthing it, from raising a soul you created and gradually letting it go? How do you release a literal part of your body to make her own choices, her own mistakes while you watch—and even encourage—her to walk away from you? How do you bounce back from that?
We couldn’t possibly, right? Surely we can’t. And so, I resolve not to bounce back. Not now, maybe not ever. At thirteen months postpartum, I have not reclaimed my pre-surprise-fourth-baby weight. Maybe I will, maybe I won’t. I do more sitting on the floor soaking in this last little one than I do on my yoga mat, more time running around with my children than running in the neighborhood. It won’t always be this way, and there is time for fitness and wellness amid the chaos of young family life—there must be—but I don’t have to figure the whole thing out today. I can smile and congratulate my loved ones—and even my younger self—when they “bounce back” without requiring it of myself now.
Maybe I didn’t understand the concept of communion before, of Christ’s body being broken for us, maybe this comparison shows that I still don’t. Certainly, I'm not suggesting that the sacrifice of motherhood is on equal footing with that of Jesus. But carrying, giving birth, and nourishing my babies with my body feels like the closest I will ever come to understanding what it means. I carry the marks and scars, I live with the loss, and I wouldn’t tell you it’s been easy to accept any of it. Motherhood and time are thieves, both of them, and while the gifts themselves redeem, I still miss what’s been stolen sometimes, still lament what once was mine.
But as I try to memorize the way this baby relaxes into me as she nurses, the way it soothes her as nothing else can, even as I look forward to my coming freedom, I mourn how I will never feel this again. I relish the closeness, the power and simplicity. Mothering my older children isn’t nearly this simple, and days are coming when I will wish I could cause myself physical pain to spare them theirs, but those days will be long gone, these lines and marks and scars on my body the only proof they were ever here.
What a privilege it has been, this opportunity to expand, to grow, to break, to heal. Motherhood is to walk with a limp: I will never look the same, never walk the same, never be the same as before my body gave itself up for these four children. Sometimes the shock of all of it still reverberates, still catches me off guard when I catch my reflection, but I would do it all over, again and again, for the joy and the pain of being their mother. In that, maybe, I see a small sliver of what Jesus meant. In these permanent remnants of the things I carried, a remembrance. The giver forever marked by the giving.