Making Peace with Sponge Bob
The high school girls gathered around, leaning over where I lay, naked to the waist, on the hospital bed. The rest of me was covered in sheets and blankets. We were staring at my belly, which looked like nothing so much as a water weinie.
“It reminds me of Sponge Bob,” I said.
Just hours before, my body had looked very different. It was, and I am not exaggerating here, as if I were having Goliath’s baby. Or Andre the Giant’s. My friend Dave summed it up nicely: “It looks like you got hit with a torpedo from behind.”
This was accurate. When I maneuvered through my friend’s narrow kitchen, my belly often swept her counter clean – papers, pot holders, and silverware all landing on the floor, no match for my very solid, very seriously pregnant gut. It looked like I had been taking beer belly steroids.
Later, when the same thing happened during my second pregnancy, my toddler would sit on top of my unborn baby. It didn’t matter if I was sitting or standing. She rode her brother like she was riding a camel, sideways.
But it only took that first pregnancy to create Sponge Bob, despite the women who told me, “You don’t even look pregnant from behind! Wait and see; you’ll walk out of the hospital in your pre-pregnancy clothes.” I naively believed them.
After delivery of that first child, I got up to go to the bathroom and experienced every kind of horror when I looked down and saw that I still looked with child. Except, it was like being pregnant with Jell-O or spaghetti. Mashed potatoes, maybe. No longer rock hard and taut, my abdomen sagged and quivered. It was like a large punching balloon, the kind kids bounce back and forth on a rubber band, which had been blown up huge, but was now deflated, wrinkled and puckered, and partially filled with yogurt. Very attractive.
It put me in mind of a ball of frog spawn, which I actually did see once, and which inspired a similar reaction: horror mixed with fascination. This time, the fascination wore off quick.
I tried to suck myself in, and discovered that I no longer owned any abdominal muscles, and was standing upright by sheer force of habit. Wow, I thought. No one warned me about this.
So, when the girls from my high school Bible Study arrived to meet the new baby, it seemed like a teachable moment. “Look,” the mess formerly known as my midriff said, “this is what’s in store if you have unprotected sex,” and, “Don’t believe people who tell you that your body will spring right back.” (I also told them about the pooping-during-delivery bit. They were appropriately appalled.)
After a day of rest, and nursing, not to mention the evil trickery of my midwife (“I am going to ‘massage’ your uterus now”), it was time to take our precious new infant home. Needless to say, my pre-pregnancy jeans never got unpacked.
As it turns out, muscles can only stretch so much, and my pregnant form had looked more like it was carrying a Barcalounger than a curled-up infant. After delivery, my midwife made me wear a belly band to help my abdominal muscles remember how to be friends. Other women have experienced the same thing. One friend, a mother of two, once told me that her belly had been replaced with “the butt of a ten-year-old boy.” Now, there’s an image I won’t soon forget. Of course, there is always an outlier; another friend, even after the birth of six babies, still looks good in bikinis. (I hate her just a tiny bit.)
After both deliveries, I began nursing and waited for all my extra pounds to just “melt away,” which is how those hateful books make it sound. And, to be fair, most of the weight did come off. A breast-feeding mother’s body will always want to keep a little extra fat, in case it needs to make milk during famine, and that was okay. Since I was either pregnant or nursing for five years, for five years I looked either, well…pregnant. Or nursing.
The real shocker came when my son stopped nursing, and my breasts lost the magical fullness I had taken for granted all that time. Suddenly, Sponge Bob came into focus. He had been eclipsed; now, my belly was bigger than my boobs.
And so began a few years of struggle: with exercise, with body image, with identity. In a prior life (aka my twenties), my body had been tall and thin. Now, it was as if a large kitten was tucked inside my shirt: it rested across my belt when I stood, parked on my lap when I sat, and lay on the bed beside me while I slept, my body curled around it in protection.
But I wasn’t protecting it. I hated Sponge Bob and vowed to kill it.
There was a good reason for this. Remember that second baby? He grew up into a toddler who once told me he loved my belly. My heart swelled with gratitude and relief; he added, “It’s just like a water balloon!”
My children are older now, and it’s clear how they stretched my middle to the size of a prize-winning watermelon: they still sleep at full length, limbs splayed like monster sea stars, impossibly taking up all the space in their twin beds, my queen, the hotel king, any size mattress they find themselves on. They are goldfish, growing to the size of their container while they rest. It is only when they are awake that they resume the shape of children of a certain age.
As for me, after countless crunches crunched, and miles run, and delicious fattening donuts eaten by other people, everything appeared normal – under t-shirts. No more kitten. But the loose, crepe-y look clung to me tenaciously, in all its loose crepe-iness. I could pinch it, right at my bellybutton. Why couldn’t I get rid of that fat?
It wasn’t until watching the TV show Extreme Weight Loss that it hit me: the people on the show, the ones who qualify for skin-reduction surgery, look a lot like me. This wasn’t a fat problem. This was a skin problem.
This was good news! There was nothing I could do about it! Hooray! But, it was bad news, too, because there was nothing that I could do about it. Boo.
This realization sped up my grief process. It was clear, now, that I had been chasing after something I could never possibly achieve. Oddly, the death of that hope cleared out more room for self-acceptance. I took a deep breath, looked at myself in the mirror, and chose to be satisfied with looking fine in t-shirts.
I have made peace with Sponge Bob. I will always bear the marks of a woman who has carried children: silvery stretch marks feathering my breasts and thighs, papery wrinkles spackling my waistline. These are the secret, permanent scars given after a rite-of-passage, the tattoos of motherhood. They may not be beautiful, but I have earned each one.
This is the belly of a 41-year-old mother. I am proud of every child and every wrinkle.
Dawn Claflin has taught creative writing for 15 years at the high school level and is currently embarking on a career as a writer; her two children are supportive of her new adventure. You will find her work in the November 2015 issue of Pockets magazine.