The (Re)invention of (Wo)manhood
I stare in the mirror at the folds of skin around my midsection. Since my last pregnancy, my flesh refuses to behave itself. I can see my pores around my belly button, stretched indentations that line the surface of my stomach like moon craters. I’m some sort of foreign body, circling what it used to be, gravity pulling at it until it wore down. Like tidal waves that splashed but never sucked back in. But this. This is how I know I am a universe, I remind myself. I should be proud of these “tiger stripes,” right? These Saturn rings. The proof of my most womanly act: bearer of life, the miracle of birth. The cutting open of my abdomen, the removal of my organs to get to the baby inside; what a wonder it is, to survive this. Twice. To be part of this body bending and stretching to its limits. This is how infinity echoes in these folds and crawls along the stretch marks of my thighs. Right? Right? This should feel like accomplishment. Like pride. Like a war fought and won. Sometimes it does.
And sometimes I wake up forgetting I now inhabit a space constantly under everyone else’s renovation. My skin spills over the top of my jeans when I curl onto the couch, no matter how small I manage to make the number on the scale, or how loose the elastic of my leggings. It puddles and drips, lacking substance, searching for somewhere to go. Perhaps back across the calendar pages, to the girl I used to be, the one who still thought of her body as only hers. I pick up a sliver of skin and roll it between my fingertips. I marvel at the texture of it, like dry silly putty, or a deflated balloon after being blown to its breaking point.
Breaking point. I broke once, between the giving of my body. After my first daughter, I had a miscarriage. The whirlwind of my second daughter here, only possible, because the one before her never was. The doctor told me the running I’d done a week before the bleeding began didn’t cause me to lose the baby. Still, I’d been so afraid to move, to shift something, to scare my body into realizing we were developing a third little human. And so I had stopped pushing my lungs, hardening my muscles. I made myself so soft a life would never want to slip out of it.
Three pregnancies, two children. A body not matching my head. My belly button itself appears painted, the skin five shades darker than the rest of me. The dark streak continues up my stomach, stopping just beneath my breastbone. Stretch marks arc around it like an abstract painting. The kind you have to pretend is beautiful. And maybe it is beautiful, in the way an old woman dying with her hand nestled in her granddaughter’s palm might be. Beautiful but painful to see.
And this, dear children, this is how you are a galaxy that will always belong to me, even after you no longer do. Because you were once an energy, a swirl of possibility, and my body’s gravitational pull formed your kindness and etched out your bravery (oh, my dears, did you know that bravery and love are the same thing?) and burst against the underside of my ribs to solidify the magic of you into science. Except, of course, for the time cells gathered like planet rings and instead of becoming eyes and unfurling fingers, my blood became the only evidence that a baby was gone before starting.
Stardust. It’s still sprinkled across my abdomen, that place where my body unpeeled its corners, opened like a supernova, and never quite did smooth itself back out. When I was seven, I believed scars always lived on the outside of us. Skinned knees and rug burns and accidental paper cuts, fresh air the constant shampoo scent of my hair, my grandmother’s sweet tea staining my throat without ever the thought it may someday disappear. That she would fade like an ultrasound tucked into the back of a nightstand drawer. Here I am now, C-section line that never tans and upper arms waving like flags of surrender and a heart surveying its surroundings like a warrior. How was I to know this body would become the burial ground for possibility? The vessel of infinity?
And yet this — this body, its giving and breaking, its life and loss, its constant evolution — this is how I know god. Right? Because immortality is this, my blood in their veins, my beliefs beating in their hearts. Let me teach you love, children, let me unravel everyone to their bones so you remember love means building a home no matter the shape or shade of the foundation. This is energy ancient as Eve binding us. My daughters whose bodies will soon be changing, transforming, singing siren songs, ready to ebb and flow even if they aren’t. Even if I’m not. Whose skin will loosen and fall like apples from a tree while mine withers from the vine, back to soil. This harvesting of who I was, who I’m trying to be, who they’ll become. These multitudes, living here, in the folds of my skin.
Lynne Reeder graduated with her MA in Creative Writing from Wilkes University in 2009. Her work has been published in Central Penn Parent magazine and Sunbury Press’s Strange Magic anthology, and she has been named Perry County Poet Laureate three times in the last four years. She lives in central Pennsylvania with her husband, Brandon, and their two rambunctious daughters, where she works as a high school English teacher for a local rural district.