The Washington Post: How I lost and rediscovered my self-image after having kids

This essay was originally published by The Washington Post on Sept. 16, 2016

Our culture’s obsession with weight, from diet fads to the thigh gap, takes a particular toll after childbirth.

According to medical books, a 25- to 35-pound gain during pregnancy is considered healthy. A woman becomes roughly 12 pounds lighter immediately after childbirth. The rest is supposed to just melt away.

But instead of fitting a statistical bell curve, many new mothers feel like outliers.

Too much gain, the fear-mongering “What to Expect When You’re Expecting” book, the belly that refuses to “shrink back” after six weeks like it does for Victoria’s Secret models, physical ailments, the work-life routines that leave no time for fitness — the weight shaming list goes on.

In a recent BabyCenter survey, 61 percent of new mothers hoped to be back to their pre-pregnancy weight within a year of giving birth, but the majority reported carrying extra pounds after that. And among moms of children up to 4 years old, 87 percent said their stomachs have yet to return to their pre-pregnancy state.

Publicly, there is a vindication of the postpartum body. Stretch marks are known as a mother’s tiger stripes. The rolls are her armor. No reasonable person expects her gravestone to read “Sally was a lovely human being, but a little top-heavy.” Everyone realizes it’s ridiculous to hide poolside, instead of donning that bathing suit and splashing in the water with the kids.

However, the private acceptance of the new reflection in the mirror is harder to control. Having birthed two kids in two years, I can relate.

Growing up in Russia, I never had a choice of clothes. We didn’t go on department store jaunts with our mothers and toss items of interest into an overflowing shopping cart. Instead, people wore a lot of hand-me-downs and DIY things: knitted or crocheted sweaters and ensembles made of repurposed wool that once was grandpa’s holiday vest. As I grew, my favorite gray dress grew along with me: First it lost the sleeves, then it magically morphed into a shirt, thanks to my grandmother and her sewing machine with a foot pedal. My grandmother once showed me her gold tooth stashed away in a jewelry box, promising that one day, she’d melt it into a ring for my wedding.

This lack of choice followed me to the United States as an immigrant teenager. Neon-colored sweatshirts and sweatpants on sale at Target were my uniform, along with clashing secondhand items, such as T-shirts with meaningless inscriptions like “Bermuda or Bust.” I got used to dodging questions about whether I really did run a marathon in Texas before I was born, or work at the Gilroy Garlic Festival. “ ’Cause it says so on your shirt, you know.” Yeah, I knew.

“Do you want my old clothes?” said a girl in my English as a Second Language class. Her cartoonish outfits were accessorized with pink bows, ruffles and Hello Kitty. I politely declined. “Are you sure?” She looked my immigrant uniform up and down with pity. I was sure.

For more than a decade that followed, I didn’t pay much attention to trends and developed my own, somewhat haphazard, fashion sense (even if it meant green hair for a while).

But years later, after moving to Washington, D.C., to pursue a new career, it became apparent that my style had to change.

What at first appeared to be an uptight workweek environment — women clicking around in fitted, tucked-in clothing, hardly a loose thread or a pair of pants in sight — became an opportunity for self-reinvention. In my new home, style — whether conservative or glam — was a professional expectation, not an option.

So I spent all my free time during those first few weeks observing and researching fashion, while gaining a sense of what would and wouldn’t suit me. I made lists and then constructed the first deliberate wardrobe of my life.

Soon there were the flats, the heels and the accessories — the sensible and the fun. The coordinating tops and bottoms lounged on the real wooden “adult” hangers. Even on a bad day, I knew I could break out something fabulous — and looking put together was a much-needed pick me up. For the first time, I didn’t own items just because they were on the clearance rack (although it helps), or were given to me, or because a random piece at a store resembled something a French girl sipping an espresso at a Parisian café would wear (yet matched nothing I owned and looked sort of dumpster chic instead).

Clothing captures a personal aesthetic, social belonging and professional pride. That’s why losing control over your wardrobe and its meaning, particularly for new mothers, can feel as heavy as the extra pounds.

Recently, I’ve been contemplating my closet. It’s disorganized and self-conscious. It works for the new suburban home and the new work schedule, for stroller walks and for taking care of two small kids. For now.

But the shelves and back hangers are still lined with the dusty items from my recent past.

“Hey, I’m the dress you wore when you met the president! You’d have to buy another one of me and stitch us together to fit you nowadays!”

“We’re the heels you used to wear to the Pentagon. Feet a little swollen now? Boo hoo, not like you need heels to buy potatoes at Safeway.”

“Remember me? I’m the silk blouse your baby daddy liked when you dated. Um, careful of the seams.”

Shut up, clothes. Just shut up.

Every couple of months, I’d try on my pre-baby identity, hoping to reconnect to it. This invariably ended badly, no matter the workout routine or diet. The old clothes, the old identity, didn’t fit. And the pity party began.

A single child-free person living in a big city can skip meals, eat frozen pizza and regard cocktails and networking events as dinner. It’s easy to be slim when there’s time for daily workouts. But women whose bodies have recently birthed and nursed little humans do not look like this — and it’s not just the weight that changes. They can’t. And why should they?

Finally, I decided to regain control and to get rid of anything that would not reasonably ever fit again.

It was empowering. Some larger-sized items survived the purge. Perhaps one day they’ll fit again. But I stashed them away in those vacuum-seal bags to keep them out of sight for a while.

Power to those women who slipped into their skinny jeans a few weeks after childbirth. For the rest of us, distress over the change in the way we saw ourselves and appeared to the world for many years is perhaps a natural step to transformation and self-acceptance. With some time, effort and loving kindness, we can discover the new beauty, inside and out, that motherhood has given us.

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