A few years ago, I was in a sports bra and shorts headed downstairs looking for a shirt in the dryer when W looked at me mortified.
“Mommy, what’s wrong with you! Were you in a fire?”
“No?” I said genuinely confused. “What are you talking about?”
“Mommy,” she said with her mouth gaping. “Your tummy. It looks like you were in a fire.”
I suddenly realized that this was probably the first time W had ever seen my bare stomach and it kind of does look like something catastrophic has happened to it. I’ve had two kids and two abdominal surgeries (an appendectomy with an umbilical hernia repair and then a second umbilical hernia repair)–and the stretch marks (and stretched-out skin) and scars probably look like 2nd or 3rd degree burns to a 10 year old. And then there’s my “belly button”–a slit 3 inches long across the centre of my belly. After the last hernia surgery, and for the recovery period, my surgeon stuffed a bunch of cotton balls in the spot where my belly button was supposed to be. It was a last ditch effort to preserve the “structure” of my belly button because the surgeon seemed really concerned that I might lose the aesthetic look of my belly button. At that point I didn’t really care. My stomach had been stretched out and cut up that there was nothing aesthetic about it anymore. At that point, I just needed my stomach to be pain free. It didn’t matter at that point what it looked like. At that time (in 2006) I was potty training J (and had a very interested W in potty training too). Steve was getting his PhD. Lots of things were going on besides my abdominal issues. You know, life things. I just needed the surgery to get back to a functioning level so I could be a functioning mom.
I could see why W was genuinely horrified. “Well, no, I wasn’t in a fire, but I see how you could think that. This is what a mommy’s tummy sometimes look like after they have a baby. After you have a baby your body is different after that.”
That’s the sanitized version of the line my doctor told me after I had J. When I asked him about the changes in my abdominal wall (and its appearance) he said, “Well, you’ve had a baby. You’re body will never be the same again.”
I don’t think about my dumpster fire stomach very often. Only when it hurts. Which still happens even after the second hernia repair I had almost 13 years ago. And it seems like, when you’re an adult, the only time you take the time to take care of yourself is when you absolutely forced to.
It took adopting a 75 pound animal in January to remind that I need to be taking better care of myself (and my stomach). Walking Rudy woke up that nagging pain in my abdominal wall once again. When we got him, he was a puller, and I had to use all the (non-existent) core strength I had to keep control of him. And instead of the achy pain during a bad coughing spell or when I stretched to reach something on the very top shelf, this pain would last for hours after I’d walk him. And it would pop up again more and more often when I did other things. Lifting grocery bags, lifting babies. Finally, last month I saw my GP and he referred me to a physical therapist to help me strengthen my core and avoid a 3rd hernia injury and surgery.
It’s taken me 13 years to finally take care of myself.
Why is that? Why do we as adults (and especially parents) put off taking care of ourselves? I do it with other things too. I go as long as I can before I book myself a dentist, optometrist, even hair appointment. Steve does it too. I think part of it is the cost (because we’re paying for all of our kids’ special appointments: dentist, orthodontic, therapies, hair cuts, lessons, etc). But I think a lot of it has to do with the time factor. I feel like I just don’t have time in my day/week/month to squeeze in an extra appointment for myself or do therapy for myself. All of the things we do for J’s autism take out most of the time and energy I have. And so I put it off.
I remind J to check in with his body and thoughts and feelings all the time because it’s SO SO important for him to be in tune with himself and to reflect and meditate. I remind him to do all of his therapy exercises and I take the time to do it with him. And here I am, the biggest hypocrite of all. I can’t take the 3 minutes out of my day to do my own simple meditation or book myself a doctor’s appointment. Now that I have my physical therapy assignments, I really have to force myself to find time and do them. It’s 15 minutes out of my day–for myself. To take care of my body. But it’s hard. Physically (because my muscles are so week) and mentally, because I could use those 15 min to put another load of laundry in, put the dishes away, do more research for my story. I just don’t have time for it.
And maybe that’s a lie society has fed all of us. That we just don’t have time to take care of our bodies or our mental health. There are many other important things to do. When I met with my physical therapist for the first time she told me how frustrated she was that we (as a society) don’t consider women’s physical needs after childbirth the same way we do for someone who has knee or shoulder surgery. Those surgery patients are referred for therapy post surgery (she was shocked that no one suggested physical therapy to me after my multiple surgeries). They are required to slowly increase their physical load until everything is healed up and strengthened. 6 weeks after a woman has a baby, she’s good to go. Lift car seats with infants in them and carry a toddler on her other hip at the same time. We expect parents to keep going on with their lives as if nothing has ever changed with them, while on a physical level, so much is still trying to heal.
So I’m going to try better to take care of myself better–even beyond my physical therapy for my abdominal wall. Better at acknowledging my own (often unseen) back burner dumpster fires. Yes, work and kids and life are all important, but so is my body (and mind).
Taking care of other people isn’t a good enough excuse to stop taking care of yourself.