"What is this, mom?" she asked, reaching for the jar and turning it so that I could see the label. It took me a moment to register the brand, and by then, Jo was reading the claims listed on the back. She wrinkled her nose dubiously.
"It says it can greatly reduce unsightly stretch marks. It says that some women even return to their pre-pregnancy selves."
I could see the wheels of her mind processing this information. True--in the ten weeks since Seven's birth, I've returned to my pre-pregnancy size. I'm back in my trusty jeans. I no longer have the gloriously outsized belly that housed my growing baby, or the puffy feet that kept me from wearing my favorite flip-flops all summer. I'm "me" again, at least to look at.
But Jo is old enough to realize that while I am back to being the "me" that she has known all of her life, there was a "me" beforehand. A "me" that had never been called Momma. A "me" whose stomach was flat and unscathed. A "me" who no cream can restore.
"That was a gift," I offered. She twisted the lid off, hoping to catch a sniff of the bottled optimism contained in the jar. A plastic seal prevented her from doing more than tapping her fingernail on an opaque pink film.
"Why do people buy this stuff?" she asked.
How to explain to a 13 year-old what drives women to purchase creams and potions designed to erase the cares and creases of life? How to help her understand the feeling of letting one season of life slip away even as another begins? How to distill 35 years of learning into one, simple primer on modern femininity?
Seeing my thoughtfulness, she asked her question a different way. A way that was far easier to answer:
"Why does it call stretch marks 'unsightly'?"
It was an honest question. In our family, scars, birthmarks and the like are signs of individuality and self. Mr. Blandings was born with a cleft lip and palate whose scars have defined his face for a lifetime. Jo has a small, moon-shaped notch just below her left eyebrow. Seven entered the world with a lovely strawberry birthmark coloring her left eyelid. None of these are things we seek to cover, to scour away, or to deny. They are part of who we are. In our family, we celebrate these things. Even more so the nicks and dings of life: the jagged, ripply line that runs the length of Logan's foot to remind him of a run-in with a massive splinter of wood, the white whorl of skin in the corner of Mani's mouth where his feeding tube was held in place as an infant. These are battle scars. Signs of bravery. The indelible markings of a life lived.
Perhaps, to some, they are unsightly. To those with eyes to see, they are simply stories writ large in our very flesh. No, not the inked versions that man has devised for himself; no one in our family has chosen to tattoo themselves. We haven't needed to--plenty of details of our inner selves appear on the fabric of our skin.
And so it is with the stretch marks I carry from my four successful pregnancies. After birthing the ten+ pounds that was Jo, my abdomen was streaked with red threads. I was marked forever. Two more babies in less than four years resulted in more, deeper skids that faded to silver over time. Seven added only two or three marks of her own to the tapestry--crimson lines amid the shiny, mature ones. Then, of course, there are the invisible stretch marks--the ones I earned during my elephant-like paper pregnancies with Oli and Mani.
"Some people don't like them," I shrugged. "They'd rather not have the reminder right there all the time. They view them as an imperfection."
Jo considered this.
"But ... it's part of being able to give birth, right? Don't most people get them?"
"It's part of the package for most people, yes."
"Then why wouldn't you just accept it? Why would you want to erase it? It's kind of an honor, right?"
I told her that while I see it that way, not everyone does. Some people, I have learned, don't want motherhood to change them. They want their bodies, their lives, their relationships, their everything to remain static. They resist the change of the status quo, clinging instead to the idea that they can be mothers--that they can experience the most life-changing event they will ever walk through--but be unmarked.
I know some of these women personally. They are the mothers who don't just refuse to accept a new wardrobe of exclusively sweats and ponytails (which I don't recommend), but would rather turn down a sticky hug in favor of chic, dry clean only fabrics on a daily basis. The gals who fret over every pound gained during pregnancy, who mourn their lost waistline, who aren't satisfied until they are sure they can go out in public and not be mistaken for a mom. They are the women who choose daycare at 6 weeks not to keep their family afloat financially, but to preserve their weekly budget for manicures, lattes, and shoes. The ones who can't give up the things they've "always" done in favor of the new things they might be blessed to experience.
It's a hard transition, motherhood. The sacrifices, the inconveniences, the living for someone else. This is sticky, hard, sometimes ugly stuff. And it will change you. If you let it, that is.
Motherhood--if you let it in you--will mark you in ways no cream or magic potion can touch. It will expand--and crush-- your heart far past the boundaries of what you thought possible. It will lead you to willingly let go of many things you once held sacred. It will leave you drained one day, and full to bursting the next. It will redefine you. It will make you redefine yourself.
Stretch marks are just the physical manifestation of the metamorphosis that is motherhood. Some people fight to hide them, just as they rail against true motherhood itself. Some find stretch marks ugly or even unsightly, even as they miss the simple blessing of denying oneself. But I think they are beautiful. After all, what other tangible sign do we have of this life-altering transformation?