What My Postpartum and Breastfeeding Body Taught My Four Sons About Women's Bodies
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The first time I popped a breast out of my nursing tank after giving birth to their fourth brother to feed him, my three little boys stared at me to see what would happen next. "Why is your boob in the baby's face!" "What's he doing?!" "Can I try that?" My three sons—who are ages six, four, and two—all had the classic reactions I'd expected them to have, and I knew it was time to create a foundation for them to understand not just the beauty, but the function and purpose of women's bodies forever.
This was the first of many lessons about pregnant and postpartum bodies, and how we talk and think about them. Here's what they're learning about.
1. Our bodies are for doing things, not just for looking at.
During that first nursing session, I explained clearly and confidently (on the outside of my clothes) the parts of my body and what they were doing. We learned the milk was nourishing the baby and that it had special nutrients, we called them "superfoods," which were helping him grow. But it didn't stop there.
"Mom, how are you going to do that out in the world, like at a store or something?" I told my 6-year-old I'd do the same thing in the outside world. "But people will see your boob!" Yes, very true. This is where the conversation got a little complicated. How do you explain private parts aren't for show, except when they are providing food to a newborn(s)? This was advanced stuff for a mama working on 48 hours without sleep.
It was a lesson that I've tried to teach a million ways, but somehow, seemed quite important in that moment: our bodies are for doing things, not looking at. My 6-year-old was visibly stressed that others would be seeing my breast in public, and only after trying it a few times and him noticing nobody really cared, it finally became normal to him. Calm explanations seemed to help—the baby is hungry so I'm feeding him milk.
Since teaching this lesson, I've worked on reframing other conversations, too. When my sons ask if their muscles look big, I ask them how they feel when they are picking up heavy things or trying to run fast. Baby steps against society's image-loving machine.
2. Bodies take time to change.
In another classic toddler moment, my 2-year-old was quite confused when I was both holding the newborn he was sure had been in my belly but also staring at my poofed-out uterus that had no intentions of returning to its pre-pregnancy size anytime soon.
"Baby in the belly?" he asked, looking back and forth from the belly to the baby. My older son chimed in, nonchalantly, "Yeah, why is your belly still fat?" His questions like this over the postpartum weeks hit me differently based on what my hormones were doing that day and how much sleep or food I'd had. Some days I'd snap back, irritated at the commentary. Other days, when my more patient self was available, I'd explain (again) that our bodies take time to change, and that a whole baby had lived in there for almost a year.
Hopefully, if my sons ever want to lose a little weight or build muscle or grow a beard or eat differently later in life, they will know it isn't an instant gratification process.
3. Being big isn't bad.
My second son has, well, a big head. Family and friends have lovingly joked about it over the years, saying how smart he will be and touching his squishy cheeks, and the like. It first occurred to me that it bothered him when he asked one day why his head was bigger than other kids, definitely upset about it. While we'd only ever showered him with positive attention on the topic, it didn't matter. He knew it was different and had decided that "big is bad."
Being (very) pregnant with an overdue 10-pound baby meant being "big" was an everyday fact, no matter who you are or how you look at it. I couldn't fit behind my desk, had trouble not bashing my belly on the steering wheel, and often ran into the kitchen island. Being "big" gave my son a chance to learn about the relationship between size and purpose—I was big for a reason. I was growing a life.
I made it my mission to never speak negatively about being big, even when it was difficult or less than convenient. It became even harder in postpartum life, working uphill against every "bounce back" quickly concept on social media. But my sons made me do it for them, and for me.
4. Bodies aren't "gross."
When I was stocking up on postpartum supplies, analyzing the efficacy of adult diapers versus the mesh panties from the hospital plus a mongo pad, my oldest son and his friend found my self-care basket. They came out with a diaper on their heads, dancing around like the mature mini-6-year-olds they aren't. "Mommy wears diapers, mommy wears diapers." Sure do, and I changed yours for four years too.
From diaper-wearing to postpartum bleeding to leaking breast milk, pregnancy and postpartum bring a significant amount of...fluid. But my sons only called things gross when they didn't understand their function. So we got specific about what was happening. I was wearing diapers because blood comes out of the vagina after the baby is born. It doesn't hurt. It's called lochia (insert fun mish-mash of little kid pronunciations). It means my belly is trying to heal from the baby. I'm not sick. My sheets and bra have milk on them because the baby wanted to sleep not eat in the middle of the night, so the milk leaked out. It's not gross, it's just time to do some laundry. When my kids got the real facts, they said "Okay, cool" and went on their merry way.
It's time to trust our kids to understand big people's concepts, so they can grow up knowing these truths in their hearts, minds, and bodies. When body-shaming culture comes calling, they will be ready.