An Incomplete History of My Body

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Grade school, maybe grade six or seven. Sitting in a circle with my girlfriends at recess. We go around the circle in turns: “My thighs are so fat. I hate them” “Your thighs are not fat! They’re so skinny! Look at my stomach. It’s flabby.” “Your stomach isn’t flabby, look at mine!” Around and around like that. I have a brief realization that none of us are fat, that this is ridiculous. I try not to feel bad about my body.

I am twelve, maybe thirteen. I’m playing at the school yard. A boy tells me I look good. I’m wearing a bit of makeup that I got for my birthday, a hairband, a brown corduroy collared shirt and khakis. I am pleased. Aware that I am noticed. I sense power in that, but don’t understand it. Won’t understand it for many years to come.

All through my young adult life, the women around me are on and off Weight Watchers. My mother, my aunts, my sister, my friends, all struggle with their weight, with their bodies. I subscribe to YM magazine, and read articles instructing me how to dress for my body type, what bathing suit I should be wearing, how to work out. For a while, I do workouts in my bedroom, push-ups and sit-ups on my dusty-pink carpet. I notice muscles growing, and I like it. I feel strong. It doesn’t last long, though. I know that I should care more.

Any time my dad’s family gets together, we eat all day long: cookies, squares, potato chips and dip, cheese trays, veggies and dip, and then we have dinner and then we have dessert. It is normal to eat to the point of feeling ill: that’s what the Borin girls do. In preparation for holidays, we are “good”,  we save our calories for an all-day binge. One Christmas eve, I vomit when we get home from my grandma’s, because I’ve eaten so much.

Throughout my late teen years, my twenties, I continue to spend the currency that is my body. I start waitressing in a bar, and the combination of attention and cash is intoxicating. I am so powerful. A low cut shirt, a push-up bra, pants that hug my ass: it’s so easy. These guys are so easy, so dumb. It feels like power, but in retrospect, I’m not sure it is. I go with it, though. Careening just a little bit, like going downhill on a bike and you’re on the edge of losing control, the handle bars wrenching back and forth in your hands.

Twenty-seven. Pregnant and keeping it. My body swells. I am the epitome of Earth Mother. All of the cliches: glowing, fertile, goddess. I birth my baby in the backseat of the car because I didn’t understand that I’d already started pushing at the house. Afterwards, I wonder how I could be so unaware of my body. Childbirth is different, though. I was in a different head space, I was out of my body and yet so firmly in it, of course I didn’t know. It was my first time. Pushing is feet in stirrups, doctor yelling instructions at you. Pushing is not in the dark of the bathroom against a washing machine. Bearing down is maybe a better descriptor.

Through the next two pregnancies, my weight fluctuates. Just before I become pregnant with Colm, I’m at my lowest weight ever. People tell me how good I look. What have you been doing? You look great, they tell me. I’ve lost enough weight that I need new bras, new pants, new shirts. My jaw, my cheek bones, are more pronounced. What have I been doing? I’ve been anxious about food, entire food groups or tiny molecular portions of them. Sugar and gluten are suspect: I try to avoid both with spotty success. I don’t want to eat things that come from far away, and this is partly a good thing and partly concerning because eventually I’m not sure what to eat. I am obsessed with “real” food. With toxins. I fall for pseudo-science and charismatic Internet food bloggers.

During my second pregnancy, my midwife encourages me to eat more, to put on more weight, as insurance. It’s not until my third pregnancy that I do. I eat with abandon and now, two years post-partum, I continue to do so. I eat oatmeal for breakfast, and then after Paul and Aedan leave for the day, I eat the rice leftover from dinner, with hot sauce. Then I find a chocolate bar stashed somewhere and I eat that, too. The kids want a snack so I eat a half a dozen crackers with them. A few cookies when they’re not looking. I finish their toast crusts. Then we make lunch and I eat mine plus what they don’t. We go to the grocery store and I buy a big bag of potato chips and then it’s empty before I realize it. I eat more crackers while I cook dinner, and then I eat seconds at dinner, too. I pay no attention to my body as I eat, as I go through my day, and then suddenly I can’t help but pay attention to it because I think I might throw up. Shame sets in. What the fuck is wrong with me?

For five years, almost six, my breasts have been on demand. My body constantly stimulated by little hands patting, reaching, clinging, wanting to be carried. I am adept at distancing myself from this body. I look in the mirror, naked, at my lopsided breasts hanging down towards my stomach. My stomach that could pass for six months pregnant. (People ask me, occasionally, if I’m pregnant again). None of my clothes fit right. My feet have gone up a half shoe size in the last couple of years and I wish that clothes came in half-sizes, too. Everything is either a bit too loose, or a bit too tight. I want to live in leggings. I want to cut my breasts off. I am a stranger in this body. This body that has climbed mountains, has hiked fifty two kilometers on the Chilkoot Trail. This body that can dance, and run, and grow and birth and nourish new humans. This body that was once my currency and that now feels like a crumpled bill in the bottom of a pocket. My body the afterthought, my body the inconvenience.

Still, though. It’s a woman’s body. I no longer wear low cut tops to work, but just this past Sunday, a man who once threatened to kill me because I cut him off told me if he were a bit younger, he’d take me home. As if that’s a compliment. In the summer I wear a red dress because it makes me happy and a man buys me a drink, expects conversation, is disappointed when he sees my wedding ring. I try to be invisible, wear jeans and a sports bra under a loose band t-shirt, and still they notice, tell me I look good. I’d like to tell them to fuck off, but I smile, I fumble, I walk away.

This body is mine and not mine. I’d like to come to a place of acceptance. Of some measure of gratitude. A truce, even. I try. I’d like to offer you more than this disjointed collection, had intended to, but it turns out I’m not there yet.

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Adjustments

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It’s so easy to type out “I’m going to take myself seriously as a writer”, but it’s another thing entirely to actually do that. I’ve filled out the forms for daycare, and today I’ll drop them off. There is a wait list. It could be months before I’ve got even those eight hours child free per week. And already, those eight hours don’t feel like enough.

So what’s a gal to do in the mean time? It’s limbo, but I can’t sit on my hands while I wait. I have to continue to make things happen, in little ways.

My word for 2017 is “practice”. I’d intended to write every day, and for almost two months, I did. Sometimes it was only a few sentences, or journalling. Sometimes a poem or a blog post. It felt largely aimless, but I was doing it. And then I fell off the wagon. It’s been a couple of weeks since I’ve written daily, but I’m trying to find my way back. This is what my writing life looks like. This is what being a writing mother looks like. You get into some kind of routine, and then everyone gets sick and it’s all you can do to make it to a seven pm bedtime and you pass out wedged between two stuffed up, coughing babies.

This morning, when the ache in my lower back became unbearable, I determined to get up and write morning pages. Charlotte turned towards me, wanting to nurse, so I nursed her, willing myself to stay awake. It took me four attempts. Four times I made my way out of bed in increments, stepping lightly down the stairs, getting to the bottom and hearing her cry for me. Once I got all they way to the kitchen, began to write in the bright light glaring off the glass table top. I’m doing it, I thought.

Then I heard her creaky voice over the baby monitor: “Mama, are you? Mama, are you? Mama!” Heard Paul try to shush her. Heard her insistence for me. I slammed my journal shut, my feet heavy on the stairs. I sat down hard on the edge of the bed, determined not to nurse her.

“Go to sleep, baby,” I whispered, patting her back with a firm hand. And she did. And she stayed asleep, and I wrote two more pages and then I turned on my computer and I fiddled with two poems. And when they all woke up I felt so accomplished. This. This is what I’ll do. I’ll be the mom who wakes up an hour, two hours before her kids in order to write. I’ll do this for years, until they don’t need me so intensely anymore. Or at least, I’ll do it for the rest of the week.

And what of the rest of the time, when I can’t be writing? I’ve been thinking of this, too. I read as a writer, closely, with more curiosity. I don’t read just to finish a book, which is how I used to do it. I glean little bits as I go, about form and style and also just ideas, information that I squirrel away for the future.

In her essay “Upstream”, Mary Oliver writes “Attention is the beginning of devotion”. I’ve been turning this over in my mind for weeks. She writes of attention to the natural world. Of giving our children and ourselves the freedom to inhabit wild places and to notice every detail, to fall in love and cherish the world.

And then yesterday, this blog post from Shawna Lemay on how to live more poetically. She writes:

How to live more poetically? Cultivate elegance, a tender heart, an attentiveness, a generous integrity.

There it is again: attention. I’m well aware that attention to my daily life is not my strong suit. If I could be wandering green fields and forest streams all day long, I’m sure I could be a little more attentive. But my job now, as a writer and a mother, is to find a way to bring attention to the runny noses, the toy battles, the endless chatter about dragons, the complaints over dinner. The sweet moments, too, but they aren’t as common as I’d like. Or maybe I’m missing them. This, too, is a practice. It’s all practice, and I must come back to it again and again, a thousand times, until it’s like breathing.

Little tweaks, little changes here and there. Adjustments to my day, my outlook. Just as I’m getting discouraged, I have to remind myself: come back. See what can give, apply a little pressure until it clicks. Make space and see what happens.

Taking Myself Seriously

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A serious writer.

I find and place three pairs of socks. Brush three sets of teeth. Pack snacks in two different bags. (Also, spend an inordinate amount of time finding containers with lids for said snacks. Finally give up and just pack an entire sleeve of crackers.) I physically dress or coach the dressing of the kids.

Together, my husband and I buckle them into three car seats. I drop the husband at the hotel. Drop the oldest at kindergarten. Try to keep him focused on undressing and writing his name on the sign in sheet. Kiss goodbye. I take the other two to a friend with whom I’ve worked out a childcare exchange. Undress kids, chat for a moment, say goodbye, and run.

I am here, in my cold little office. The electric kettle is boiling and I’ll make a cup of tea. I light a stick of incense because I like doing something to mark the shift from my mundane to my sacred time. My writing time.

Breathe in. Breathe out.

It’s not enough.

I’ve come to realize that in the past week or so. There are two projects jumping for attention in my brain. Two projects that are languishing right now because all I can afford is an hour here, two hours there, of sporadic time. It’s hard to take myself seriously as a writer when time for research and writing comes second. Comes third.

I’ve decided that it can’t be something I fit into the spaces that may or may not open up in my day. I’ve decided that writing has to come first. That I have to look at this as a business that I am starting myself. As it stands, writing feels like a hobby. I want it to be my vocation.

I am the one who keeps myself from this. I am the one who is afraid to take the risk of finding more permanent, regular childcare and sitting down and researching and writing and maybe publishing my words. I tell myself that because I didn’t have “a Career” before having kids, that I have to be a stay at home mom. Talking to my husband about this, he answers: “Why? Says who?”

I feel like some kind of monster for not wanting to spend all of my time (literally, all of it) with my kids. But then, upon further reflection, I realize that many women don’t want to do this. They had jobs that they loved, or that they needed, before having kids. After having kids, they go back to them. I certainly don’t think they’re monsters. So why am I one?

The answer lies in the risk I’m taking. In diving into my writing like it’s a real, live thing that I want to spend a big chunk of my time doing, I’m taking a huge risk. It is essentially a business endeavor that may very well fail. I might never get published. Or I might choose to become my own publisher, and then suck at marketing myself.

Or, I might become my own publisher, market the shit out of my books, and become a successful author-entrepreneur.

But I won’t ever know if I don’t try. And I want to try NOW. I don’t want to wait three more years until the last baby finally goes off to kindergarten. Those three years will be miserable. I want to get started. I want to take the risk.

I am worthy of my dreams.

I am worthy of the risk.

And I am worthy of some form of childcare!

Distant Horizons

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A few days ago, my mom and I sat across from each other in her living room, having a rare direct conversation about some big things going on in my life. The kids played around us; there might have been a kid’s show on t.v. At a natural pause in the conversation, I asked: “Is there anything else you want to talk about, while we’re being honest?”

“Yes,” she answered. “Sometimes your blog really worries me. Like I think you’re in a deep depression. And it sounds like you–” she lowered her voice. “Hate being a parent.”

I thought about it for a second. “I’m ok. But I do hate being a parent.”

It was hard for her to hear, and looking at those words now, and turning them over in my mind as I have been since our conversation, they do seem pretty ugly. And I wonder: if my mom thinks that, others probably do, too.

Honesty seems kind of rare in conversations about motherhood. Or, if we are being honest and talking about how it’s sometimes hard and thankless, it is always buffered by the “but I wouldn’t trade it for the world.”

Being a stay at home mom to three little kids is fucking hard. I am constantly overwhelmed, overstimulated, overtired. Even as I’m typing this Aedan is telling me about some movie about whales even though I asked him to quietly watch Finding Dory while I write. I have been giving him my attention all morning. But it’s never enough. They are always hungry. As I clean up one mess, they are trashing the house behind me. I feel like I have little relief. Little support. Maybe that’s what I hate.

Yesterday, I bundled the kids up and we walked down the street I grew up on to visit an old friend and coworker of mine. She is a bright, shining soul. She is peace and light and love. She is a talented ventriloquist, artist and writer. She also has two grown sons, with jobs and passions and girlfriends, and her perspectives on parenting are always so refreshing for me. They bring me back down to earth, show me that there is life after this life. She reassures me, as my own mother does, that I’m doing a great job. But as a fellow creative person, she also is careful to remind me, every time we get together, how important my creative work is. How necessary it is to my own wellbeing, and to the wellbeing of my kids, and in the world. She always encourages me to make time, if I can, for my work.

As we talked, I felt the dark cloud lifting a little. As she told me about spending time with her kids, now adults, sharing things they love, I saw glimpses of a time when my grown children, with their own independant lives, would visit me. How they might one day celebrate the creative work I did and continue to do. These years are a slog, absolutely. And I am, at best, ambivalent to them. I love my kids to the point of heartbreak. I inhale the scent of Colm’s scalp as often as I can, and I notice that I no longer have the opportunity to do that with Aedan. And when Charlotte nurses a million times a day, though I am irritated by it, weary of it after almost 6 years, I watch her pat my breast as she does it and I know there will be a day soon when they’re mine again. But the only way to those distant horizons is through all of this.

I’m realizing that I might be a better parent not just with a “little relief,” a yoga class or a mindful cup of tea sprinkled throughout the week like favours. I think I would be a better parent if I worked outside of the home. After Aedan was born and my year of mat leave was up, I thought “why would I go back to bartending? It’s not like I have an important ‘career.'”

How wrong I was. How I underestimated the sense of independance and freedom and agency my service job gave me. I can’t rewind and change my years as a stay at home mom, but I can rewrite the script going forward.

We leave for Dawson tomorrow morning. When we get back, I’ll be picking up another shift in the bar. And I’m going to find childcare for two mornings a week. And I’m going to take a private office space for myself, and I am going to sit in my office space two mornings a week, and maybe for an hour before each of my two bar shifts, and I am going to write. I am going to put words on paper like my life depends on it, I am going to “write like a motherfucker” as Cheryl Strayed puts it, and I’m going to see where it takes me.

And for my readers who are also struggling with these early years of parenting: it’s okay that it’s really hard. It’s okay that you don’t like it all the time. You don’t have to. We are doing this thing in a bubble, and we’re not meant to do this thing in a bubble. The system is rigged, and not in our favour. So be kind to yourselves, and ask for help as often as you can.

Family Bed

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Since having my first child five years ago, we have moved so many more times than I ever imagined I would with a child. We’ve been back and forth across the country; beside our own bed, we’ve slept in hotel beds, in beds on the floors of spare rooms at my parents’ house, my mother-in-law’s apartment, my sister-in-law’s house. We’ve slept in beds in Belize, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica. Our family bed has grown from the three of us, nestled like spoons on a queen sized mattress, to all five of us, sprawled out across some combination of mattresses pushed together, blankets for each of us. No matter what the day brings, we meet there at its close.

Today was not our best day. I’m feeling disconnected: from myself, from my kids,  from my partner. The negative self-talk is loud, and I’m relying heavily on my favourite escapes: over-eating and screentime. Aedan and I have been butting heads as a result. Just after dinner he yelled some pretty hurtful things at me. And I started to yell back…and stopped myself.

“We’re going to bed,” I said as I calmly began picking up. He hurled some more angry words.

“You and me, bud. We’re going to bed, now.”

And we did, just me and him (and then after some time, Charlotte joined us.) And even though it was only moments after those hurtful words had been exchanged, he snuggled right up to me. He apologized, told me he loved me. I stroked his hair and we found each other again, there in the dark of the bedroom. I sang his favourite songs, he chatted about his day a little, and then he fell asleep.

There is so much healing that takes place in the familiar space of our family bed. As much as I miss sleeping next to my partner, I am grateful for this one small thing, this anchor at the end of our day.

This post was inspired by a prompt on Jena Schwartz’s blog today.