My body has changed forever, stretched in ways I’d never imagined since my two pregnancies. My hips have widened, my stomach is softer. There will always be a gap between my abdominal muscles. I have stretch marks, my first and only tattoos. My back aches and feels weaker than before. My boobs are smaller and softer.
But my motherly evolution extends deeper than my skin; it’s also altered my mind, my perception of myself and the way I interact with the world.
Even when my kids — Elio, 4, and Coda, 1 — are not with me, they’re always with me. They’re lodged somewhere in my thoughts. It’s like when you leave a good concert, the experience delicately perfumes the rest of the day. When Elio was born, I remember feeling eager to get back to my previous life before children. I wanted to go out with my friends. I wanted to accelerate the career that I had worked so hard to attain. I was impatient for my body to return to the way it looked before pregnancy.
It took me about a year to feel comfortable adding mother to my identity. So I set out to photograph mothers and show the parts of their bodies that had evolved. The images would hopefully serve as a touchstone for others exploring their own relationships with their bodies after having children.
For typically nine months, we share our bodies with our children, and no matter how helpful our partners are, pregnancy can never be shared or compensated for.
For me, pregnancy was a complete transformation. I feel stronger in many ways. When I need an extra oomph, I draw on the pain I felt while delivering my second baby, pushing in the delivery room without an epidural. The hardest task was trusting my body could handle my baby, using each moment between contractions to enter a safe place in my memories. My mind and body were dancing together. That I successfully delivered a baby brings me strength.
Having kids also has focused my attention on things that make me whole. There is no time for waste. The focus has propelled my work and led me to have deeper, more meaningful relationships with people in my life. Even more so, I am a more anxious version of myself, constantly on the edge of worrying for my kids’ wellbeing and doing the right thing for them.
For these eight women I spoke to over the course of the last five months, pregnancy and childbirth prompted astounding metamorphoses. The mental and physical changes are our keepsakes, no matter how old our children get.
Pregnancy left her with bigger feet, forever
When Rosey Bishop, 38, was pregnant her feet grew a whole size. Originally she thought her feet would shrink back after delivery but when they didn't, she had to buy all new shoes. Besides the part where she shelled out a lot of money for new kicks, the change didn’t faze her much. She’s healthier now as a mom, leading by example for her 5-year-old boy named Quinn. She incorporates him on her walks, her stretches and her trips to the farmers market. She thinks he is forming a positive perspective on women by seeing her as a working mom. She hopes that this generation of kids who see all the working moms will inherently understand the roles of men and women to be an equal partnership, both in the household and at work.
The pregnancy scarred her belly, and her knees
A C-section left Laurel Holst, 38, with a lipped scar you can see through her clothing. Her pregnancies also gave her a varicose vein that runs down her right knee and a smaller one on her left side. The elasticity of her stomach has diminished and her breasts have shrunk to a point where they do not feel like hers anymore. She felt a lot of shame in the early months with her babies. She faced frustrating expectations about how long, how often and how much she should breastfeed. While she would never fault a friend for falling below those expectations, she chastised herself. When her breastfeeding journey was over, there was a sense of acceptance and accomplishment. Now that her children are 4 and 2, she’s proud of what her body was able to do and who she is as a person, a wife and a mother. But she’s still uncomfortable with the permanent changes in her body since pregnancy.
She likes what she sees in the mirror, stretch marks and all
Kimberly Summer, 42, was 20 when she became a mom for the first time. She had her second baby soon after. Back then, her body felt like a vessel. It was something that she used to get around during the day and something that fed her kids. It was a rough life for her then, living in a car while mothering two kids. She went from one destructive relationship to another and treated her body poorly with alcohol. She was on a downward spiral and hit a wall. When her third baby, Piper, was born seven years ago with a new partner, she took it as an opportunity for rebirth. She awakened to trusting herself through birth, which was the catalyst for expansion. Kimberly used the experience to drop back into her body and celebrate herself there. Now, she is gentle when she talks to herself. She likes what she sees in the mirror. She even claims a positive space for her body on social media, sharing pictures of her curves, lines and changes while speaking openly about what she has: muscle separation and stretch marks. She is a doula and brings her own experience to her clients, hoping they too will use the opportunity to feel empowered, believing that they are capable and able to give birth and be a mother. She says that it is in the quiet of our deeper selves that we find most answers.
She put her kids first, over and over
The size and structure of Bonnie Tidmore’s stomach is forever changed after her two pregnancies. The older the 40-year-old gets, the more she feels she can embrace the marks her children, 14 and 21, left her. She has made a lot of choices thinking of what her two kids needed most instead of herself, including finding an apartment in an environment that allowed them to thrive. She was 20 when she delivered her daughter. It was a lot harder for her then. She didn’t have the same stability or knowledge on parenting, and looking back she is beyond proud of making it through. She feels blessed because her kids are continually achieving success. Her daughter Malya Parker just wrapped up her third year at California State University Long Beach while also working as the lead cashier at Bath and Body Works. Her son, Kalib Eldrege, graduated middle school with high grades.
New clothes felt like a treat
Sara Nicely, 35, says that after childbirth her hips and butt are wider and softer with more cellulite. When her baby, Milo, was 6 months old, she gave the prepregnancy clothing away that did not fit anymore and bought new pieces. It helped her relinquish control of her changing body. Her new clothing felt like a treat. It was therapeutic to wear something that fit right. She thought motherhood would come more naturally than it has and she is hard on herself about it. She has sacrificed so much for motherhood, including her job. She’d be spending most of her salary on childcare if she kept it. She struggles some days with her choice to be a stay-at-home mom, but whenever she sees her baby experiencing something wonderful, she believes she made the right choice. Those moments give her a sense of wonder, curiosity and hope. They connect her to something bigger.
She’s achieved her ultimate womanhood
Tiana Wright, 37, is a mother to four boys. She felt the highest form of womanhood when she was pregnant. Even after her deliveries, she looks with pride at the curves she earned through pregnancy. They make her feel like a real woman. She isn’t bothered by the stretch marks on her body, but she can’t come to terms with the extra skin on her stomach. Someday she will get a tummy tuck, she says. When she thinks about her body after childbirth, it helps her remember her ultimate transformation into motherhood.
She said ‘ef it’ to Hot Cheetos but now makes different choices
Even before Jenny Callaghan, 42, was pregnant, she had a hard time accepting her body’s shape. Growing up, her father constantly reminded her of her weight, controlling what food was on the table. When her daughter was in utero, she felt so many uncontrollable changes that she finally stopped trying to control her weight. She remembers thinking “ef it” while eating Hot Cheetos. She eventually weighed 220 pounds. Recently, that all changed. Jenny lost 40 pounds in the last year and exercises regularly. She tends to eat soups and salads that energize her. Frozen fruit is in her fridge, ready for a smoothie. Tomatoes grow on vines outside the back door of her family’s home. She is making these changes for herself first and foremost, but also for her daughter, who is 6 and forming her own relationship with food. Jenny wants to raise her daughter in a home where hunger is heard, good food is served, and pride in one’s body is always present.
Her C-section is ‘holy ground’
Nicole Welch, 40, said when she was pregnant, her body felt foreign to her. After her babies were born it took her time to settle into her “new” body. Once she did, she started owning her motherhood in a way that made her feel empowered. She was vocal about needing to pump at work, even scheduling it in a public calendar. She attributes changes that came with motherhood to catapulting her career. She stopped caring about what others might think and went all in on things she thought worked best. She lost her mother while pregnant with her second baby, Gracie, who spent six weeks in the NICU. These life and death experiences recalibrated for Nicole what's worth stressing about. Now she looks at her C-section scar and sees holy ground because that is where her baby entered this world.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.