Let’s Get Physical

Let’s be real. Pregnancy, delivery, postpartum, and pretty much everything about a woman’s existence (ok, maybe that’s an exaggeration… but maybe not) is overwhelmingly physical. Some part of me has hurt, ached, stretched, burned, throbbed, bled, rubbed or twisted for more than a year. And try as I might, between yoga classes and daily walks, even now, it’s not easy to surrender, because it’s not easy to be present with all of these ever-changing physical sensations. Who wants to be?


In his insightful and informative book The Birth of a Mother, Daniel Stern writes:


“For all of us, our identities are deeply connected to the experience and image we have of our bodies. Think about the dramatic shifts in an adolescent’s identity as his or her body starts to change. It is similar for a pregnant woman whose body alters about as much as an adolescent’s, only far more rapidly. A pregnant woman has only seven months (the first two may not count) to assimilate these changes, while an adolescent may have a few years. Such rapid body changes destabilize a woman’s body image, and prepare the ground for a new organization of her identity.”


Of course our identities are tied up with our bodies. These limited and often subconscious vehicles for our energy, soul, and true self that we carry around with us are very much a part of most everything we do. But the truth is, most of us don’t spend much of our lives inhabiting our bodies, at least maybe not until something goes wrong. Even if you have battled body image issues your whole life, you may not really be present in your body. And if you are blessed with health most of the time, you may exercise or eat to feel good, and you may notice when you don’t. But day to day, moment to moment, most of us live in our minds. We allow thoughts and feelings to run our mood, our day, our decisions, and our relationships, and we remain almost entirely unaware of our bodies. Think of the last time you ‘caught yourself’ holding your breath, or found tension in your shoulders without being aware of it settling in.


This is not so with a baby.


The fact is that my baby is living in a world almost entirely made up of physical sensations. That first smile I saw was likely a response to passing gas. That turn of the head was because his visual system could not handle any more input at that moment. Babies cry when the hunger pain gets too strong, or when they feel cold. They react in direct response to a physical stimulus, in direct service of getting their needs met. If Q didn’t tell me he was hungry, loudly and clearly, he cannot be sure his caregiver would realize on her own. He has no other way to ensure that he gets fed, and he cannot stand the physical sensation of hunger on his own for very long. He does not know how to rationalize it, justify it, or assume that it will pass. He has no way of explaining it, or distracting himself with tv or numbing the feeling with whatever drug. It just is. And it hurts. So he cries.


Have you had the experience of watching your little one navigate a pain that totally rocks his world, only to have it pass a moment later so he returns to cooing? We may call this a ‘mood swing’ but it is nothing of the sort. He does not remember the pain, blame anyone for it, or hold resentment that it existed. Now, he’s here. And now, he’s here. And a moment later, he’s with whatever is present and that’s exactly what you see presented before you, nothing more or less.


Because of this almost entirely physical existence, babies live wholly in the present moment. In fact, in utero, I used to call Q my little Buddha baby, floating in my belly world of water and darkness. He didn’t worry, project, emote, or self-criticize. He felt the sensations, and he grew, and he just was. In theory, it’s possible that he never will develop these other, troubling habits, powered by unconscious pain, brought about by life’s experiences, though that is unlikely due to his well-meaning, highly educated, constantly evolving yet still very much imperfect parents.


So why is it difficult for us to join our little ones in their physical existence? The list of reasons is long. Our world, and our culture, encourage us to live in our minds. In the form of advertising and media, we constantly receive messages purposely confusing want with need. We are taught that education comes from books and thoughts, often at the expense of direct experience. We tell ourselves stories, create expectations, and feel a sometimes overwhelming variety of emotions in one day or one hour, including shame for not being ‘stable’, and the advice on how to deal with those emotions is plentiful and often hindering, at best. It is reinforced over and over that someone else knows best, that our instincts are not to be trusted, that what’s here now could always be improved upon. Just looking around the ‘parenting’ wall of your local bookstore will remind you of this.


But then you have a baby, throwing your body into turmoil and moving into your private space with a ceaseless capacity for presence such that you haven’t experienced in a long, long time. Challenge initiated: Can we exist in a solely physiological state? At least for a while. With his cries of distress and discomfort, with his lack of social interaction, my baby was asking me to meet him there, in the present moment, in the physical world and I was unprepared.


So, I resisted for a while, preferring the life I had built in my mind. I struggled to let go of the image of motherhood I had crafted, mostly without realizing it. I spent precious mental energy wishing away my the pain in my breasts, between my legs, in my aching heart. I felt exhausted, but kept up appearances. I felt overwhelmed, but didn’t want to miss appointments. I fought to hold onto my old life and it just made things harder. Even now, after several months of experiencing the benefits of inhabiting my body, feeling the pain, working my through it, I still don’t always want to acknowledge my body’s limitations. Four months after birth, I’m weak in so many areas. My lack of muscle tone and strength makes once loved activities (yoga, running) much more difficult. It’s not easy to get dressed when my body doesn’t wear the clothes quite the same way as it used to. Still, being present is the goal and Q is holding up his end of the bargain, reminding me of that whenever I forget. He is starting to ‘ask’ for my attention, or for milk, and the more present I am with him, the more responsive, the smoother our days together.


The challenge, in early motherhood and maybe just in life in general, becomes to train the body as I have (somewhat) the mind: That all is as it is, not negative or positive, just present, and ready to be accepted. Being in touch with the physical body helps us to stay wholly present in the moment as it is. And even more importantly, our bodies give us clues to what’s going on in our subconscious levels. If I am holding my breath, it helps to realize and notice the discomfort that caused that state. If I can meet my reality with curiosity, I am able to move through distress more quickly. Furthermore, by noticing, I can consciously begin to breathe again, thus having an impact on my emotional state. This awareness, too, helps us parents understand our little ones, and it may help you understand someone else important in your life. Knowing my own struggle allows me to be compassionate to Q’s ‘minor’ aches and pains, realizing that mine are so painful to me that I cover them with my mind, pretending they don’t matter, so his experience must be similar only he has not developed the capacity to attach, or avoid, to help him deal. And perhaps, in accepting Q’s challenge, I will be able to help him stay in his present a little longer instead of developing these coping mechanisms only to later need to unlearn them when adulthood demands it, like mine eventually did.


Q and I spend all our days together right now, body to body, in my self-imposed maternity leave. We don’t talk, though we certainly communicate. We don’t worry or procrastinate, we just live our days. And some days are loooong. But mostly they are a gift and being here in body and soul is better for him, and me, right now, than tackling the world’s problems with my overused mind. And even when I forget to feel my aches and pains without wishing them away, I try to remember to send good luck vibes to my little Q, hoping I can help him to remain his Buddha-bellied self as best as I can.

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