Worth A Thousand Words
There are three weeks between the end of April and mid-May that I like to call The Trifecta of Emotion, also known as Basketcase Season or Here Come the Waterworks. The Trifecta is kicked off by Gioia’s birthday, followed a week later by Luna’s birthday, followed a week after that by Mother’s Day. Unsurprisingly it is during this period that I am an exposed nerve of maternal sentimentality, prone to bouts of weepy nostalgia and tender reflection. There’s a great deal of poring over baby photos, re-reading of old journal entries, and staring creepily at my children as they eat or sleep.
This year I found myself thinking a lot about when I was pregnant with them, and in particular with Luna. It was truly an indescribably wondrous time - a time when I felt the most grounded, the most fulfilled, and the most comfortable in my own skin. And all of that was an entirely new sensation for me. Like many women I had spent much of my life harboring a host of criticisms and lamentations over my perceived physical shortcomings, but during that pregnancy, for the first time in my life, I had nothing but unmitigated awe, respect, and gratitude for my body. It was glorious, and I swanned around in a state of blissful appreciation both for the wonder of biology and the knowledge that I didn't have to suck in for 9.5 months.
A few months before my due date, my friend Jana Williams - photographer extraordinaire and the loveliest Southern belle you could hope to meet - asked if I’d let her shoot some maternity photos as her gift to me. On any other occasion, being the sole subject of a photography session would be about as appealing to me as a root canal, but in the midst of my newfound sense of empowerment and a desire to document my pregnancy for posterity, I accepted her offer. I hadn’t taken any of the requisite “progress photos” many expectant mothers do, and had nearly no other pictures of me pregnant; I loved the idea of having some tangible keepsake of the fleeting time I had carrying my first child, and the trust and affection I had for the gal on the other side of the camera only made the prospect sweeter.
Still, when I showed up to Jana’s house a few weeks later for the photo shoot I was jangling with nerves. For the first time in months I felt vulnerable and shy, and many of my usual hang-ups began creeping out of the shadows at the idea of having my body in such sharp focus (pun intended). While Jana and I chatted and looked through the clothes I had brought for the shoot, I tried vainly to calm the chatter in my head - the familiar, unkind voices hissing the usual venom that I was unattractive, that the pictures would be unflattering, that I was vain and foolish for wanting them in the first place.
I suppose all that time spent looking through a lens at people’s faces has made Jana particularly sensitive to their mental state, because she paused and looked thoughtfully at me, and asked if I was ok.
Have you ever been in the throes of some intense emotion and you’re doing a fairly decent job of keeping it together, but then someone innocently shows some concern and to your horror you feel the floodgates busting open? Yessiree Bob. I was in imminent danger of losing my cool and devolving into a blubbering mess on her floor, so I employed the good ole fix-your-gaze-on-a-light-fixture-and-blink-rapidly technique of avoiding catastrophic crying, and managed to simply say that I felt self-conscious. She nodded knowingly, put her hand on mine, and said the following:
“Women are beautiful. Our bodies are beautiful. Having a baby is a miracle, and it should be celebrated.”
Talk about an aha moment. To this day I don’t think I’ve ever told Jana how much of an impact those words had on me, but I felt the truth of them immediately and absolutely. I didn’t want these photos to be colored by my self-doubt and anxiety. I wanted them to be exactly what she suggested they be: a celebration of the miracle that was my baby, and of the beauty and power of my body as it nurtured and held her. I wanted to be able to look back on them and remember the feel of my child within me. I read an article recently where the author wrote that she used to look at a photo of her pregnant mother cradling her big belly, and that she loved imagining herself curled up in there. I wanted that for my child, too. And for once I wanted to give myself permission to feel nothing but unapologetic confidence and pride.
So I resolutely banished my demons and I sashayed my way into that photo shoot with all the boldness and self-love I could muster. And for my first outfit, I chose a dress my mother had worn when she was pregnant with me over 4 decades ago. She had given it to me years earlier, well before I was even married, but I had never worn it for fear of destroying it - the fabric is an impossibly diaphanous silk held together by lace that has frayed with age, and the waist & shoulders have the telltale crackle of elastic that has stretched its last stretch. But I brought that dress out for one last day in the sun, because the romantic in me saw the poeticism of my mom having worn it while carrying her baby, and that baby growing up and wearing it while carrying her own. It made me feel even more rooted in feminine power, a mantle passed down with the previous wearer’s blessings imbued in its very fibers.
Jana and I spent hours together that day, and a few weeks later she sent me a disc with the finished photos. I giggled at the alien sight of my tummy in all its swollen glory, and marveled at all the other changes in my body that were probably imperceptible to others but glaringly obvious to me...the exaggerated curve of my spine, the flare of my hips, the set of my feet. But mostly I smiled at the unmistakable peace and contentment in my expression, one that I don’t believe had been captured before or since.
So, in a reckless display of the power of The Trifecta of Emotion, and in the spirit of sisterhood for all the mothers being fêted this weekend, I am sharing those images for the first time outside of my family and small, trusted circle of girlfriends. Here’s to the miracle of life, to the bond between mother and child, and to the hope that someday my daughters will dust that dress off and hear the whispers of their mother and grandmother: “You are beautiful. Your body is beautiful. You were a miracle, and we celebrated you.”
photos by Jana Williams