On our tenth wedding anniversary, I dig a few old photos of my husband and myself out of plastic boxes to share with our girls. I like to remind them that we were people before we were Mama and Daddy. There’s one that makes me laugh out loud — from our first big vacation together, two years after we met: ten days in Mexico, traveling by bus from Mexico City along La Costa Esmeralda, then to Oaxaca to meet friends. It’s printed on cheap photo paper, corners of the image peeling off, a date of 9/10/2009 in the right-hand corner. We were on the beach in Veracruz, and a photographer was wandering around offering to take and print photos. I wanted a souvenir. We were facing west during that golden glowing hour just before sunset — the kind of light that makes everyone look gorgeous — the waves behind us, ankle deep in warm salt water.
The photo is ludicrously overexposed. My face looks bronze — literally like polished metal — and Will’s white chest is nearly translucent, any definition or trace of his nipples and abs totally washed out. We howled with laughter when we got it; it looks like I am vacationing with a ghost. I show it to my daughters, assuming they will see what I see and we can all laugh at Daddy.
Instead Noli takes one look at it and says, “Mama, did you get fat?”
I want to hide, to disintegrate into the mattress we are all lying on. I only have a second to decide what to do.
“Yeah, Mama, your belly got real fat,” agrees Ligaya. “Yup,” I say, feigning nonchalance. “Bodies change, sometimes they get bigger or fatter, sometimes they get smaller. It doesn’t really matter what our bodies look like, though — what matters is that they keep us alive. I think mine is doing a good job.” I know this is true, just as I know I am saying this to myself as much as them. Can they tell?
“Mama’s exactly right,” Will chimes in. I am grateful for this, even as I resent his body, which is as lean and wiry as it was the day we met.
“Yeah, you definitely got fatter,” says Noli. “But I like your fat belly because it’s squishy and kind of like a pillow.”
I want to be humiliated by this, if only because it would feel familiar. Trying out new feelings with these small people I made, who I am responsible for guiding, feels like growth, which is so uncomfortable, even though I’ve imagined a moment like this and hoped I could rise to the occasion.
“Well, my belly has only gotten bigger since I grew you two in there,” I say. The truth is that my whole body seems to have gotten bigger over the last decade, as has my appetite. I still don’t have full sensation in my lower abdomen, the result of two C-sections. When I gave birth to Ligaya, I spent nearly an hour shaking and shivering uncontrollably (normal, I was told) as a very meticulous obstetrician removed all of the scar tissue from my first surgery (apparently there was a lot) before sewing me together. The fundamental shape of my midsection has morphed from tapered at the waist to something rectangular and vaguely refrigerator-shaped. It seems that this weighty area of my body will always be slightly numb, and I deal with this mostly by trying to be numb about it too. But my children force me to see it, and to see it differently.
I look down at my stomach. It is fat. I’ve done a good job, though, I think. To my girls, fat is just fat, an adjective. It’s only me who brings judgment to it. Suddenly, before I can ruin the moment by speaking, they are on me, kissing my stomach, resting their faces on it, petting it, squealing.
“My only Mama, my squishy Mama,” Noli sings. Ligaya blows raspberries that make me laugh and gasp for air. They catch me off guard, get me out of my head. In this moment I am delighted to be in my body — this soft, scarred, miraculous, confounding, life-giving body.
Excerpt from Essential Labor by Angela Garbes. Copyright © 2022 by Angela Garbes. Published by Harper Wave, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. Reprinted by permission.
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