Our baby was beautiful, perfect, and just days old. And I was broken.
The first morning at home after the hospital, I emerged bleary-eyed from my bedroom with the baby in the same ragged cotton nightie I’d be wearing that evening at bedtime. It smelled sourly of the milk that seeped out of me every time my daughter cried, soaking my clothing and making my skin sticky.
My hair was greasy and tangled. I hadn’t worn makeup in days. My hips and joints ached from giving birth, and when I had to get up, I hobbled, bent-over, on chubby, swollen legs.
My taut pregnancy bump was gone, and in its place was a limp and drooping belly seamed with angry red and purple stretch marks. I hated those stretch marks most of all: Every time I saw them in the mirror, I was reminded that my pre-pregnancy body, and those swimsuits I wore on my honeymoon, were a thing of the past. I felt like a piece of torn and crumpled gift-wrap, unappealing and useless after the treasure inside had been retrieved.
As I took stock of the damage, I was surprised to feel not just disappointed, but guilty. This post-partum version of myself barely resembled the person that Ben, my husband, had married two years before. I had at least a sense of the changes that might happen to my body when we decided to have a baby, but I wasn’t sure he did. Did he sign up for this?
Sagging, stretched-out, sore, exhausted, and dozens of pounds overweight, I felt inferior to my strong, handsome husband—unattractive and unlovable.
“I’m sorry,” I whispered as we sat together on the sofa, cradling our daughter. “My body is trashed.”
Ben looked steadily into my eyes, holding my gaze for a long minute so I knew he was sincere.
“None of that matters,” he said. “To me, you’re beautiful. I love you more than I ever have now that you’re a mother, and I have a feeling I will love you even more as time passes.”
As he held me close, I realized I had never doubted Ben’s love. He had never made me feel insecure about how I looked or given me reason to question how he felt about me. Instead, it was my own pride that made me ashamed of myself. In previous relationships and even in my early days with Ben, before I knew better, I was happiest when I felt that the scales were tipped slightly in my favor. I wanted to be the worthiest member of the couple—the smartest, most appealing, and most deserving of love. I liked to know where I stood and to be sure I was the one being pursued, not the other way around. When it comes to love, I’ve always liked to feel that I was earning my keep.
It turns out the concept of unconditional love is much easier to handle when you don’t believe that you need to be on the receiving end. It’s humbling and a little scary to be that vulnerable and to feel you can’t earn the love you need. Ben and I both promised each other “for better or for worse,” but I never wanted to be the one to put that promise to the test.
But at the same time, being wrapped up in that love when I felt I needed it most was overwhelming in the best sense. I felt safe and treasured and whole, even though I was physically at my most broken.
As I look at my tiny daughter, so new to a world full of insecurities and standards that will make her question her own value many times, I hope I can shelter her with that same unconditional love and tenderness. “I love you more now than I did when you were born,” I will tell her some day. “And I have a feeling I will love you even more as time passes.”