Dear Dana is a bi-weekly advice column for humans who engage in romantic relationships. Please send your dilemmas, issues, conundrums, assumptions, conflicts, anxieties, worriments, obstacles, complications, predicaments, queries, questions, and any other synonyms for “problems” to email@example.com.
My husband and I have been married for five years, and we are proud new parents of an incredible 6-month-old baby girl. She’s everything I hoped for and more, but as you know, parenting is hard.
I went back to work a couple months ago, and feel like I barely have time to do anything other than work and care for our growing child. So I guess you could say I’ve let myself go a bit since giving birth—my weight and my appearance just aren’t priorities right now.
My husband, however, must think otherwise. For my birthday a few weeks ago, he surprised me with a gym membership. He said it was to help me feel better, but I can’t help but think he misses my pre-baby body.
His “gift” did nothing but make me feel self-conscious and ashamed. What should I do?
Dear New Mom,
New mothers are, on the whole, monstrous creatures. There’s the profuse sweating, the hair falling out, the nails breaking off, the enormous ice-pack-enhanced underwear. After I gave birth, I felt as though all of my beauty had been expelled from my body along with my son. I lived in hoodies, tank tops, and stretchy pants, usually stained, usually chosen because they allowed me to whip out a boob without any effort and to surround my gut with bunches of fabric. I didn’t feel like my pre-baby self, I didn’t look like my pre-baby self, and I felt like I would never again be my pre-baby self.
A few months later, I was managing to brush my hair, but people on the train were still offering me seats and people I hadn’t seen in a while were asking me when I was due. And then I turned 35. I was doing a brief teaching stint at a university in Ohio, and my husband and baby came with. While I taught, my husband went to Target in search of a birthday present that applied to our gift-giving rules: less than $25, thoughtful as fuck. The morning of my birthday, my husband proudly presented me with a large Target bag and told me that it was from both him and baby. It was an inflatable exercise ball.
I had been complaining about wanting to work out more. I had been bemoaning how hard it was to go to the gym with a tiny baby, and how we couldn’t even afford a gym membership. I had been sad about not being able to get into my pre-maternity pants. I had been stating this problem of being at odds with my post-baby body with its new lines and shapes to my husband over and over again. And, while shopping for a present for me, he found a solution. A small piece of exercise equipment so I could start my own home gym.
I looked at the exercise ball and worked to calm my breathing. “Oh!” I said. “Thank you!” I ordered myself to ignore that voice in my head that was screaming, “He wants you thin again! I knew it! This is the worst thing ever! Let’s freak out!” Later, when we were out of the hotel and alone, I told my husband thank you for the present and also the present had hurt my feelings and I hated it and now I was going to cry. I told him this gift reflected back at me what I was most afraid of: I had gained weight, he hated my weight gain, and the weight needed to be lost, which was another on a long list of things to do that I felt wholly unable to accomplish. And his gift, his attempt to help me solve this problem, felt like a nudge. Prioritize this. Work harder. Get that body back.
My husband listened to me, hugged me, nodded his head and said, “That makes sense.” He filed this information away so the next time it’s my birthday and he’s in the exercise equipment section of Target he’ll move on through without stopping. And I did use the exercise ball a few times, though most of its use came from our son running after it and squealing.
As soon as a celebrity woman is pregnant, she immediately pens a deal to sell her “How I Got My Body Back” story to a magazine. And these stories fill me with such rage because: Can’t society give women an hour in which to just be fat and cool with it? The idea of getting your body back is bullshit. You body doesn’t leave you during pregnancy. It doesn’t go anywhere that requires you to chase it down and retrieve it. “Get your body back,” is bullshit that really means “get your attractiveness back,” which really means, “get your overly thin adolescent magazine model body back so you may be more palatable to the social gaze.” Because your body isn’t your body, it’s something for other people to look at and evaluate and, hopefully, appreciate.
Open letter to your husband: That was a really bad gift. Terrible. The worst. You completely biffed it and now need to, in some way, convey to your wife that you and your boner are completely enthralled with her post-baby body and I don’t know what that looks like for your relationship but lots of oral sex will help if you need an idea. I’m assuming that you didn’t mean to imply that your wife needs to lose weight so your boner will enjoy her more. I’m assuming that you aren’t privileging your boner over your wife’s happiness and sense of self. I’m assuming that you realize that her body has never been yours and therefore the baby didn’t take it away from you. I’m assuming that you didn’t mean anything negative by getting your wife the gym membership. Unless you did, in which case: Go out and get a gym membership for your soul.
Back to “New Mom”: He probably didn’t mean anything negative. Probably, you casually mentioned that you want to get back into shape. Probably, he picked up on the cues and bought what he thought was a nice gift. Probably, he also has no idea what he’s doing and is completely lost and sleep deprived and just wants to help you be a titch happier and more relaxed so he can be a titch happier and more relaxed because that’s how relationships work.
I now have a gym membership and I use the shit out of it. Not just because it offers free daycare (this was one of the single best pieces of new mom advice I received: Everyone with a baby, get a gym membership that comes with daycare and watch your life improve like 75% overnight). But because, when I’m there, I get to be blissfully alone for 30-60 minutes. I can’t think about things I should be doing around the house or my email. I am tethered to a machine that makes me move and so I move. I pump my arms and legs and I sweat and I watch trashy TV and it’s physically uncomfortably and I hate it and hate it but then, around 15 minutes in, the endorphins kick in and suddenly I can run so fast forever and I never want or need to stop. And when it’s over I’m so sweaty sticky tired, but in a glorious achy way. I leave the gym happier than I was when I walked in.
Talk to your husband, and tell him why we don’t give each other body-improvement presents as gifts. Because as a partner, it is his job to love your body—it built and then pushed a child into the world and has an erotic value far beyond the narrowness of its circumference. Creating life isn’t that pregnancy glow followed by tiny baby socks. It is your entire body expanding, becoming unhinged, unwieldy, growing and surging and pulling until there’s pushing and tearing and you, suddenly alone, still you, but different.
Go to the gym. Not because you need the scale to say a certain number or you need a certain pair of pants to fit. Go because you’re a new mom and you need to take care of yourself too, right now, before it’s 23 years from now and you realize you haven’t done a goddamn thing for yourself in two decades. Carve out a little sliver of time in the week and go to the gym and be, just for a moment, alone in your glorious new body, which has always been yours and has always been right here.
Dana Norris once went on 71 internet dates, many of which you may read about here. She is the founder of Story Club and editor-in-chief of Story Club Magazine. She has been featured in McSweeney’s, Role Reboot, The Rumpus, and Tampa Review and she teaches at StoryStudio Chicago. You may find her on Twitter at @dananorris.