Re-membering the Body

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about bodies, probably mostly because I’m a new mom and I’m still trying to wrap my mind around what just happened to my own body. One minute it was there, familiar and reliable, and the next it was gone! Now, two months after our son’s birth, I’m starting to see the remnants of my old waistline returning, even as I’m slowly gathering my wits back about me enough to be able to think, albeit tentatively, about the body’s place in this world.

One thing I’ve realized is that, while my body has served me fairly well over the years, it has never struck me as particularly noteworthy or exemplary–it isn’t going to win me any Olympic medals or beauty pageants, that’s for sure, and one day (hopefully a long time from now) it’s guaranteed to poop out altogether. Like most people’s bodies, it has its good moments and its not-so-good moments, times when it really shines and other times when it’s just downright needy, smelly, messy, sick, or otherwise unwieldy. Bodies are a complicated business, as any medical doctor will readily attest, and I for one have always been perfectly happy to leave them to the experts to worry about. I prefer instead to devote my energies to searching out the “deeper,” “inner,” even “spiritual” aspects of human experience. Call me a dualist, a gnostic, or whatever term seems to fit–these are my tendencies, and I would guess that I’m not alone.

Wendell Berry is one author whose thoughts on the body are compelling to me and challenging to the dominant cultural patterns. In “The Body and the Earth,” he contends that “our bodies have become marginal. . . . After the games and idle flourishes of modern youth, we use them only as shipping cartons to transport our brains and our few employable muscles back and forth to work.” We use our bodies to accomplish what we perceive as the “real” work of our lives, and sometimes (I would add) we use them to deliver a dose of hard-earned pleasure or relaxation, but mostly we’d rather not be bothered by them.

For me, though, something about becoming a mother has started to change my thinking about my body, and about bodies in general. Maybe it has to do with the simple fact that my journey to motherhood began quite literally with the body–two bodies, to be exact–and entailed a degree of physical transformation unlike any I’ve ever experienced. The role of the body in this process can’t possibly be ignored. Having a small bit of hindsight under my belt now, I can look back and see a few of the points along the way when my awareness of and respect for my body began to increase.

For example, I remember early on, probably in my seventh or eighth week of pregnancy, realizing that my body was no longer my own, that it was now not only inhabited by but also ruled by a tiny organism that could affect unmistakable and immediate changes in my day-to-day existence–the kinds of changes that left me immobile in the recliner, munching salted crackers like they were manna that I didn’t want but desperately needed.

I remember too, as the swell of my belly grew rounder and rounder, wondering how in the world my skin could continue to stretch to accommodate this growing new life and whether it would ever go back to “normal” (silly me!). I could hardly imagine where my organs would find the necessary room to do what they needed to do, as this greedy little interloper was snatching up all the available real estate.

Then as the first twinges of our son’s movements pressed themselves into perception, I distinctly recall battling sudden onslaughts of physical anxiety, a sort of reverse claustrophobia that left me breathless and panicked, like I was trapped in a room with no doors or windows. How was it possible that a miniature human being did back strokes in my uterus while I sped along the I-96 corridor on my way to just another day at the office? I could hardly fathom it, and it was only because I felt the reality of it inside me that I knew it was true.

Yet it wasn’t until the waning hours of pregnancy, the in-between time when the life that was inside me began to make his way out, that I saw clearly how complicated, messy, and unwieldy the body really is–and how truly amazing it is in its complexity. With its gushing fluids, its unrelenting waves of pain, and its capacity to stretch across vast distances to make way for emerging life, the body commands respect by simply doing what it was made to do in that sacred moment when body begets body.

And now, in these early weeks as parent and provider, my body has gotten swept into new rhythms of feeding and nurturing, new patterns of waking and sleeping (mostly waking!), and a new way of learning that involves my hands more than my head. It’s a messy business, this work of being a body that is both dependent on and responsible for other bodies. But it’s a beautiful mess, I’d have to say, one that I’m happy to be caught up in and eager to be shaped by.

Arika Theule-Van Dam is a wife, a mother, and a project editor for Baker Academic and Brazos Press in Grand Rapids, Michigan.