Mothers Are Keepers of Bodies

Friday, March 24, 2017 - 5:00 am

Mothers Are Keepers of Bodies

To be a mother is to be a keeper of bodies.

It starts first thing in the morning. I hear the happy little yelps of my seven-month-old and drag myself out of bed and down the hall. (There is nothing better, by the way, than my baby’s face in the morning when she first recognizes that I’ve come for her. The smile that spreads across her face is worth all the labor pains and more.)

I curl up with her in the big yellow chair in the corner of the room and she nurses, making satisfied little sighs as she chugs this magical milk that I still can’t really fathom is actually produced by my body. When she’s gotten her fill, I change her diaper and delight in her chubby little legs kicking. I check for diaper rash. If she has any, I apply a little bit of the cream that, after much trial and error, we have figured out does the trick. If her nose is stuffed, I use that bizarre contraption invented by the Swedes to suck her snot out. I feel a weird sense of satisfaction if I get a lot.

Then the other one wakes up: “Momma, it’s morning!” She yells this each and every morning. Without fail. I open the door and try to match her exuberance as I sit on the edge of her bed and pull her into my lap for our ritual morning hug. I smell her. I rub her back. I revel in the warmth of her little body when it’s just past sleep. I ask her about her dreams. She is convinced they are directly related to what she’s worn that night. She’s long rejected all pajamas; she will only wear dresses. So if she’s worn the purple owl dress, she dreams about owls. If she’s worn the red dress with the big gold bow on the front, she dreams about bows (as boring as that sounds).

After a good, long hug, I set her to stand on the ground and take her diaper off (she only wears one for naps and nights these days). Then she chooses a new outfit for the day and I help her step into her undies, pull on her pants, and put a new dress over her head. I grab her water bottle and make sure she has Baby Bunny (arguably the most important member of our family, at this point) as we head downstairs to make breakfast and get ready for preschool.

There are so many ways that mothering has transformed me, but I often feel like there has been no more important shift than this: It brought me back into my own body after years of mostly living in my head, and it also made me responsible for other bodies in a permanent and profound way.

Some of this is sweet — my baby’s chubby hand reaching, reaching, reaching for me while she nurses, my toddler’s little bum running through the house after a bath. If human beings need a certain quotient of tactile pleasure in a day, I can only imagine I exceed it by huge margins. I never lack for touch. There is usually a warm little body within arm’s reach. We make up yoga poses (ocean pose is particularly hard and beautiful) and play ball and build little towers of soft blocks for Stella that she proudly knocks down. We tumble onto one another and apply so many unnecessary band-aids and “I am not a yummy dinner!” my toddler screams as I bury my face in her neck and make her giggle.

Some of this is foul — the never ending shit and piss and puke. I can actually catch vomit in my hand quite proficiently after three years of practice. A smear of poop on my hand doesn’t faze me in the least. Objectively, I understand this is gross, but as I’m wiping my daughter’s butt for the thousandth time, it doesn’t occur to me to be grossed out. It’s as much a part of my day as checking my email or getting dressed. Even more important. I am the keeper of their bodies, so I do what these bodies need in order to continue thriving. It’s not a choice or a burden. In that way, I guess it’s more like breathing.

If these bodies get sick, my entire life has a patina on it. I go about my day, do what I need to do, but always I am aware of these bodies ailing and what I can do to support them to get better. I get more information about their bodies than I ever have or would my own. I revel in their Wolverine-like capacity to heal — a scraped knee scabs over and the scab falls off in what sometimes seems like a matter of hours, while my own body holds on to its wounds longer and longer.

Now that I have loved and cared for two bodies like this, I can’t help but reflect on my own. I can’t help but be astonished that my own mother knew my body this intimately, that she wiped and researched and reveled in it. My body, this form that I have often neglected, at rare times hated, and sometimes, though not enough, enjoyed — my mom first studied its idiosyncrasies, basked in its tiny warmth, healed it. She originated it and she protected it. And now I do this most sensual and necessary of things for my girls.

That intimacy is one of the most challenging and elemental of the human experience and it often goes unacknowledged. I write these words to simply acknowledge it. Mothers are keepers of bodies. They’re not perfect. Sometimes they fail to protect their babies. But often they succeed. And it is a heroic effort, an unceasing miracle of sorts, hiding in plain sight.

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is a columnist for On Being. Her column appears every Friday.

Her newest book, The New Better Off: Reinventing the American Dream, explores how people are redefining the American dream (think more fulfillment, community, and fun, less debt, status, and stuff). Courtney is the co-founder of the Solutions Journalism Network and a strategist for the TED Prize. She is also co-founder and partner at Valenti Martin Media and FRESH Speakers Bureau, and editor emeritus at

Courtney has authored/edited five books, including Do It Anyway: The New Generation of Activists, and Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters: How the Quest for Perfection is Harming Young Women. Her work appears frequently in The New York Times and The Washington Post. Courtney has appeared on the TODAY Show, Good Morning America, MSNBC, and The O’Reilly Factor, and speaks widely at conferences and colleges. She is the recipient of the Elie Wiesel Prize in Ethics and a residency from the Rockefeller Foundation’s Bellagio Centre. She lives with her partner in life and work, John Cary, in Oakland, and their daughters Maya and Stella. Read more about her work at

Share Your Reflection


  • Gabby

    As a mother of three children, all grown now, I know all these experiences well and smile to think of what you will experience and learn as those infancies move into childhoods and later stages. May you savor being a shepherd of the ever-blooming. I, though, have never considered any part heroic
    I wonder how similar the feelings may be of the avid gardener, with that constant very tactile contact with the earth and the life brought forth from it. Of course there the shepherding over shorter life cycles is prominent, as it is too for the parent or keeper of non-human animals. (For a real treat, one can see now on the website of the Cincinnati Zoo the 101 pound preemie hippopotamus napping as it always does, on its zookeepers, its temporary parents, the constant tenders of its actually, if not apparently, delicate preemie body. There are photos too of how they helped the baby swallow before the swallowing reflex set in and of constant and beautiful physical care).

  • Rikha Sharma Rani

    I have the most amazing video of me holding on to my mother while in labor with my first daughter, My arms are around her neck, hers around my waist. She is very, very slowly walking backward–me mirroring her every step–toward the bathtub (I hoped it would relieve some of the pain). That video came to mind when I read this. I’m the keeper of two little bodies now, but my mother is still the keeper of mine, as that video so beautifully shows.

    • Missy Marie Schultz


  • Thank you for this reflection. As I age, I am aware of returning the favor of caring for my parents body when they cannot. I could not understand how my brothers could not do this for our parents. Your piece made me consider how motherhood prepared me to not be grossed out when my parents needed me to take care of them also. So amazing.

  • Pamela Chaney

    So, when I read just your tweet, Courtney, about “seeing” us, the wipers and vomit catchers, I unexpectedly burst into tears. Real, ugly tears. You’ve captured something primordial and profound that I did – now long ago – nearly every hour of every day for years. Much gratitude, dear friend.

  • Barb

    My 17 yr old daughter just spent a night in the hospital and I couldn’t leave her side. Having been an RN many years ago, I know what can happen in hospitals. The whole experience brought to mind a time in my pregnancy when I needed to take some medication and a friend (also former RN) helped me look through the PDR (drug manual) for the safest ones. When I met with the doctor, I had my list and he was willing to go with my choices even though they weren’t his first choices. So from pregnancy through almost adulthood, I feel like a mother bear, protecting my daughter from harm when she’s most vulnerable. Even though I stayed awake all night watching over her in the ER, I came away feeling great. I realized that I was proud of successfully being the mother bear in keeping her body and psyche safe.

  • Brooke Sillings Bagan

    beautifully poignant.

  • Pam

    Such a sweet, true article. And now, as a mother of an adult child, I am the keeper of my own mother’s body. The cycle of life.

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  • Tarra Hassin

    Courtney, I found this today, the day after I tried to catch my son’s vomit in my hand. In the hallway of his big sister’s school, he created a huge pool of goop under his stroller, a geyser I could have never contained, not even with two hands. I tried not to laugh, knowing that I had to act horrified and embarrased, for the sake of the other parents, the principal, the custodian, and my daughter. But, my son is seven years old, and he has so many challenges. So many years of managing and cleaning up his vomit, poop, pee, snot– along with all the food we put into him through his g-tube– it takes a lot to faze me anymore. I relished my own calm as I looked down at my hand, which was covered in alien-like slime, and no towels or trashcans in sight. For others, this may have been the worst part of their week. For me, it didn’t even merit a Facebook mention. Mothering for me is so much of what you wrote… I have just had an extended and oversized dose of it.

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  • Sharon

    So beautiful, Courtney. Thank you.

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