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The On Being Project

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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