Doubting that I was alone, I began asking my friends about their bodies. Turns out, every mom I talked to lives with physical challenges or changes as a result of motherhood. Some of them are relatively minor like darker nipples, tired-looking eyes, cesarean scars, a belly button piercing that now looks like "exploding volcano," or a butt that seemed to mysteriously and permanently drop two inches after the baby was born.
But others are more serious. On the first stride of her first run after delivering her third baby (a sweet girl who arrived sunny side up), Rebecca peed on herself. The cause: a prolapsed bladder. According to WebMd, this means that her bladder now "droops" down into her vagina. Until she has a bladder-holding sling surgically implanted, Rebecca will continue to have incontinence problems. "I'd take stretch marks over this any day," she said.
Other women had more painful tales, which could easily be described as horror stories. My best friend tore from "hole to hole" (an incident so common that there is a medical term to describe it) during the 42 hours it took to deliver her 11-pound son. The reconstruction was so intense that the doctor wouldn't, or couldn't, tell her how many stitches she needed. And one of my family members needed a catheter for weeks after delivering her first baby, who had the largest head of any infant born in that hospital.
Most maternal wounds fade with time, but others will require life-long care. Michelle got gestational diabetes that didn't go away. Two other friends contracted Hashimoto's—an autoimmune disease that requires daily hormone treatment and/or extreme diet restrictions for life. These three women all had daughters, and they may someday face similar problems of their own.
None of these are extreme tales. We are not pioneer women. None of us had 15-pound babies, and not one of us delivered our children in India, where 56,000 women die during childbirth every year. Instead, these are just a few of the stories that the women I care about shared with me over coffee or play dates.
Perhaps not-so-surprisingly, every friend said her body was different after becoming a mom. And even those who didn't give birth to their babies had stories to tell. One with a bad back insightfully noted, "There's nothing ergonomic about being a parent."
After these conversations, I believe that nearly every mother lives with some condition that those who aren't mothers never contemplate or celebrate. Turns out, we are all mama soldiers returning from the battlefields of life-creation. And like most stories from the frontlines, the physical scars inevitably stir genuine emotions and sentimentality that those greeting cards fall far short of replicating.
For example, Shireen started sobbing when she told me that seeing her stretch marks in the mirror keeps her feeling connected to her mom, who tragically died of cancer before the birth of her two grandsons. "I remember asking [my mom] about the marks on her belly when I was a kid," she said. "She told me that she loved them because they reminded her of me and of what a miracle it is that someone as special as me could come from her. Before, I thought she was just saying that, but now I really understand. I used to have a six-pack, but now my belly is round. I am okay with what I look like. My belly makes me think of my boys, my scars make me think of my mom, and they both make me feel connected to all mothers in a small way. I love that."