This is Portrait of the Artist as a New Parent, a monthly column by Catherine LaSota on the challenges of living in New York as an artist and first-time mother.
Throughout my young adulthood, I was blessed with a fast metabolism. While I wasn’t the unhealthiest eater in the world, I could sock away the occasional bag of candy or a few cocktails without gaining extra pounds. I went to the gym off and on, but there was no need to make exercise a regular habit to maintain my low body weight and slim shape. I was lucky to have an easier life because, with little effort, I fulfilled commonly accepted standards of beauty; like many twentysomething young women, I didn’t know enough to appreciate my luck at the time.
I understand that youth and beauty are not requirements for a creative career—far from it—but there is no denying that our society favors such bodies. In my younger years, I now realize, I was creating a life and even an artistic practice that relied, in part, on my looks.
From 2001 to 2005, I worked as a bartender at a neighborhood place, one of those Brooklyn establishments that open at noon and close at 4:00 a.m. every day. It was always filled with reliable regulars. There were fifteen beers on tap, over forty kinds of single malt Scotch, and six bartenders on the staff, all women who worked solo shifts. I worked the 8:00 p.m. to 4:00 a.m. slot on my own four nights a week. I wore skimpy tank tops with spaghetti straps, aware that an attractive woman pouring a beer can garner more tips from customers, who may or may not be hoping to get into her pants. I felt good in my body, and it showed. I carried myself confidently and enjoyed the power I had in that space.
During this time, I was making artwork that incorporated my own body. I would set up a video camera aimed on my face and draw on myself with an eyeliner pencil, staring stone-faced at the lens, daring the viewer to challenge my authority. I remember that I had one professor who discussed these artworks with me while I was working on my MFA. This professor, a well-known feminist artist and critic, admonished me to consider the role that my attractiveness played in my work, to be aware of this as I moved forward in my career. She pointed me to Carolee Schneeman , whose artwork in the 1960s and 1970s incorporated her own youthful naked body in her commentaries on sexuality and gender. When a fellow young female artist and I worked on a collaborative project that addressed catcalling, this same professor challenged us to be mindful that our project was very much dependent on our youth, that not all physical types of women are catcalled in the same manner or with the same frequency. She reminded me that I needed to be aware of my material—my physical self—and its perception by the world, and how that might change with time.
I tucked away my professor’s thoughts in my brain. I heard her words, but they didn’t mean much to me then. How could they? I was in my physical prime and hadn’t yet experienced any sagging, wrinkles, or unwanted fat. My body was fit and highly functional; I was able to stand on my feet for eight-hour stretches during my bartending shifts, chase misbehaving customers out of the bar, and run up and down stairs several times a night to fetch ice and change out kegs. My body was not just trim and conventionally sexy; it was highly capable of physical labor.
When I became pregnant in late 2015, I came to appreciate the strength of my body once again. I took part in prenatal Pilates classes as my belly grew, noticing in my ninth and tenth months that I was holding plank position with considerably more ease than women whose pregnant bellies had not even popped yet.
I had a very healthy pregnancy—a strong baby heartbeat and no effect to my blood pressure throughout. When it finally came time to eject my little bundle of joy from my body, I was able to push through a natural four-day labor that brought my son into the world sixteen days after his due date. As I experienced childbirth, I felt connected to and grateful for my physical self. But the moment that I became a mother, as I held my son for the first time, turned out to be the last moment that I recognized my own body.
As the oxytocin in my system wore off following the delivery of my child, and as I attempted walking like an able-bodied person, I realized that my middle had turned to jelly. As much as I willed my body to put one foot in front of the other in quick succession, I felt like I was swimming through wet sand. My once tight and strong abdominal muscles had stretched to accommodate my shifting organs and expanding uterus, making way for the next generation but leaving themselves useless to me following birth.
The reality of my new body hit me especially hard upon my discharge from the hospital. Even though I had birthed a nine-pound five-ounce baby, a placenta, and a large garbage bag of blood, I weighed only one pound less when I headed home than I had when I’d entered the hospital several days before. My body had retained fluid from an IV placed in my arm for the last twelve hours of my labor, and over the course of my first few days at home as a mother, I pissed out about twenty pounds of fluid. At least half of this fluid left my body not in a controlled way, but spontaneously onto the floor as I walked down the hallway.
I would argue that getting back into one’s work following pregnancy is not just about accepting your new identity as a parent and the new demands on your time, but also about accepting the realities of your new body.
I began to wonder how much of my creative output was connected to my physical confidence. After my son was born, I felt a creative surge. My desire to write and make things jumped up after the awesome accomplishment of creating a human. The changes to my life and my identity were pushing me to explore my thoughts in words. The problem was, I didn’t have the energy to write. In those early weeks, when my baby’s life was a series of irregular naps interspersed with eating and pooping, I needed to take any free moment I had to make sure I ate a meal, to maintain my energy for the job of keeping a small helpless human alive, and to keep up my physical reserves for breastfeeding.
Speaking of breasts: What had happened to mine? We opted for sleep training with our son when he was just two and half months old, and—lucky us—it worked. However, once he started sleeping through the night, my milk supply, not being used as frequently, began to dry up. By the time our son was four months old, he had completely transitioned to formula. (Not our initial plan, but parenthood is nothing if not a series of diversions from plans.) My stretched-out, formerly life-giving breasts had deflated. When I was wearing a shirt and bra, no one could tell much of a difference between my pre- and post-pregnancy chest, but at home or in the dressing room mirror, I saw two droopy pancakes reflected back at me. Between pissing on the floor and flopping breasts, early motherhood wasn’t doing much to help me feel sexy.
The physical changes weren’t just the ones I could see. I dealt with the weakening of my pelvic floor, which is not something that I had heard much about before becoming a parent, though it affects so many. For me, a weakened pelvic floor means I need to keep a constant supply of pantiliners onhand, especially if I will be in a situation that will find me coughing or laughing a lot. I like to laugh. I don’t like to wet my pants. Unfortunately, lack of bladder control is something I sometimes share with my baby.
I always make sure to take a trip to the toilet before exercising, as I am destined to pee on myself every time I go for a jog or do a round of jumping jacks, and I like to limit the damage. My bladder is like that of a dog: Even when I think it’s empty, it’s always holding onto a bit of urine for marking purposes. I just end up marking myself instead of signposts and fire hydrants.
A few months after my son’s birth, I became fed up with the extra fifteen pounds that I just couldn’t seem to lose, and I attempted my first post-pregnancy run. A couple of blocks into my run, I had the sensation that my rear end was sweating like never before, and I grinned at the miracle of exercise to shed pounds. At a quick rest stop halfway through my run, however, I learned that I was mistaken, and that it was not sweat that was soaking through my shorts and running down my legs. I finished my run anyway—it was dark out and I was wearing black shorts, and it felt good, at least, to be able to use my body in a somewhat familiar way.
Friends told me that I looked great, that I looked the same. But I didn’t feel the same. My hips were not going back to their original width, and I still cannot pull a single pair of pants from before my pregnancy past the middle of my sturdy thighs. (Pregnancy and motherhood, if nothing else, strengthened my legs with constant squatting and lifting, first with a large belly and then holding a fast-growing baby.)
My own perception of my body had become so different from how my friends saw me, and this realization led me to question how I defined myself: through others’ views of me, or through my own view of myself? I found that I had a renewed desire to dive into art to find answers, or at least to learn how to live with the questions.
My body is my conduit for experiencing the world, and my job as an artist is to examine and share these experiences. Changes to my body meant I had to relearn how to process my sensory connection to my environment, but it also means that I am lucky enough to have the opportunity to experience the world, to a degree, with more than one body in my lifetime. I now have a before-and-after to explore, not only in terms of being a woman in her thirties both without and with a child, but also as a woman who feels sexy in her body versus a woman who is trying to figure out how her body works again. Talk about a rich well of material for my creative life.
As I learn about my new mom body, I am looking for ways to feel physically confident again, while also doing what I can to eliminate the post-pregnancy roll on my lower abdomen, a place for sweat collection that didn’t exist on me prior to motherhood. To that end, I started kickboxing classes a few weeks ago. It turns out that kickboxing is a popular sport for new moms. My instructor assures me that several of her new mom students leave for the restroom mid-class to relieve their bladders, or wear protection to prevent accidents, and the other moms in the class show me that it can take time to feel like yourself again after having a child, and that’s okay.
Through kickboxing, I’m learning how to feel powerful in my body again. It’s not the same kind of power that I had as a slim twentysomething bartender holding court and chasing non-paying customers, but it’s just as potent. In class, I’m jab-cross-uppercut-left-hooking my way to dominating a bag, but I can project whatever I want onto that bag: frustration at my lost body, tired arguments with my spouse, even any lingering walls I’ve set up in my creative life.
I’m still figuring out how living in a post-pregnancy body while mothering a baby boy affects my view on the world and my perspective in my art. What I already know for certain is that I am lucky to experience so many changes in my life, including the physical ones, because this can only expand my capacity for empathy with my fellow humans, which enriches not only my art, but my entire life.