This month, we're inspired by our Sewn Words activity to revisit our theme of Mama Activism.
Our activism as mothers comes in many different forms, and on many stages - we might be activists out in the world, inside our local community, and even within our own bodies.
This moving guest post from Ericka Waller of Mum in the South explores how she learnt to love her mama body a little bit more - mama activism that can inspire us all to rethink how we see our own.
I have a secret. No one knows yet, but they will. Before I can reveal it though, I need to give you a bit of back-story. A bit about why things had to become secret.
When I was 17, I met a bad man. I thought he was a safe man, but he was a bad man.
He took something from me I can never get back. After the bad man I started to look at my body a little bit differently. It felt like he had taken bits of me away, even though they were still there. But I could not bear to see them. I could not bear to touch them, or have anyone else touch them either.
Time passed. I learned to live with bits of my body missing. I did this by cutting it up into a jigsaw in my mind. I split myself into pieces. I stopped looking at the tricky bits.
More time passed. I started to hurt inside. Tests told me I would never be able to have children. This was not from the bad man, this was because of Endometriosis.
The jigsaw lost some more bits, and time passed.
This bit of the story is lovely. I fell in love. I moved away. We found an amazing surgeon and he made it possible for me to have children. And I did. Three big, bonny baby girls. Blush pink, butter soft, plump as pillows.
I breastfed my babies. It was hard, and it hurt me, but in doing so I claimed a part of my body back from the bad man, two parts actually.
Three babies in three and a half years. It took its toll. For all my running, for all my dieting, for all my trying, I could not lose the weight on my tummy. It hung like the fold of a blanket. An apron made of skin, the belt of motherhood.
I hated it and I hated myself for hating it. I mended my mind with therapy, but never my attitude to my tummy. I felt a failure each time I undressed.
I felt ugly and shallow.
Things got worse. I was struck down with pain. Tests and scans finally diagnosed Rheumatoid Arthritis, and auto-immune disease. I could not walk. I could not exercise.
Things got worse. Love broke. I was alone.
I stood in the mirror in the half-light and looked at my body, all split up in my mind. She was so much younger than me, big where I was little, tight where I was loose. Young when I was older. Is that why we broke. Is that why he left?
I stopped looking in mirrors. I stopped believing in love, and men.
Two years passed. I grew stronger. I had no other choice. Love flew home. Proper love this time. Love that had been interrogated, tortured, humiliated, and yet, like a phoenix, burst new from its old ashes to fly magnificent, multi-coloured and meticulous.
But I still could not look in the mirror and see strength. I could not see a girl who put a bad man behind bars. A girl who fought to get pregnant, and fought to birth naturally. I could not see a girl with bent ankles and broken toes, who still ran despite the pain. I could not make the girl who always fell for the imperfection in others, fall for the imperfections in herself.
Time passed. The pain came back, stronger than before, scarier than before.
Tests showed I needed a hysterectomy, urgently. All other plans would have to wait. The baby boy I’d been dreaming of would have to remain there, in dreams.
Honestly, I thought I might die during the op. Worried my exhausted heart, fighting to pump blood round a body that attacked itself, would give out. I had lost so much, lived on adrenaline anxiety and anger.
I came round. My big beautiful heart kept pumping. When I woke, my family were waiting for me.
The operation was a success. I’d done so well. I was told my tummy would settle back down, at some point. When the morphine fog lifted, I pulled off my bandages.
My stomach was a mass of cuts and livid bruises. Scars rode over it like waves across the shore.
But this time, I did not hate what I saw. I felt, proud. Proud I made it, proud I had my children when I did, proud of the story mapped out on my skin.
So today I did something. Something special, something just for me. Today I confronted every fear, every insecurity, every part of the jigsaw that makes up me. I stepped out my robe and I lay, naked. Naked in the bright light of the sun. Naked under the bright light of a lamp. Naked five days after a hysterectomy. Naked while each scar and fold and bruise and break was painted.
I did not cover myself. Instead I forced myself to look, I did not feel exposed. I did not feel sad, or ugly. I looked at each lump, and bump, curve and sinew. I looked right till the end.
And when it was done I walked, naked, to look at my naked self.
You know what I realised? I’m beautiful. When you put me all together, I am beautiful. I am real. I have hard bits, and I have soft bits. I am a story. I am a journey.
And so now, it’s time to show my secret to you.
My name is Ericka. I am 34. I have three children, an auto immune disease and no womb.
A bit about the painter. Tony Parsons @artistonthehill is a father of two, helmsman for the RNLI in Brighton and produces the most beautiful paintings I have ever seen. We met years ago at a baby group and I have 'liked' his pictures on social media ever since. A few days ago, he posted a still-life nude depicting a newly pregnant woman. Her stomach was rounded much like mine, but for very different reasons. She looked so serene. I wanted to be the girl in Tony’s painting. I told Tony my secrets and asked if he would help me. He said it would be an honour.
"I paint, pretty much all the time. It's way beyond a hobby or a profession, its a habit, an obsession. I paint landscapes, seascapes, still life and portraits. Though it's a huge offense to the art world to admit it I'm often not trying to say anything. I turn up with my easel and a board or canvas and will be tickled enough by a patch of light on a broken wall to spend the next two hours immersed in a tactile world of paint and light, there's no money worries there, no refugee crisis, just the overwhelming concentration of the next stroke. Then I found life drawing. You turn up to a room full of nice people, busy searching for charcoal while someone else goes into a dressing cubical and then..... drama happens. They may be young, old, fat or thin. Naked, tattooed, sculpted, overweight, dressed in armour or upside down hanging from a trapeze. The next measured time period is all about the challenge. Get it down, let it not be yet another utterly shameful scrawl.
Now I paint. I go to life drawing sessions with longer poses and I combine my obsession with paint and my need to deconstruct and represent the human form. Everyone asks why the models have to be naked, I honestly don't know, maybe it's more artistic. I think it might be something to do with every layman being well versed in the human form, and crucially knowing when you got it wrong! Do enough of it and it's entirely possible to forget the model is naked, it's really not about that.
Ericka sent me a message from the blue. "I'm in pain, i'm close to broken. Paint me naked."
I was aware of her plight from her prodigious social media campaigning but this was something new. I'm friends with some of the professional models but they're professional models, I'm a professional artist, we all know where we stand. Painting a friend, naked, in their house? Had she modelled before? It's a damn sight harder than you'd think. She's post op, is she up to it? What If I get it terribly wrong - it's not unheard of!
I was greeted at the door by Ericka's husband, I was oddly relieved about this and he seemed happy about it. There wasn't the awkwardness I'd anticipated, Ericka knew roughly what she wanted - though she panicked when I tried to explain that not everything I paint is a success. from then on we talked. I painted. the light from the window was far superior to the lighting I'm used to at life drawing groups. We stopped a few times to make tea and I produced.... a truth! There was no airbrushing, no attempt to hide of conceal. Ericka wanted what I saw, A well looked after body that had seen a recent fight.
I think, unusually, we were both pretty delighted with the result. I named it 'Battle Scarred'. An honest and meaningful tribute to a beautiful person."
If you enjoyed this post, you might also enjoy visiting our wonderful Love Mum Body gallery stuffed with pictures of beautiful real mama-bodies and mama's own stories.
Maybe you could add a line to our Ode to Mum-Bodies as a first step to loving your own.
You might also like these other fab posts in our Mama Activism series (awesome kitten artwork here shared from Dallas Clayton):
Activate Mama Bloggers (about Team HONK and Red Nose Day)
And these Mama Activism posts from us at story of mum:
We also talked about Mama Activism at a #somum Make Date.
Join our Mamas' Mini Sofa Retreat from 29 February to 4 March and help us change the world for mamas.