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Melissa Harris Perry: Shape Shifting

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Melissa Harris Perry

Who gains weight during maternity leave? I kept asking myself that question as the number on the bathroom scale crept up in the weeks after I brought home my newborn daughter, AJ. By her second month, she had gained seven pounds. I had packed on ten. 

Celebrity culture tells us that during pregnancy, women are supposed to gain a barely noticeable amount of weight. We are expected to shed the extra pounds within weeks, slip into our pre-pregnancy clothes and claim that breastfeeding made the weight fall off effortlessly. Add to this the self-inflicted pressure: Gaining weight bothers me because it’s an outward manifestation of my imperfection. Going up a dress size is a crude reminder that balancing work, travel, parenting and marriage is hard. And it’s embarrassing when the “hard” shows. 

When I was pregnant with my older daughter, Parker, I gained weight everywhere—even my feet! Breastfeeding slims some women, but I retained every single pregnancy pound while nursing. “Skinny cows don’t give milk” was my mantra. Five years passed before I resembled my former self.

I did not expect to struggle with this pregnancy. After all, I didn’t carry AJ, who came to us through the miraculous gift of surrogacy. I plumped up a bit during the IVF cycle required to retrieve my eggs, but slimmed down as soon as the daily injections ceased. It was AJ’s surrogate who lovingly agreed to manage an expanding pregnant waistline on my behalf. I, on the other hand, went for a three-mile jog the morning AJ was born. 

Then I brought my baby home. Sleepless nights led to exhausted mornings. It was easy to trade a run for a nap. The all-consuming cycle of feeding, changing and soothing made it difficult to prepare healthful meals, but a cupcake and coffee were quick and easy. I stopped using my iPhone to count calories and started using it to keep track of how many ounces AJ was eating and how many wet diapers she was producing. The weekend I returned to hosting my MSNBC show, I was disappointed by the fact that I was wearing a size larger than I had worn the day AJ was born. Bouncing her on my lap, I’d get distracted by the cellulite on my thighs. Pushing her in the jogging stroller, I was irritated by my dramatically slower pace. When Parker put on an adorable sundress for Easter, I felt a tinge of jealousy because I had been unable to fasten the dress I had initially chosen that morning.

As much as I was loving my second wave of motherhood, I hated my unexpected weight gain—until the morning of AJ's christening, when I was reminded of the relative insignificance of my figure. For Catholics, the sacrament of baptism brings a baby into the faith community and requires that the parents acknowledge a commitment to the child's spiritual growth. It is easy to focus on the tangible needs of my kids: Have they eaten well today; have they gotten enough sleep; do Parker's shoes still fit; does AJ need a hat? But the baby's baptism was a stark reminder of my accountability for the girls' spiritual needs as well. Yes, I ensure that my daughters are well and fit, but it is also critical to raise them to be kind, forgiving, honest, loving, fair and unselfish. 

Indeed this is a responsibility I have not only to my girls but also to myself. If I live by a strict rule of narrowly defined physical beauty, I am not being kind or loving. If I don't cut myself some slack for putting on weight, I'm not being forgiving. If I refuse to acknowledge that child care, not just pregnancy, takes a physical toll, I am not being honest or fair. And if I spend an inordinate amount of energy worried about the number on the scale, I am being selfish.

After the baptism, our families came to our house to celebrate. I allowed myself to have a piece of cake without guilt. The next morning, AJ and I took a walk in the park. I made up a little song for her about the beauty of God's earth, and I didn't think about my thighs once. 

This article was featured in the July issue of ESSENCE, on stands now.

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Melissa Harris-Perry: Listening Sessions