I'm in the shower, hot water streaming over me as I stand wrapped in the heat and bliss of my ten-minute escape. Then I hear the bathroom door open. Through the fog of steam, I catch sight of a smallish figure waddling my way. I wipe away the condensation to see my 3-year-old son, Rollie, his nose flattened against the glass shower door, staring directly at my...um...privates. So much for my escape.
"What do you need, sweetheart?" I ask, hoping to divert his attention to something, anything, else.
"Where's your penis, Momma?"
"I don't have one, Buddy. Remember?" Oh God, still staring.
He gives a slight nod and, just before finally turning away, says, "Your not-penis is furry."
It's times like this when I'm reminded that my days of crippling modesty are so over. Before I had kids, I was self-conscious to the point that I didn't even like my dog to see me naked, and my husband would tease me about wearing more clothes than a nun. At the gym, I perfected the art of undressing while keeping at least three articles of clothing on to ensure that my flaws -- short legs, slight paunch, small boobs -- were out of sight.
But when I had kids everything changed -- big-time -- starting with the day Rollie was born. I lay on the hospital bed, legs splayed, writhing and panting as I shoved my son out into the world, bodily fluids and all. Funny how immense pain and heightened euphoria can make a person oblivious to the fact that she's exposing herself to a hospital's entire day shift.
That six-hour labor set the tone for motherhood as I know it. The first time I brought Rollie out in public he was just over a week old and not the happiest baby. After ten minutes of his crying and my being unable to soothe him, I thought back to a wise breastfeeding adage my mother once told me: "When in doubt, whip it out." Sure, we were surrounded by strangers. Sure, the idea of pulling up my sweater, postpartum belly wobbling like Jell-O, was about as appealing as an episiotomy, but at that point I no longer cared. I whipped it out and I haven't looked back since.
From dealing with Rollie flinging dressing-room doors open mid-change to fielding questions in public about the size of my nipples, I have little sense of shame and absolutely no concept of privacy when it comes to my own body. My son has seen me naked more than my husband has lately. How can he not? He sees me having my bra size measured at the lingerie store, applying pantyliners to my underwear ("Is that a Band-Aid?" he asks), and nursing his little sister. Sometimes I think it's a blessing that kids don't remember much before their third birthday. This way we don't have to sit uncomfortably around the Thanksgiving table while Rollie reminisces about the time he saw me using my husband's nose-hair trimmer and asked why I was picking my nose with a flashlight.
But it's not all bad. Having a mini critic as my shadow has toughened me up a bit, thickened my skin. Let's face it, kids are brutally honest. Especially mine. Rollie constantly points out my imperfections. Your bottom is big, Momma. (Time to go jogging.) Why are your feet so cracky? (Must loofah.) Your breath smells yucky. (Anyone have a Tic Tac?) If someone had even hinted at such things pre-kid, I would have been so mortified I would have balled up armadillo-style and rolled into a hole for months. But that's the beauty of having kids: I am no longer capable of embarrassment.
Strangely, this lack of shame, this policy of zero privacy, is liberating. I no longer waste time fretting about a pimple or a few extra pounds. Now I'm the pack leader, the protector, the endless source of wisdom, comfort, and Cheerios. Words like natural and graceful have replaced ugly and awkward in terms of my body. I now know that it isn't something to hide. In fact, it's a pretty amazing machine. It can run on four hours of sleep, fueled solely by caffeine and Goldfish, and manhandle 50 pounds of squirming kids. So what if I have short legs? I consider it an accomplishment if I even shave them. Who cares if I have a bit of a tummy? I've had three children and still look relatively decent in a two-piece. Besides, I'm too busy trying to keep my daughter from eating floating bug carcasses to care if anyone snickers at my poolside jiggle.
So now when I'm in the shower, I study my body and no longer fantasize about the day when I can get a little nip here, a bit of a tuck there. I have come to appreciate my new mommy shape. Where I used to have pimples, I now have laugh lines. My once perky B-cups have become stretch-marked reminders of the children I've nourished. And when my son peeps in and tells me my not-penis is furry, well I just laugh and think, "Some day I will recount this story to you in front of your future wife, and you will be mortified, and it will be hil-ar-ious." But for now, I'm just happy for the reminder to schedule a bikini wax.
Originally published in the January 2012 issue of Parents magazine.