By Jessie Horney
My 5-year-old son recently saw me without a shirt on and pressed his hand to my belly, declaring it “so soft” and asking “why does it stick out from you like that?” My 6-year-old daughter, born a lady (or a Mennonite), watched me get dressed for church and said in her sweetest voice, “Mom, sometimes when I wear a dress that short, I like to put leggings or tights under it. Do you think you want to do that today?” Motherhood is like all the nagging voices in my head grew legs and now walk around my house asking for snacks. At least I have my 3-year-old, who is actually quite lavish in her praise of my looks and my body. According to her, my hair is perfect, my skin is a magical rainbow, and I’m the most beautiful mom she has.
The intimacy of living in a family is a ground well-tilled for such vulnerable observations. Home is where we see each other, touch each other, and experience each other not just as persons with personalities, but as bodies, with habits and traits and smells and warmth, a familiarity unavailable outside of our homes and immediate relationships. We see each other’s bellies sticking out and we know each other’s faces when they are sleepy or mad; our bodies mean something to each other.
Historically, humans have often attempted to separate ourselves from our bodies, regarding the flesh and bones as merely a carton for what matters — our souls, our actual selves. This disconnect creates many problems, least of all the tendency to consider our physical selves separate entities from our inner selves, which in turn encourages a calculated consideration of the bodies around us. Because if a body is just bits and pieces meant to hold us together, what does it matter how we talk about it or use it?
I talk to my kids about bodies all the time.Their bodies represent who they are to the people around them as their vehicle for participating in the world, so it matters how they see themselves and how they see others. Their bodies are at once completely private and yet the only tangible part of themselves to share. Their bodies allow them to take what is inside their hearts and minds and make something good or say something good. I want them to know the beauty and strength their hands and brains bring to a room, but I also want them to understand the importance of the soul that each person carries inside their skin.
How can I help my kids develop a healthy view of their bodies and the bodies of others? I mean for starters they should probably not tell someone that their belly is squishy, but that’s mostly about manners. I also want my family to respect the innate importance of our physicality, and learn to use our bodies for all the good humans are capable of doing. We run through the grass, we climb trees, we design cities, we build bridges, we heal sick people, we hug and kiss and laugh, we tell stories, bake bread and ride bikes; our bodies make us real. It does not matter how much space we take up or how our hair curls or if we are the slowest person on the track. We matter because we are human. We are part of something grand. And our bodies are the gift God gave us to serve and love each other.
The second I saw a positive sign on a pregnancy test, my kids’ bodies changed my world. The mystery of their limbs growing inside my belly and the relief of their skin against mine in the moments after birth led me towards a lifetime of hoping their bodies will not fail and praying no one ever harms them. Their bodies are no longer physically connected to mine, yet my happiness is inextricably tied to their health and wholeness, in body and in soul. Their bodies are how they exist in my world.
At home I will speak loving and powerful words over my children about their bodily strengths and weaknesses, the carbon and matter that makes them human. It’s important for me to listen to the story my kids’ bodies tell and help them keep writing that story as they grow. How will they use their hands? How will they use their minds? How will they speak of themselves and others? What space will they take up in the lives of others? What a gift our flesh and bones become when they tell an honest story to the world about who we are and what we mean. Even when the inevitable day comes and they don’t love how their bodies work or look or feel, can my babies remember the truth I told them all along — that they are a soul and a body, both, completely entwined, an offering of goodness to the world around them?
Can I remember it too?
Jessie Horney is a freelance writer and poet. Find her at www.horneymomtellsall.com.