I have been noticing moms maybe a majority of them teens, getting tattoos memorializing the births and lives of their children. I tend to assume that these children were generated, carried and delivered in ways that women’s bodies have been made by evolution or some other force of nature to deliver them, and that they were accompanied by medical intervention of some kind. Both of which tend to leave the marks of pregnancy, birth and life on a mothers’ body.
There are women who have benefited from the pre and post-natal treatment of such marks. These mothers have little to no bodily evidence of their trek through pregnancy and delivery, so they ink on a set of foot prints (that look pretty cool) or they make a heart with the baby’s name in it, sometimes a rose with the date of birth. Some of them strike me as a bit creepy but most of them are lovely, if not redundant, thoughtful reminders of a part of life intimately shared with at least one other human being.
The tattoos that signified motherhood for my generation were called stretch marks. Among the girls at St Anne’s, old wives tales for the treatment and prevention of this “Body Art” ran like wildfire through the halls. News was provided nightly after dinner when we all collected in the Community Room to listen intently as one girl or another would share her guaranteed to work remedy. The theories rarely held up through experimentation. We did not need Myth Busters to tell us that they wouldn’t work, but we really had nothing better to do.
I was a relatively small and anorexic, five feet, seven inches tall weighing in at a whooping 115 pounds and always trying to get back to that flat 100. Once I got back down to that flat 100 my life would be perfect. That would solve everything, or so my twisted brain told me. I maintained the 115 mark seven months into the pregnancy but once I got to St Anne's I shot up to 130 in a month and in the next month, the month I delivered my son, I weighed 145 pounds. I was horrified that my body could become so grotesque. I had been doing my nightly work out, walk 5 miles, 100 sit ups, 50 jumping jacks, which quickly became very uncomfortable, and I tried not to eat but the food at St Anne's was not only ubiquitous, it was also very tasty. We had cafeteria style; all you can eat breakfast, lunch and dinner, and snacks every 10 minutes in the community room. Who knew a Graham Cracker could make yellow American cheese taste so good?
The problem with rapid weight gain is that the skin does not always have time to prepare. I grew so big, so quickly that the skin on my stomach and hips literally tore open as it stretched. I had bleeding, purple rips in my skin. Think of a sausage or hot dog on the grill as it rips open to release its delicious nectar. I had those same kinds of marks but mine oozed blood. Someone told me that the stretch marks would go away once I lost the baby weight. I would then lift up my shirt to show them what I was dealing with and no one was able to look at them without wincing and stepping back as if the baby inside was about to come forth like the Alien emerged from Sigourney Weaver, in a movie that had not yet been made.
Even girls with mild or no stretch marks were concerned with the issue because many of us planned to go back out into the world and use our bodies. We didn’t want ugly reminders of our time together. So, one day a few of us walked ourselves to the nearest 7/11 and bought a tube of Preparation H. According to Maria’s cousin on her father’s side who had heard it from her Tia’s sister’s aunt, it shrunk everything.
Many of the girls had ugly stretch marks but none were worse than mine, even little Carolina who was only twelve and weighed about 80 pounds, if that. While I was there her skin was flawless and we all wanted to keep it that way. She was so young, it seemed fair that she be allowed to return to her child's unscathed body once she delivered her baby, a product of a drunken uncle's cruelty and her family's denial or inability to protect her. Her English was bad and so was my Spanish. She mostly stayed with the Chicas; many were gang girls and all of them took a protective stance around Carolina. She and I spoke rarely but most often it was mostly after the Friday phone call line.
Friday nights we were allowed to use the public phone booths that were installed on the wall just outside the Community Room. They looked just like phone booths that used to be on just about every street corner in the larger cities. They were made of plastic Windows and aluminum frames, so you could see around you as spoke on the phone. The phone booths at St Anne's only had three window walls because they were attached to the solid wall on the outside of the Community Room. We were allowed ten minutes to call home. It seemed like I got behind Carolina every week. I would listen to her ask her mother if she could come home now and crying when her mother gave her a "NO" that was loud enough to hear standing outside of the phone booth.
I would always pat her shoulder as she slipped past me exiting the booth. She so small and already possessed a rare beauty. She is, I hope, somewhere, today, a beautiful woman who has been able to clear away the wreckage of her past. After my phone call I would find her and we would make small talk in Spanish. She would laugh at my butchered Spanish. It made me feel good to hear her laugh as she corrected me. Carolina "Went Up" early. No one ever knew for sure but the rumor was that she had miscarried. I hoped that she had but I worried that she would just be back next year. From what I had gathered from our conversations, she was going back to a home that was not safe for her. I know the Chicas were giving her advice on how she could protect herself. I hope she did.
Have you ever touched your eye after handling a Chili pepper? At first it feels like it might be an eyelash, so you are tempted to rub your eye again but then you remember that you just finished cutting up those Jalapeños for the salsa and by that time the burn has spread all the way across your eyeball and it feels like your eyeball is being eaten away by an acid that will leave you, in just a few short seconds, with a barren pit where the eyeball used to be. That is the level of pain I experienced as Lyn watched the door for Nuns and Natalie lifted my shirt up and off of my belly, needing in some spots to tug at the fabric in order to pull it away from the bloody ooze that seeped out of every lesion. I, meanwhile, prepared the dose of "H"- one good squeeze of the tube in a nice straight line as long as my index finger. I lightly touched the creamed up finger to one of the more open wounds, at first if felt cool, almost refreshing, so with a bit more enthusiasm I continued to apply the line all the way up the torn skin. And then I stopped. I couldn't scream, that would alert the Nuns, so the tears just started running down my face as I held my breath knowing that to open my mouth for any reason would allow the scream to escape. My face must have conveyed the message because hands were immediately flying over my belly, bare fingers, napkins, the corners of shirts and dresses were all being used to wipe away the "H". So many hands were helping that the cream was penetrating further into my wounds, spreading from one stretch mark to another until my entire belly was on fire.
Speechlessly, I walked as fast as I could to the shower room. Without taking off my clothes I stepped into the shower and turned it to arctic cold. After a good cry and some small relief from the cool water, I slogged my way to the door, dragging the bottoms of my wet limp Levis across the brown and white swirled tiles. We had to keep our towels in our rooms and use them for a week at a time, taking them with us to and from the shower room. I had not thought about getting my towel as I made my way to the shower in an attempt to alleviate the excruciating pain that Preparation H provides when it meets an open wound. I was still not thinking about the towel when I opened the door to the shower room and found ten girls all with hands outstretched offering me their towels. That silent offering was the true mark and acknowledgement of the severity of my situation. I declined the towels without speaking but just lifting my shirt, wincing and shaking my head with what I tried to make into a smile but probably looked more like a grimace. I didn't want to get any of the "H" on anyone else's towel by accident, but I did appreciate the thought. Silently, they all turned and followed me back to my room trying to camouflage the snail tracks I left behind me as I drug the bottoms of my soaked Levis along the industrial carpet to my room where soaking wet Levis and all, I climbed onto my bed and cried myself to sleep.
Giving birth scars women. As my son has grown and become busy with his life, as he should do, I have come to love my stretch marks because they remind me of a time when we were inseparable, when life was hard but good because we had each other.