What Getting Naked In Front Of A Camera Taught Me About Motherhood

I want my children to know my life before them, and my present life outside of motherhood, too.

For my 36th birthday party, I got naked in front of a camera.

I don’t remember when I learned to hate my body, and I don’t remember when I committed to becoming friends with this skin and these bones of mine, but I know one happened much too early and the other came much later than it should have.

In between came a slew of poor decisions, just as many triumphs, two amazing humans born to my partner and me and many, many efforts to see my body as strong and beautiful.

In the past two or three years, I’ve made a commitment to treating my body with the same compassion I show my very closest friends: I see flaws and love it still, knowing we’re in it for the long haul. This is where the idea for a body-positive boudoir session started.

I wasn’t looking to a photo shoot for a personal transformation ― more to mark a stage in life when I am feeling mostly good about myself, moving closer to reclaiming my confidence post-babies and reaching the tipping point to middle-aged. Why not do it all in some lace and a great red lipstick?

“I need you to see what I’m seeing.”

As Nicole and Athena, the boudoir photographers, scoped out my house, set up their photography equipment and situated me in a sunny spot in my bedroom, I was sipping tequila and getting past the awkwardness of sitting in front of two insanely badass women in my underwear. Then one of them paused and did something incredible: She flipped her camera and showed me the shot she’d just captured.

“I need you to see what I’m seeing.”

A photo of myself, laying in sunshine and shadows, stretched out on my bedroom floor, not unlike how one might find me stretching underneath the sheets. Somehow, it was art, and it was me.

My favorite picture from the photo shoot.
My favorite picture from the photo shoot.
Athena Pelton and Nicole Feest of HELEN

Me, creeping toward 40. Me, married mother of two. Me, in this skin that has grown my babies and bears the marks of doing so. Me, in this body riding the roller coaster of my self-esteem, garnering catcalls and criticism alike, existing in an almost constant tension between transcendence and struggle.

“I need you to see what I’m seeing.”

In “Our Mothers as We Never Saw Them,” a 2017 opinion piece for The New York Times, Edan Lepucki wrote of the thrill of seeing photographs of women before they were mothers as badass, sexy and fashionable. She observes, “The young women in these pictures are beautiful, fierce, sassy, goofy, cool, sweet — sometimes all at once.”

I want my children to know my life before them, and my present life outside of motherhood, too. Women and mothers can be sensual, seductive and strong and simultaneously caring, soft and nurturing. When my children see a bold, brilliant woman in a photo of their mother, she’s the mother I long for them and the rest of the world to know. She’s not past tense, she’s present.

I am not alone in saying my 30s have brought a level of self-confidence, self-awareness and depth. I’ve found who I need to be as a woman, mother and partner in order to feel balanced and grounded. I’m less about faking it and more about loving where I’m at, and many of the women in my life have walked with me in this evolution and feel the same way about themselves. It’s been the decade when we start laughing about our flaws, owning our baggage and embracing self-love along with it all.

My 30s have also been the decade when I’ve become more connected to my sexuality and sexiness than ever before.

The notion that women should no longer be sexual after they become mothers (at least in public) exists in strange dissonance with the ever-present societal pressure to “get your body back” after a baby.

As women struggle to adhere to standards of youthful beauty and show no trace of the process of growing a human in one’s uterus, the belief that we should keep our sexiness under wraps undermines the confidence, empowerment and depth of sexuality that comes with age.

It seems an injustice that as we finally shed our insecurities, embrace our strengths and connect with ourselves and each other, we can only exist fully in private.

Three years before the metamorphosis of my 30s, I became a mom. I joke that my daughter was not our most intentional life choice, and I grieved — hard — the changes I knew I would experience. I cried over superficial things like my favorite sexy jeans possibly never fitting again and taking out the belly ring I’d worn since my first weekend away at college.

I cried realizing none of my best friends could understand how I felt, since I was the first to have a baby. I cried over deep, ugly fears: whether I would love my child, whether this whole thing was a huge mistake.

I’d finally arrived at a station in life where I felt glimpses of freedom and confidence. I was loving the time spent at happy hours and late-night concerts, and I’d enjoyed recognition and leadership opportunities in my career. The magical, miraculous moments of pregnancy never resonated with me, and I felt alone in my grief and my truth.

Most of the time, when I voiced these fears or frustrations, I was told that giving birth would and should turn me into a new person. I was told, mainly by women and mothers, that my cares, worries and interests would shift and be completely encompassed by my love for my daughter.

Despite an empowering birth experience and relatively smooth early weeks of motherhood, those reassurances fell flat, and my new, exclusively maternal self failed to emerge and overtake my identity.

The day before my daughter turned 1 month old, we found ourselves at a toddler’s birthday party. Surrounded by women wearing baggy capris and babies in front packs ― and feeling awkward in my own skin, let alone my ill-fitting jeans and failed attempt to appear put together ― I felt heat flood the back of my neck, and my daughter felt heavier and heavier in my arms. The unfamiliarity of my postpartum body and responsibilities, and of the life ahead, manifested as a feeling of being smothered from the inside.

In moments of turmoil, our body naturally chooses fight, freeze or flight. I desperately wanted the latter, but I knew it wasn’t an option; there was no time machine, no adequate hiding place, and I knew I loved my daughter too much. An acquaintance named Kristen ― the only person I knew other than the birthday girl’s parents ― walked by. She saw the panic on my face and invited me to a quiet spot in the house.

“Is this what I am supposed to be now?” I confessed I couldn’t see myself in the women outside the dark, tiny room where we sat. Their lives were not lives I wanted.

Everyone had told me I would become something new, but I hadn’t. All I could see were the mothers around me who seemingly found joy in releasing all the pieces of themselves once they had their babies, and who now found meaning in discussing veggie trays, bounce houses and cupcake bakeries.

“I don’t fit in here, either.”

Whereas I felt like I stuck out like a sore thumb at the party, Kristen looked the part of the misfit. Her loose-flowing clothing, the intricate sleeve of tattoos covering one arm and the Wiccan symbol inked on the back of her neck were a sharp contrast with the pastels and cargo pants sported by the other moms.

In one sentence, she became the first person who heard my anxiety, validated my fear and gave me hope I hadn’t thrown myself away in the process of having a child.

I knew my lifeline as a new mother would come in the form of like-minded women who were willing to hear each other, share raw truths and view themselves and each other as independent, strong and intelligent. With them, I could continue to grow and exist as an individual, not just as my daughter’s mom. I was seen.

“Becoming a mother doesn’t change you so much as violently refurbish you, even though you’re still the same underneath it all,” Heather Havrilesky wrote for The New York Times in 2014. “That can be hard to remember when teachers, coaches, pediatricians and strangers alike suddenly stop addressing you by your name, or even ‘ma’am’ or ‘lady,’ and start calling you ‘Mom.’”

After the birth of my daughter, I was desperate to keep the many pieces of me in place — pieces I loved and enjoyed. I found often, when in “non-momming” activities, that I was met with confusion, or the entire conversation would veer toward my daughter as if I had nothing else to contribute. When in public with my child, I was all but invisible.

I regained hope through moments that began during a toddler’s birthday party. If I surrounded myself with moms who would never be happy dedicating their existence to veggie trays and cupcakes or retiring their sexy selves, and who believed in the magic that happens when we stand strong on our own, stand stronger together and lift each other up when we need a boost, it would all be OK.

Those 60 minutes of being photographed by two fellow mothers, those 60 minutes of being seen for all of the pieces of me without having to apologize for my sexiness, those 60 minutes of being celebrated as beautiful without the noble expectation that mothers don’t care about such silly things, were transcendent and transformative, a powerful protest against the messages I’ve seen all my life ― that becoming a mother means keeping private all evidence of yourself as a sexual being, that we should be chaste models of modesty, that giving birth means the death of life before baby.

It was a moment that will forever help me honor what my photographers were seeing, and help me strive toward knowing myself as sexy and fierce, vulnerable and strong, exposed and beautiful on a daily basis.

Not everybody is going to find meaning in taking off their shirt in front of strangers with photography equipment, and that’s not the point.

The point is we, as women and mothers, need spaces and communities that bring out the pieces of ourselves that we, as individuals, need to preserve, remember and celebrate.

In doing so, we give ourselves the radical option to build our own molds for what womanhood looks like on us, what sexy means and which pieces of ourselves deserve to be seen and revered, while applauding fellow women finding their own vehicles toward empowerment and self-love.

I need you to see what I’m seeing.