"Well done," a waif-like stranger with flowing grey hair mouthed in my direction, with a wistful look. I know what she is referring to – the fact I am schelping along a busy street with a buggy carrying a toddler, a newborn bound tightly in a carrier on my chest. But the implications of her gesture ran much deeper. I feel a fleeting connection between our bodies, mine and hers; between us and time. A secret, sacred world shared between women that opens up when you have experienced pregnancy and birth.
A study first published in 2019 proved that pregnancy pushes the body to the limits of human endurance – the resting metabolic rate of the pregnant body is comparable to elite athletes, people who run six marathons a week. Yet like many things we know, the truth is only revealed when it is felt. The unrelenting toil and abiding joy of growing and birthing a human body cannot be described in words or captured in images. Perhaps this is the reason pregnancy and birth remains enshrined, revered but mysterious, respected and feared.
Science has also shown we are not the same person after giving birth: cells from the fetus mix with our own; hormones that course through our bodies can result in neurological changes in our brains. In the shower, I stare down at my postpartum stomach, now 11 weeks after my third birth: a deflated pouch, stretched, sagging slightly above a scar from the emergency c-section of my second birth.
I can still feel the intensity and shock of the pain, the transcendental nature of birth, going to that place so close to death, where nothing matters – where you have no choice but you are completely free. And god, the sweetness of the post-birth NHS toast and tea!
We are repeatedly told to be grateful to our body for these changes, to honour the extreme things it is able to do. But it is also a journey to accept this constantly changing version of ourselves. To feel comfortable in a skin that is ours, but isn't – a body that has been cohabited, that is not a body anymore in fact but a whole universe for another being.
What was this body before? My body tells me what I have been through: my feet are now longer, my hips are wider, my boobs lower. My skin spills out over waistbands and seams. I feel I am constantly renegotiating this physical shape of me, adapting to it, trying to reconcile it aesthetically with the strength and vitality it is capable of. During the shoot for Jorgen House, I confessed to Agnes, the photographer, from behind the curtain of the changing room that I had never enjoyed being photographed, but that somehow during pregnancy my body didn't feel like my own anymore – at 36 weeks, my shape was so absurd and surreal that I felt even I could objectify it without feeling self-conscious. In a room of women, many of them pregnant or already mothers, there was a rare feeling, a microcosm of that shared, untranslatable knowledge that passes between us, that binds us to each other and to history, no matter who we are or where we are. A recognition of the deep-rooted, quiet power that thrives in all of us.