Years ago, while playing with my young daughter, Liberty, I flopped onto my bed and my shirt flew up a bit. Liberty eagerly jumped up next to me, positioning to blow onto my now-exposed belly (a favorite game in our house). Suddenly, her expression changed as her face neared by stomach and she asked, “Mommy, where did you get your stripes?” Laughing, I followed her gaze and her bewilderment. It took me a moment before I realized that she was referring to my stretch marks.
Later that day, I mused about my “stripes.” Having spent the majority of my adolescence in a military household (my stepfather was in the Navy), I was familiar with their terminology and lifestyle. Looking back at that time of my life, I began to draw some parallel connections between motherhood and military recruits.
My older brother enlisted in the Navy when I was 17. I remember his initial excitement was mixed with trepidation. There was so much about the impending training that was unknown. The three months he spent in boot camp were among the most physically, mentally, and emotionally challenging times of his young life.
Four years later, when I was 21, I found myself in basic training of another sort. I had become an unexpected parenting recruit, and it took a while to adjust to the magnitude of the new responsibility. Over the ensuing nine months, my body and mind went through a grueling regimen of exercises and drills to prepare me for my “graduation.” Just before the event, I was awarded with the physical marks—my first set of “stripes.”
Although there was no prouder moment in my life as when I first laid eyes on my new son, I was still adjusting to parenthood. As a young, self-absorbed woman, my new scars horrified me. I felt that my body had betrayed me and I had naively assumed that it would eventually return to its original, unmarked state. It didn’t.
Breastfeeding would leave its mark, as well. While many young women would have been thrilled to have such a full bodice, I was not mentally or emotionally prepared for the ebb and flow of cleavage that motherhood provided. Yet another set of stripes.
There were occasions when I felt awkward in my role as a new parent. In fact, there was even a time that I questioned the Universe for christening ME a mother. Why should someone so young and inexperienced be given such a tremendous responsibility? How can I teach my child about life when I have so much yet to learn? Over time, I came to realize that parenting is a transformational process. There are no mistakes, only lessons to learn. Life forces you to accept responsibility, and it brands you in the process.
Just over two years later, I received even more stretch marks with my second pregnancy. For the first time, my rear end was also awarded a small set of stripes. However, the transition from one child to two was worthy of the recognition.
Little did I know what Life still had in store for me. Ten years after my first child, a reproductive endocrinologist diagnosed that I had polycycstic ovary syndrome (PCOS), as well as a uterine septum, and I was told that I would likely never conceive again. I calmly accepted my new fate, as I felt incredibly grateful to have my son and daughter. Three days later, I unknowingly conceived my third child.
My daughter, Bailey, was my first child born at home and it was my first, and only, pregnancy where I returned to my non-pregnant clothes the day she was born. When birth control efforts failed 21 months later with the conception of my daughter, Liberty, I returned to my doctor to debate my infertility prognosis. I was then informed that I was apparently in the tiny percentage of women who actually become hyperfertile with PCOS. Hmm, that would’ve been good information to have… But Liberty’s beautiful and empowering unassisted home water birth became a highlight in my mothering career.
Life’s final hurrah came six years later when I missed my period yet again. By that time, I had resorted to near abstinence as a birth control method; however, when contemplating over the month, I anxiously remembered a spontaneous rendezvous in the shower just as my last moon was waning. With test in hand from the dollar store the day after my new moon was expected, I nervously waited for the results. I didn’t have to wait long as the test responded almost immediately with a very clear positive symbol.
I walked around in vegetative state for days before the gravity of the news began to sink in. Just a few months prior, I had taken on the role of caregiver for my ailing father. I had never experienced such a plethora of mixed emotion. It felt as though Time and Space were anxiously awaiting a decision. I hardly had the energy to think, let alone move. My focus became the struggle between my voracious appetite and my body’s urge to expel the food just as quickly as it went in. After 4 1/2 months, my midwife confirmed what my mind and body already suspected: I was carrying twins.
After 41 1/2 weeks of the most exhausting pregnancy I ever had, little Keanu and Noelani were born at home in Pennsylvania in the wee hours of a snowy January morning. My huge belly had rightfully been granted a few additional stripes. Two months later, our family traded in our snow shovels for machetes as we relocated to the tropical jungle in Puna Makai.
Now as I trace my fingers over my highly decorated lower abdomen, I am reminded of the many ways that I have grown over the years. I realize that a mother’s life is one of service and commitment. I am honored to pledge my allegiance to my children. And now, when I put on a bathing suit, instead of cringing at my unsightly scars, I proudly display my stripes. I have certainly earned them.
Dena Smith Givens, who founded and ran Primal Parenting Magazine on the U.S. mainland, currently works out of Puna as freelance writer, motivational speaker, wellness educator, and certified health coach.