I squinted toward the end of our street where it intersected a busier one, consoling myself with an imaginary finish line. Just a few steps in, my body's inertia was proving stronger than the muscles I needed to pick my feet up off the pavement. I wasn't running; I was lifting my feet then dropping them. My body's signals of resistance ignited: my face flushed, sweat beaded at my hairline, my heart sped up, my legs grew heavy. By force of will I lifted and dropped, lifted and dropped.
Despite my body's unambiguous message, what I noticed was the loose pouch jiggling on my abdomen, emptied of its contents—both a boy baby and a girl baby—five months before. It hung slack, like clothing I'd forgotten to properly secure. Instinctively my hands reached for it. To do what? Tie it down? Zip it up? Tuck it away? Just five months earlier I had stood grinning for photographs of that belly in all its taut glory. After the babies came, it collapsed like a popped gum bubble. Full, it was my pride; empty, it was my shame.
When the sidewalk ended near the intersection, I stumbled onto the road for the final hundred steps. My ear buds thumped to the rhythm of my exaggerated heartbeat. I watched the passing cars, my hands on my knees, panting, wondering which of the drivers I might know. And then I turned around and walked home.
Before the twins, I had birthed two other babies, all four of them in four years. Each was exquisite, and making them had taken more from me than I knew I had. My body incubated so long, it surrendered its autonomy, dulled out of necessity its rapacious instincts. It no longer knew fight or flight; it knew only how to grow and feed. Some mix of biology and mythology sent messages of warmth and softness and stillness from my brain to my body for five gestational years. When the last babies were weaned, my body was slow and sleepy and built like a beanbag chair.
The following day I laced up my old shoes and ran again, just to the end of the road. The shorts I wore were part of my high school soccer uniform, the elastic as tired as the skin underneath. By the next week my strip of road became a loop, then I crossed the road and ran the trail. After a few weeks my face wasn't splotched pink after a jog. Instead of one mile, I ran two, then three. I ran in the rain and once in the snow after the sun had set. I cooked dinner for my family and then, when my husband drove up, ran straight out the front door, around the neighborhood, and back to the stove, where I spooned chicken stir-fry onto plates before sinking into a chair at the dinner table.
I bought new running shoes, so impossibly lightweight the old ones felt like laced-up millstones. I stopped listening to my familiar singer-songwriters and started listening to hip hop, the kind with lyrics that usually made me cringe. I bounced on my toes on my front steps, turned the volume up dangerously loud, and practically dove onto the road, where the music propelled me forward. Listening to it made me feel like somebody else, someone young and fast who thought nothing about feminism or grammar, someone who didn't have three daughters and a son and the Mary Poppins soundtrack waiting back at home. When I ran in the dark, I envisioned someone sprinting up behind me—close enough to harm me—then hearing my music and falling back. I'm young and rich and plus I'm boujee. I'm not stupid so I keep the Uzi.
After about six months of running, I made an appointment with an eye doctor, eager to lose the glasses that slid down my sweaty nose. I traded them for contact lenses. I stopped eating carbs and sugar and lost 15 pounds. I researched nutrition on the internet and replaced breakfast with packaged chunks of high protein and low flavor I could eat in the car on the way to the gym. I bought an armband to hold my phone and installed an app to map my runs. My mother bought me wireless headphones for my 33rd birthday. I signed up for a race, hired a babysitter so I could train alone, and won my age group. I hung the medal in my bedroom, where my oldest girls pretended it was a medal for being The Queen.
I wanted to run faster than my shame, faster than my work or my children or even my dreams. When I was the most tired I'd ever been in my life, I became a runner to remind my body it still existed even when it wasn't sharing blood flow. It could make muscles and keep them for itself, rather than growing them for a separate, tiny person. When I ran I did not allow complaints inside my head, remembering as I did what it felt like to lumber around in a body that ached, pain radiating from parts inside me I couldn't see.
I never forgot about the vacant space on the front of my body. After a year it moved less when I ran, but to the touch it still felt like risen bread dough. It looked like rumpled sheets. It could have been the surface of the moon.
I grew strong. And yet I couldn't outrun motherhood or age or the life that threatened to swallow me up with its lists and its human alarm clocks and its feeding schedule. What I wanted was to curl up in my bed and go soft again. I wanted to eat soft foods in a soft bed and feel a soft hand on my back. But instead I ran. Five miles, six.
As I ran my knees became more angular, my calves sharper, so that it was harder to shave my legs without nicks. My face grew thinner, and I started clasping my watch at a smaller hole. My shoulders became hard and the muscle fibers in my back strengthened, taut as steel cables. My glutes flexed when I walked up the stairs. But nothing would get rid of the place my babies had lived.
Why, when every other part of my life proved resilient—my marriage, my career, my hobbies and friendships—was it skin that insisted on telling the true story of my body? Even after the IVF injection sites healed over, the uterus shrank, the breasts stopped making milk, why must I still look like a mother? Why must the skin still wave like a flag on claimed territory?
For almost two years I ran, quite literally, in circles. I turned 34, and I knew without wanting to know that what the world needed from me didn't require sharp calves or a working knowledge of foot strike. The twins turned two; my body was as strong as it would likely ever be. The sag and stretch of motherhood wasn't going away. Unless I was carved up like a Christmas turkey, the children would, for as long as my body remained, have the physical vacuity at my center to point to as their first home. And even when no one was looking, I would carry the emptiness with me. I would feel its prominence under my waistband, urging me to remember the treasure I'd buried and kept safe. On the night of their second birthday, when I laid my babies in their cribs and sang "Amazing Grace" in the dark, I did the math. All those eight-minute miles added up to weeks of my life. The twins were no longer the squawking, clawing newborns they had been when I started running—but as I had marked the changes to my own body, I had hardly noticed the changes to theirs. I looked down at their feet escaping past the ends of their baby blankets.
Tomorrow, I decided, I would not run.
Choosing not to run was harder than that first lap had been. When I needed my body to be fast, it had—eventually—obeyed. I had awakened its primordial instincts to flee, living in a constant state of preparedness. But that next morning the sun in my living room was warm and a certain harmony sounded from the children's squeaky prattle. The babies mushed bananas into the sofa; the big girls gave their dolls baths in the sink. I stayed in my slippers. No one was chasing me; I had invented the threat.
I let my muscles soften, my angles return to curves. When I did run, it was less desperate than before. I didn't run quite so fast or dread the turn toward home. With each day I waited, bouncing on my toes but never striking out onto the asphalt, I felt a return to slowness. The days lost their hard edge, and with them, the music, the landscape, my body. It had done what I asked it to do, so many times, and I loved my body for that. In the same way I'd willed myself to run, I willed myself to be still. I willed myself to see the drape of my body as a reminder of how much I was capable of holding.