Four weeks post-surgery, I stood in my bathroom, waiting for the shower to heat up. Freaking out. In my left hand I held the end of a clear string, like thin fishing line. I had just thoughtlessly unspooled it out of myself, from the left edge of my still-healing Cesarean scar, and now I held about a yard of filament out from the side of my naked body. The other end lay anchored somewhere inside my abdomen, and it swirled gently from my scar to my pinched fingers. It gleamed in the sunlight that streamed through my bathroom window. Unsure of what I had done—had I just unthreaded the surgical opening in the front of my stomach? Were my guts moments from falling onto the floor?—and also sure I couldn’t walk around with three feet of clear line hanging outside of myself, I grabbed a pair of nail scissors and snipped off the line like it was a stray thread on a coat.
That afternoon when I stepped into the bathroom, I wasn’t planning to undo my stitches. When I caught sight of the small bit of plastic thread sticking out of my torso, I grabbed it thoughtlessly, thinking it was a tiny fleck on my skin, not thinking it was the end of a much longer line of cord the doctor used weeks before to hold together my inner workings. But once I tugged, I had an arms length of string, and a problematic situation on my hands. Since I cut it off—that second, panicky move—I didn’t tell anyone for a month or two because I was worried about what I’d done. I was sure things would sort themselves out. Well, I hoped. I figured either I’d end up back in the hospital with loose organ problems, or nothing would happen, and my body would keep it together.
Thankfully, the latter was what happened. My post-pregnancy body managed to heal without falling apart. But that post-pregnancy body was fraught with all manner of other surprises in the months to come.
The biggest surprise to me as a new mom, as an admirer in curious wonder at my own body, as one who bought a ticket to the museum of oh, that’s what happens, was that after my first child, my belly button moved.
It moved, up.
Before my first baby, I read a lot. Holistic Mommy stuff. Traditional Mommy stuff. Attachment Parenting Mommy stuff. Scientific stuff. Research-backed stuff. Religious stuff. Stuff with pictures. Any stuff I could get my hands on.
I expected the body changes, and while they were new experiences, none of them were surprises in theory. Pregnancy alters the frame, and there was a grand resifting following that first child. Even in the years after she was born when I managed to keep my weight about the same, I could tell it had settled into different nooks and crannies. My hips, which had been straight and boyish before, widened. My waist thickened a bit, as did my thighs. My arms grew strong from holding her. I had a perpetual lean of the hip so I could balance her atop it.
But the belly button thing was a surprise. Not once had I read about it packing up for higher ground, and yet each day as I stood in front of my bathroom mirror (where all self-examination happened) I would do mental calculations, and every time, come to the same conclusion that there was a definite change in navel location. My belly button had a new home, about an inch higher than where it used to be.
I supposed that a lifting of the belly button wasn’t out of the realm of possibility. After all, I saw a chart once that showed the rearrangement of a woman’s vital organs during pregnancy. It was astounding. The human body basically decommissions itself as a shell for important guts to allow that adorable parasite to grow within it for almost a year. Most of one's organs get crammed up into the space that previously was only for upper digestion and air. (Small wonder pregnant moms have heartburn all the time and can't breathe for shit.) This change happens over a period of months, so I supposed that it was perfectly plausible for the belly button, the navel, to reposition and settle into a new home which was higher and closer to my upper stomach than my lower.
Nothing about my navel itself had changed. I still had an “innie.” Pregnancy weight had pushed it outward, but once the baby was out, my navel retreated back to its ordinary state. It was still my same navel. Just not where I remembered it.
For years before I was ever pregnant, years before Google made it easy to know things that are both stupid and embarrassing to ask, I wondered: what is on the other side of our belly buttons as adults? Finally I got the chance to ask a doctor and a nurse, who basically both gave me the same answer: not much. Since the navel’s job is done once we’re born, it’s more of a cosmetic leftover. An external feature riding on the outside of our skin.
Perhaps it just… slipped upward a little. As I tried to rationalize the move, I pictured my navel like a floating life raft on the sea. No anchor. Why couldn't it move? Why weren't more people talking about this, anyway?
This was an amazing discovery, I decided, and I was a pioneer of mothering. Oprah would want to call me. This was going to be something groundbreaking that nobody had ever talked to pregnant women about before. Why wasn’t this a part of the national conversation? Why wasn’t this whole belly button thing, like, happening, right now? I was certain that people just needed to get on board with the belly button movement. Every time I went into the bathroom to wait for the shower to heat up, I checked. Yep. Moved. Closer to my breasts than it was when I was a teenager.
I talked to my husband about it. I made him check.
Yeah, it definitely looks higher, he said. It is closer to your boobs. But why would it move? Do they do that?
Sure looks like it, I said. The body is a mysterious thing. A mysterious and beautiful thing.
That sucker migrated north, like a bird in winter.
And then one day I stood in the bathroom alone, again. I wasn’t thinking about my belly button, per se, or anything specific, just noticing. In the afternoon light—the same light that had caught the glint of the dissolvable stitch just after surgery when I'd yanked out three feet of line and almost undone myself—I studied my stretch-marked skin, my tan lines, the effects of gravity and of the passing of years. And I put my hands under my drooping breasts and lifted them up just like a bra. Like a good bra, the kind that cost $40, the kind that give you back the boobs of your twenties. I lifted my breasts back up. Way up--to age 19--and suddenly it was so painfully apparent to me.
Location of belly button: same.
Distance from breasts to navel: greatly reduced by effects of gravity.
My belly button didn’t move up.
My boobs moved. Down.