When I stand, my left ankle joint collapses inwards slightly, tugging at the delicate structure of my knee joint, a referred tension that travels up to my sacrum and causes the occasional dull ache in my hip. I’m not sure that this happened before. It feels new. I don’t think about it much, until I feel that dragging sensation in my hip and then I remind my foot to work a little harder. It obeys for a few minutes, hours, until I forget again.
My knees feel the same as they always did. That took a while. The stuttering reorientation of my pelvis taking the skeleton either side of it on a gradual journey away from and then back towards balance.
I am not sure where to start with my pelvis. It was sad and silent for seven months. Humming with a pain that my anaesthetised mind had never known. My pelvis understood how to give birth. I didn’t. It kept its secrets from me. I have no memories of sensation. I only remember distant damage, and then love as I held her in my arms. Then one day I asked it how it felt and it let go and cried, and I allowed a jagged, unsightly sadness to rise up inside me and out through the top of my head, and now those bones are calm and still again.
Occasionally in sleep a nightmare dredges up the dream silt of trauma, and I lie awake in the early hours as cold logic kicks in, asking me if I have what it takes to go through that all over again one day.
My lower back aches a lot. This never used to happen. I would fling myself around London, across dance floors and through yoga classes, my spine smiling and weaving its meandering way along with me. Now there is a catching, pinching sensation whenever I try to backbend, parts of my vertebrae meeting each other that shouldn’t. I am twisted and clicked on the osteopath’s table. In Pilates, I am repeatedly shown the new and unexpected asymmetry of my strength. In yoga, I settle into an even-feeling downward dog, but when I look up at my hands I see the left is so much further away than the right.
My shoulders are tight. My daughter is heavy. I am introduced to an ever-more nuanced anatomical understanding of my neck and the base of my skull, as I poke and prod in the evenings, lying on the corners of my yoga blocks, a tennis ball, trying to get to the bit that will make the back of my eye socket fizz and release. Sometimes my ears pop and click as the tension dissolves.
It is not that I feel lost. But this new body is a map that seems to change as soon as I have worked my way around it. So even though I am here, home inside myself, I am never quite sure where that actually is, or what that actually means.
And then my daughter is one year old. And I am again lying on the osteopath’s table, and she holds her hand at the base of my spine and she asks me to say “the birthing process is complete”. And all of a sudden, this mind that has been lagging on the wrong time zone, arrives in the present, and I realise that this is true. That birth has happened. That it is over. That I am safe. And I say to her, embarrassed, that I feel as though I have been giving birth for a year, a walking bundle of aftershock.
That somewhere deep inside me I have felt unsafe, ready to tear again and to break. That I have been stuck for 365 days in that hospital room, taking half an hour to cross the floor to the bathroom, where I hang my catheter bag on the cold blue handle beside the toilet and manage to stand in tepid running water for a few moments before shuffling back to lie in the bed, in my hospital gown, looking at the suitcase I so carefully packed weeks ago. It sits open on the floor beside me: my makeup bag, skin cleanser, tweezers, luxurious shower gel, fluffy towels, a hand mirror, lip gloss, a nice cosy outfit, healthy snacks. Where a nurse comes in to check on my bleeding and my stitches. Where I feel so wholly and profoundly broken, in a deeply physical way. Where the floor on which I stand has disappeared, yet I am at once complete in my soul: The start of a great divide. Where I wonder, do all mothers feel like this after birth, like they have been in a dreadful accident? And I decide that they probably do and so I say nothing, and let the insomnia roll in for months on end.
But here, one year later, on my osteopath’s table, the frayed edges of this murky maternity chronology begin to knit back together. And the truth is like a little pool of warm honey landing at my centre: the birthing process is complete. I am safe. I am not broken. I will be okay.
My feet stand firm again, tugging and encouraging my knees and hips into a clear straight line. My hips stop aching. My lower back settles, relaxes, no longer tensing against imminent and total disintegration. I gather the shards of my exploded skeleton back towards my centre, from where I had imagined them, distant points scattered in the air around me like stars. My shoulders drop. I find space to breathe and finally to say, one year later, that I am here again, at the centre of a compass whose points I understand. Rebuilt from the ground up.