Note: This originally published on Romper.
When I was 15, I was sexually assaulted. I didn’t tell a soul for seven years. The experience left me full of self-blame and loathing for years, and I hated my body for what was done to it. But nearly half a lifetime after my sexual assault, my first pregnancy helped me reclaim my body by reshaping the way I felt about it.
While the assault itself lasted only a few minutes, the emotional aftermath was prolonged. I dealt with it the best way I knew how: by trying to reclaim control over my body. Unfortunately, during my teen years and early twenties, that meant engaging in a deluge of harmful behaviors, including disordered eating and alcohol abuse.
Eventually, this behavior became my norm. I had no respect for my body and I struggled to build self-esteem (which are typical effects of sexual violence). There were times I drank entirely too much and too often, sought out attention and affection from men not worthy of my time, and let people walk all over me.
Nevertheless, I excelled in school, launched a career, and settled down with a lovely man. But no academic or professional accolades could silence my negative body image or mitigate the suffering that had once been forced upon me. I was a well-camouflaged mess. But pregnancy and childbirth changed all that.
Once my husband and I decided to start a family, I altered my lifestyle for the better: I began to nourish my body and cut out harmful substances. Granted, this was for the sake of my as-yet conceived baby, and not yet for my own. But it was a stepping stone to bodily self-respect. What started as an effort to create a healthy womb snowballed into my first attempt at self-care. It felt good to treat my body with consideration, and after weeks of doing so, it became habit.
Finally, after eight months of trying to conceive, I got pregnant. From the instant my pregnancy test read positive, I treated my body like a temple: no crappy foods, plenty of exercise, and more water than I ever thought possible. I was in the best physical health of my life and, as it turned out, my mental health was blossoming too. The more I took care of my body, the more I began to respect it, and my negative self-image began to fade.
As my body continued to grow and change over the coming weeks and months, so did my appreciation for it. I was fascinated by how my body was adapting to pregnancy, from the subtle changes to the more obvious ones. (Oh hello, darker nipples.) That I could grow and sustain a human life blew my mind. Pregnancy is an awesome privilege and responsibility, and my body was handling it like a champ.
Indeed, my body was writing a love letter to itself with every kick and in utero hiccup. And that letter turned into a full-blown dissertation after labor and delivery. Immediately after delivering my daughter, I lay there laughing and crying, saying, “I did it! I actually did it!” As much as I was in awe of my newborn, I was likewise amazed with what my body had just accomplished.
I felt like a superhero. In a matter of hours, my body had transformed us from a family of two to a family of three. It contracted, it tore and it pushed out a human being. That’s f*cking incredible. And it was doubly incredible nearly three years later, when I gave birth to my ginormous son.
The shift in my thinking was acute. My body was no longer just a battlefield on which a trauma was wrought; it was a force of nature capable of things greater than I ever imagined. For someone whose body was once violated and long neglected, there’s nothing more empowering than such a realization.
Pregnancy taught me how to love and respect my physical self (cellulite and all). That’s a gift that keeps on giving, not just to myself but also to my children. They are witnessing the best version of me—brimming with self-respect and body positivity—and can only benefit from having a confident mom with self-esteem.
I’ll forever be grateful for my pregnancies, not just because of the babies they brought but because they helped heal a deep and lingering trauma.
If you are a survivor of sexual assault, please seek professional help or call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-4673.