Last week I had to visit the doctor for a somewhat intimate examination.
I had worn a skirt especially to help the proceedings run smoothly and before she had finished asking me to hop on the bed so she could take a look, I was bunching my skirt around my waist preparing to whip off my knickers.
The GP began purposefully drawing the curtain around me and I blurted out, ” Sorry, but since I had a baby I just don’t feel like I have any dignity left.”
“Yes, but we must try and hold on to a little bit,” she said primly, as she pulled the curtain around me and my daughter’s pram. Yes, I’d even taken a spectator, albeit an oblivious one.
My dignity. Is it really all gone? And where did I lose it, I wonder?
Was it in the labour ward when the third complete stranger entered the room and joined in with popping their fingers between my legs to check how dilated I was?
No, if I lost it that day it must have been before that. Perhaps when I sat bouncing up and down on a ball, wearing nothing but an old, baggy t-shirt bearing the slogan, “Hit Me Baby One More Time”, (it seemed funny when I packed it in the hospital bag), and shouting at the baby inside me to wake up so that they could give me my morphine injection.
Did I misplace my dignity the day I came home from the hospital – no make-up on, my belly still distended, too tired to object to my father-in-law snapping pictures of me as I sat dazed beside the crib?
Or was it in the weeks after that, when I started leaving the house in sick-stained clothes to wheel my pram around the supermarket just so I could get a free coffee?
Is my dignity on the floor of a children’s centre somewhere, where I shamelessly eavesdropped on other mothers’ conversations, in the hope I could join in and find a friend?
Is it lurking in the tide of toys scattered across my sitting room floor, that I haven’t tidied up because it would reveal an unhoovered carpet beneath?
Did I give up my dignity when I surrendered my battle with my employer to hold on to my job, and accepted a redundancy payment because it was easier than standing up for my rights?
As one great wordsmith, Bob Dylan, wrote, “Sometimes I wonder what it’s gonna take, to find dignity.”
A few days after I went to the doctor, I went shopping for a new bathing suit. The one I have been wearing to take my daughter swimming is old, the worn-out Lycra sagging and one underwire poking out dangerously between my cleavage.
The cheap, highstreet store I chose had a small selection of one pieces, even fewer that were plain, and just one in my size that was not designed to reveal as much flesh as possible.
I took the black, halter-neck swimming costume to the changing room to check my bosoms would be suitably contained by the scanty cladding, and hoping it was generously cut enough in the legs to require minimal pubic-pruning.
The shop assistant who checked me into the fitting rooms said the ‘hygiene sticker’ – the one they put on the crotch of undergarments in shops to draw attention to the unsavoury prospect that a stranger’s bodily fluids may be on the garment you are considering purchasing – had come loose and she would have to go upstairs to fit a new one.
I stood in the disabled cubicle, which was right in the entrance of the changing rooms, in view of the shop floor, with a curtain that didn’t quite reach the whole way across, and pushed my pram back and forth as my daughter became more and more discontent.
By the time the assistant returned my baby was in full primal scream mode, but having come this far! I felt I might as well press on.
I stripped to my pants, trying to pretend I hadn’t noticed the staff could see me through the gap in the curtain, along with the queue of people waiting to try on clothes, while simultaneously giving a running commentary to my daughter in a loud, singsong voice, aimed at cheering her up.
Once I had the costume on I yanked her out of the pram and jiggled her about in front of the mirror while we both inspected my reflection.
Overall, it was fine, but my udders were threatening to break free from the low cut neckline.
I poked my head around the curtain and appealed to the assistant, “Excuse me? I need a bigger size, please. Would you mind getting it for me? Because I’ve got the baby…?”
She was sympathetic, and kindly agreed to help.
While I waited for her to return I looked in the mirror at the woman in the bathing suit, a baby clamped on one hip, swaying back and forth, singing nursery rhymes. It took me a little while to recognise her.
She didn’t look like a supermodel or a film star. She certainly didn’t look, “beach body ready”.
But she looked comfortable in her own skin. She looked like a woman who was living her life. She looked like a mother who was doing her best to bring up the child she loves.
And in her own way, she looked dignified.