Omphaloskepsis

Umbilicus – from the Latin umbo = a knob or projection. Originally, an umbo was the ornamental knob at the center of a warrior’s shield. Umbilicus is a diminutive of that indicating a small projection. The slight projection at the center of the eardrum is also called the umbo.

Navel – Speakers of Old English used the word nafela for the belly-button. This descended from the Greek omphalos for belly-button, through the Anglo-Saxon word nafe, meaning the center of a wheel where the axle was inserted, to nafela. Our word navel for the hub or center of the body comes from that. Incidentally, nave is still a perfectly good word used to indicate the hub of a wheel.

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Nolan’s last little bit of umbilical cord has been attached by a thread. At the pediatrician yesterday, she examined it and told me it would be falling off soon, and, sure enough, when I got him home and changed him, it did…right into my hand. I held it sadly for a couple minutes, not sure what to do with it exactly.

Throughout the pregnancy, he often would have the cord near or across his face in our echography images. During the C section, right after they pulled him out, they pulled a corner of the screen down so I could get my first glimpse…and I remember he still had a good amount of the red purple cord attached to him. When I finally saw him properly the next day, it was just a little stub held in a tiny white plastic clip. I’ve cleaned it carefully each day, scared to pull too hard on what to me felt like a wound, although everyone assured me it didn’t hurt him…and it’s true that he didn’t seem to mind my ham-handedness all that much.

The night before it fell off, there were a couple drops of blood on the gauze when I cleaned it.

And now the last little remnant of what had attached him to me had fallen off. I left it on the table to show Mathieu.

“What IS that?” he asked when he came home for lunch. “Oh, wait. Ok.” He examined the dessicated little stub for half a second, then tossed it.

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Belly buttons are pretty cool, as far as scars go. They’re as close to the sacred as I can think of, a reminder of when we were physically connected and unified with our mothers in the womb. As a metaphor for a connection to something larger, it’s powerful…and I think that was my sadness as I held that little bit of tissue…Nolan is a fully independent being now. Before…the boundaries were blurred. It’s a moment of celebration, really! It makes me hold him tighter sometimes at two in the morning, the whole house silent…

I hold him on chest, skin to skin, allowing my breathing and heartbeat to lull him back to sleep. His face is guileless, and completely relaxed, his hands open. For him we are still connected.

Mathieu tells me, “He thinks he is still Big Belly.” 🙂 I giggle; during the pregnancy, Mathieu would talk to Big Belly as a separate entity from me. (For example, Big Belly would get independently greeted when Mathieu came home from work.) And after the birth, Mathieu came up behind me and hugged my once-again flat empty belly and said, “Big Belly is gone!”

“Are you going to miss it?” I asked him.

He looked over and picked up the sleeping baby; said to him, “Big Belly was YOU!”

Do you see why I lovethis man? 🙂

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The Greek word for navel is “omphalos”; and omphalos were also sacred stones used to mark the geographic “center of the world”. Omphalos stones have been found at several sites in the Mediterranean, the most famous being Delphi. These stones were considered power objects; its symbolic references included the uterus, the phallus and a cup of red wine representing royal blood lines. It may also have connections to the Holy Grail and the Arthurian Sword in the Stone. 

This is the omphalos of Delphi:

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Omphalos stones were believed to allow direct communication with the gods.

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When Mathieu and I went to Rome last fall, we visited the Roman Forum, and there, mixed up among all the temples and marble, was a little humble stone hut with a small placard: The Umbilicus Urbi.

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It looks like nothing, and yet: it was the symbolic center of the city of Rome, and the point from which all distances were measured. Once covered in marble, nothing by a brick structure remains, lost in the larger grandeur of the Forum. 

Roman legend related that Romulus, when he founded the city, had a circular pit dug in the Forum. The first fruits of the year were thrown into this pit as a sacrifice and all new citizens of Rome had to throw in a handful of dirt from their place of origin.

The Mundus (Latin, “world”), known only from literary sources, was an underground structure considered a gate to the underworld. It may be that the Umbilicus Urbis Romae was the external (above ground) part of the subterranean Mundus. The Mundus was ritually opened only three times each year. These days were considered dies nefasti—days on which official transactions were forbidden on religious grounds—because evil spirits of the underworld were thought to escape then.

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As for me…and my omphaloskepsis (a fancy word that just means “navel-gazing”): warning! Post-pregnancy pictures ahead. If this is the kind of thing that makes you uncomfortable…consider yourself warned. 🙂 

It was a few mornings after the birth that the nurses let me out of bed, to go to the bathroom and wash my face and sponge myself off; I still wasn’t allowed in the shower due to the stitches crossing my lower abdomen, dissolvable stitches. It was the first time I looked in the mirror; I pulled up my shirt to see what exactly nine months of pregnancy followed by a C section does to one’s body. Happily, the scar was small (only about six inches or so, enough for a baby head) and laid on a natural creases, practically invisible. My abdomen was still slightly swollen, since it takes almost two months for one’s uterus to contract back to its original size…but recognizably mine still. The light amber colored linea negra, the transverse lightly colored line that crosses your belly during pregnancy, was still present (still is today, actually), which I liked a lot, and still like. I could see my hips and ribs again,though – and my feet! – and marvelled for a few minutes at everything that had just happened, at all the cool things my body had just done, and was still about to do (I was just beginning to breastfeed, and that miracle was still filling me with wonder.)

It felt weird to be just me again, so abruptly. I can’t say I missed a lot of those ninth-month symptoms: the compressed lungs, the numbness shooting down my right leg, the ligament pain, the kicks and hiccups…much more charming from the outside than getting a foot repeatedly stuck under one rib.

The best, weirdest part: my navel, stretched so tightly over the last months of the pregnancy that it laid flat against my skin, taut and slightly uncomfortable to the touch, had changed. It had retracted to a recognizable hollow, but slightly stretched and beautiful. I’d heard this lived-in belly button called the “Mommy Mark”, the evidence that your body has been through a pregnancy and made a human life. I love that. 

Two weeks after, almost:

 

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Not too bad though? Lived in, for sure. Never exactly the same, probably. Evidence of everything that had happened…yes.

Pregnancy does crazy things to your body image and your identity…which is hardly surprising. And body image has always been a weird unsteady place for me; at certain times in my life it has had crippling power over me, particularily in my early teens, when I took my anxiety over not knowing who I was and channeled that paralyzing fear into extreme loathing and compulsive, obsessive discipline. Without going into too many details, that battle dominated my life for an awful lot of years, in one form or another. It was a broken, ugly place to live.

In times of stress, that anxiety rears its head again…though the merciful part of getting older and wiser is that I can now turn down the volume on that voice, even if it never fully goes away. I’ve done enough things in my life that my self-worth is no longer fully based on an aesthetic illusion, and I’m kinder to myself. I take myself less seriously, most of the time…I’ve learned to let go and embrace being myself, with all the flaws and strangeness.

Part of learning how to manage that life involved learning to break rules and take chances, to learn to define myself not by how I looked, or how I measured up, but rather by what I did, what I could do. For some years, that meant some piss-poor decision making, as I struggled and pushed up against the limits of what I could do with my autonomy. And when I began to learn glassmaking, the discipline and quietness and willingness to fail that comes with that discipline – along with the pride of accomplishment over time – gradually silenced the voice that told me that who I was, would never be good enough. Glass taught me to be patient, to perservere, to believe in myself, to have confidence, to be willing to fail – in fact, that failing and being willing to pick yourself back up again and keep trying was the essential ingredient to success.

Being pregnant and creating a new life meant, really for the first time in my life, I became much more cognizant of my body for what it DID, not what it looked like. I’m not going to lie, that shift was often confusing. I am lucky that Mathieu remembered to be kind to me when I was going through the worst of it, to take time to tell me I was beautiful, to cuddle me when I needed it, to remind me to laugh when I struggled to sit up in bed or put on my shoes…(including the game he called Flip the Turtle, where he would surprise me by tipping me onto the couch, feet in the air, followed by my comedic attempts to right myself…which I would pantomine with flailing arms and legs and faux-outraged turtle squeaks.)  We decided to ban scales from the house, to keep me from getting triggered by numbers, and instead focused on lots of fresh fruits and vegetables, yoga, daily bike rides and walks to keep my head clear and my connection with my body present…we printed out images of the baby, sonograms and 3D images, and hung them around the house to remind me of the journey I was on…and the goal.

Now, following the birth, I expected to feel some of that anxiety again. I’ve been scared, to be honest. Self loathing and unsteady body image is a terrible beast to fight against. And I think it’s common after pregnancy… as it really is true to a degree that your body is probably irrevocably changed. Google “post-partum body” to get an idea of what women go through, emotionally…and look at how tabloids treat the subject, railing against Kim Kardasian and even tiny Kate Middleton for not snapping back to bikini-ready perfection hours after pushing out their babies. The word “failure” is used liberally. It’s a sadistic, hateful world when you’re a woman…your worth is measured by how close you conform to an aesthetic ideal, and there is no room in that fantasy for stretch marks, loose skin, or belly buttons.

There was even a photo project called the Fourth Trimester that has been making the rounds, a photo project that was supposed to be empowering by showing women after birth, reminding the viewer that beauty comes in different shapes and sizes.The photographer says she struggled with body image after giving birth to her own children. Discovering other women felt exactly the same inspired her to launch the 4th Trimester Bodies Project. While I loved the series, my heart felt crushed as I read the comments that people had posted on the internet about these women.

“I would never do that to my body.woman use having kids as an excuse and wonder why the man leaves the.men dont like post pregnancy bodies.” said one, not at all aware about men who don’t like lack of punctuation and poor sentence structure. 😉

“Let your husband see you naked, then you won’t have to worry about birth control ever again.” said another.

So I worried…not about Mathieu, who has told me every day in no uncertain terms how much he loves me, how beautiful I am…and how amazed he is by what we are creating, have created, together. But just…you know, if you’ve ever struggled with body image, and let that take over your life, if you’ve ever let that voice drown out all the good and kind and beautiful things you’ve done in your life…it’s worth being afraid.

Instead, to my surprise, what I have experienced has NOT been self-hatred, but rather pride (tempered with humor) when I look in the mirror, even at my stretched out belly button…because it reminds me of my beautiful baby boy, and that I made him and loved him and incubated him and dreamed about him for nine months. Human life starts with an incredible act of love, and an incredible relationship between your body and the new separate life you are creating and nuturing. It’s profound and humbling and as close as I’ve ever been to touching infinity.

Bikinis feel trivial when you rub up against infinity. I can’t wait to start swimming classes with Nolan at the pool…and how I look in a bathing suit has nothing to do with it. 🙂 Why did it feel so very important before? I’m sure it’ll come up again…it always does…but at least now, I feel a sense of perspective.

These little scars we all carry in the centers of our bodies, collecting lint, are a reminder of that physical connection. It’s holy, as much as anything can be. Direct communion with the gods? I don’t know…but as a direct physical reminder of who we are, the journey we are on, and a sign post pointing backwards to our origins, and forward, as a stretched out symbol of how deeply and profoundly we can love…maybe that’s as close as I get to touching the sacred in this life.

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