Really, it was embarrassing. My kids were three and one, and that meant I hadn’t been pregnant for – well, for a year – and yet, almost every day, someone would pass and yell, “Hey, congratulations!” Young men would offer me a seat on the subway with a concerned look. The nannies at my older daughter’s preschool would look at my two girls and point at my belly, exclaiming “I think it’s a boy!” Over dinner, I’d tell my husband the latest affront and try to laugh, but it never really seemed funny. My stomach was hanging over my jeans, protruding like I had hidden a turkey under my sweater, and I couldn’t seem to do anything about it.

In fact, I had a real problem. My abdominal muscles were so weak and unhelpful that my back gave out every night. I dreaded taking care of my kids – not good, if you’re a stay-at-home-mom – because my pelvic bones would shimmy away from each other every time I had to lift anything heavier than my toothbrush. I tried acupuncture. I dieted. I bought a splint. I saw a physiatrist. I bought fat pants. I went to physical therapy. I bought shirts that draped. More physical therapy.

As the weather got warmer and my youngest was nearing 18 months, an old friend popped up on Facebook. He was in town starring in a play, and wanted to see me. He asked for a home-cooked meal, to meet my husband and kids; he’d come to Brooklyn and juggle for his supper. What a sweet idea! I decided I would make an apple pie, to remind us of the days when our families used to eat Thanksgiving together, all those years ago, before our parents died and we lost touch. But then, I didn’t respond. He emailed, to make sure that Facebook wasn’t the problem. I ignored it. Suddenly, my belly was what I had become – it was the sum total of the 20 years since I’d seen this boy, and the only way I could hide it was to drop out of sight.

Bad behavior – that’s how we usually know we’ve hit rock bottom, isn’t it? I’d ignored the friendly overtures of someone I used to care about; I’d invited someone to dinner, and turned out the lights. Awful. So, here’s what I did: I took a deep breath, and $15,000 from my savings, and scheduled a tummy tuck for July. My surgeon was a young mom who was positive that I was doing the only thing I could do.

[tagbox tag="plastic surgery"]

She stood in front of me and lifted the bulk of my sagging, flour-sack belly. “Do you know what this is?” she asked, pushing with all her weight to fit it back into my abdominal cavity. “These are your organs, hanging out your front.” She pointed to my popped belly button. “And that’s an umbilical hernia. Your intestines are poking through there, too.”

I won’t lie: it was brutal. She sewed my muscles back together, and cut away the fat that had nested under the skin. She stretched my skin down, and cut away the excess, dropping my c-section scars in the process. She removed my belly button, repaired the hole, and put it back in a whole new place. When I came home, I had a purple incision that stretched from one hip to the other, and when I saw it, my knees went weak. Ativan was the only thing that would allow my husband to change the dressings. I couldn’t stand up straight. I had to pee through a hole in a skin tight compression garment, and I was told not to lift my kids for six weeks.

But when the pain and terror started to ease, and I stopped to look at myself in the mirror, I saw something I hadn’t seen in years: a glimmer of myself, before the pregnancies and the kids, before the sleepless nights, and the drapey shirts, and before the kind and not-kind remarks of strangers. I’m not gorgeous, or Hollywood thin. I’m just, finally, myself again. Someone who can stand on the subway with the rest of New York.

(Photo: iStockphoto)