My hands are ugly.

The skin over the back is thin, papery, rough, and wrinkled.  The knuckles are swollen, red, and scabbed over from decades of untreated eczema that often leaves them looking like the knuckles of a prize-fighter, or a drunk with a violent streak.  The palms are flaking and cracking.  The nails are uneven.  They break easily, or peel off, leaving thin, delicate strips just begging to be bitten off.  I cut my nails short.  Blunt.  I don’t even use a file to shape them.  I say that it’s so that I can play guitar and type more easily, but, really, it’s because they’re so thin and soft, if I did let them grow out, they’d just prove too tempting. I’d chew them into non-existence.

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My hands today. A very good day. Just a few cuts on the knuckles.

I know my hands look bad, and I know that, since giving birth to my little girl back in February of 2012, they’ve only gotten worse.  Scalded by steam used to sanitize her bottles and pacifiers.  Sliced by kitchen knives as I clumsily concoct homemade purees for her, and attempt to create elaborate, edible dinners for my husband (I have actually cut off large chunks of my left thumb several times now. I’m amazed that I don’t have a permanent dent on the top of it).  Plunged into soapy sink and bathtub water.  Exposed to vicious cleaning agents and a never ending parade of cloth diapers needing to be rinsed, scrubbed, bleached, and scrubbed again.  My hands have not fared well the past ten and a half months.  Their increasing ugliness is part of my physical transition into motherhood.  My bloody, dry, battered hands are as much a part of my body changing from childbirth as my soft, empty breasts and opened hipbones are.

To be fair, my hands were never the best part of my body. I remember being a kindergartner, living with the embarrassment of having to sleep with gloves on, filled with slimy lotion prescribed by my pediatrician. The bottle said “unscented,” but there was a slippery residue, a faint whiff like medicinal olive oil that I can still remember as clearly as I remember the smell of my father’s Old Spice, the odor of which would enter the room before him, waking me up in the mornings before he ever had a chance to pat my shoulder, rub my back, and whisper, “Get up, sleepy head.”  I hated those gloves, and would frequently lie to my mother, saying that I went to bed with them on but woke up without them.  I must have pulled them off in my sleep.  It was wishful thinking. I wanted my subconscious to despise those gloves as much as I did.

Even now, on the driest, coldest winter days, when my hands crack and bleed and scab, my husband holds them gently, pityingly.  “Poor hands.”  I’ll catch him sometimes, rubbing his fingertips across my knuckles, feeling the texture of their roughness.

And now, every day I look at my daughter’s hands.  Soft, round, plump, warm.  Her knuckles are small dimples on the back of her hands.  I count them. Four.  Four dimpled knuckles. Then again.  Four knuckles.  Five fingers.  I could count them all day.  I love when she touches my face, my cheeks, my lips, and I can feel the incredible smoothness of her fingertips, untouched by work or stress or strain.  Cherubic.  I love to trace the lines on her palm with my eyes, roving back and forth.  Love.  Life.  Success.  All mapped out in her perfect, perfect hands.

Just recently, I’ve noticed that I pull my hands away from hers.

It’s not that I don’t love to hold her hands.  I do.  It’s that I don’t want her to hold mine.  I don’t want her to feel my embarrassment.  Her angelic hands shouldn’t have to touch mine.  They shouldn’t have to feel their unloveliness.  This blatant aesthetic dichotomy shouldn’t exist.  My hands aren’t worthy of touching her, of rubbing over her body like fine grain sandpaper.  I don’t want her to remember her mother’s touch like this.  They’re not good enough for her.  I don’t take care of myself.  I don’t get them manicured, rubbed, scrubbed, and polished.  They aren’t feminine.  They aren’t what a woman’s hands are supposed to feel like.  They are a sign of my failure.  I’m not good enough for her.

But, recently, several blogs have made me realize my recoil and reassess my ungainly hands.  Amy Morrison’s “Why You’re Never Failing as a Mother,” Allison Tate’s “The Mom Stays in the Picture,” and Retronaut’s “The Invisible Mother” (a collection of Victorian-era photographs where mothers actually completely cover their physical bodies with large bolts of fabric, so they can hold their children still while the film develops and keep the child the central focus of the image) all reminded me that my changing, developing, rapidly altering body should not be a source of pain or embarrassment or shame.  Are my ugly hands a sign of my failure of womanhood?  Or a sign of the failure of “womanhood” to account for a new mom?  Do I think that hands need to be long, slender, and callous-free in order to be valued?  Do I think that I still have value, with my loose abdominal skin and stretch marks and no clear career path?  Who is failing whom?

I don’t want to be invisible to my child.  I don’t want to resist her touch because I’m uncertain about my own.  And I’d rather have my daughter know the roughness of her mother’s skin than to not know any touch at all.  Looking back over the years, I want my daughter to remember her (somewhat) energetic, youthful mother, cracked knuckles and all.  I want to tell her, again and again, that I am crazy in love with her.  Speech is not enough. Language fails during these times.  Through my touch, through my smile and laugh and hugs and kisses, that’s how I show her that I love her more than anything, more than myself.  And through my hand holding.  I’m 30 years old, and when I walk down the street with my aging parents, I still instantly grab their hands whenever we come to a crosswalk.  You hold hands when you cross the street.  You hold your mommy’s hand.  That will always keep you safe.  You can’t cross the street unless you have somebody’s hand.  Everybody knows that.  My child will know that.  Small though they might be, her mommy’s hands will be there to stop traffic, to banish monsters, to wipe tears, to turn the tides, to pluck the moon out of the sky for her.  She needs to know that I’m not invisible.  She’s the central focus, but I’m standing right next to her.  And I’m holding her.

It’s time to stop being ashamed of my hands.  Broken, calloused as they are, they are mine.  And this perfect little child standing before me?  She’s mine too.  Her hands are in many ways my hands.  And maybe one day, I’ll have to put lotion on them that smells like medicinal olive oil, place them in white cotton gloves, and send her to bed, miserable and obstinate.  I’ll pretend to believe her when she comes to me in the morning, claiming to have pulled them off while she slept.  Even if she inherits her mother’s eczema, she will be perfect.  I’ll show her that by example.  By being proud of my own hands.  By being bold and unafraid of what they represent for me as a woman, as a wife.  And I’ll kiss her little hands.

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