This is an essay that I wrote when my youngest was about 18 months old.
This morning, I took E in the shower with me to give him a good steam, since we were both congested and half-frozen from getting the two big kids off to school in this ridiculous weather (side note: anytime they start busting out the phrase 'polar vortex' in the forecast, you can just count me out. We need legislation against this kind of weather.) And as I was washing my hair, watching my sturdy little person jump in the water and fill up any cup he could find only to dump it out again a moment later, I just had to scoop him up and kiss his little belly. This kid has the best, belly-est belly laugh of any toddler I've ever met and if you really get him going, he starts squealing in delight. I just can't get enough of it. And as I was kissing his little round toddler belly, I just had to notice his bellybutton.
Now, the bellybutton gets made fun of a lot. And to be fair, it's kind of a ridiculous word. I much prefer the term navel, which is related to its being the hub or center of the body. Apparently, nave is a perfectly serviceable term for the hub or center of a wheel. And geographically, it's pretty accurate; it's more or less in the center of the body, and if you were to turn cartwheels, it would be more or less the hub of those cartwheels.
But it's more than that. As I was kissing that giggly little toddler belly, I had the thought that you and I used to be connected here. This was the place where my body connected to yours, nourished and protected your body while it grew within my own. And I thought about my own navel, and how it had connected me to my own mother when I was an unborn baby.
It made me really think about all of the navels that I come in contact with on a daily basis in my work. There are the ones that are stretched to capacity by the tiny person they are barely holding in, perhaps even popping out like a compass to steer the birthing parent straight ahead, toward their meeting with their unborn baby.
And the brand-new ones, too. The ones that are a freshly made wound, the newborn body only moments or hours from the time when it was connected to a parent. I teach new parents how to care for that wound, how to be careful with it when changing a diaper or dressing a squirmy new babe. I talk to the babies and tell them what good parents they have, how lucky they are to have caregivers who are so tender and tentative about their raw, new navel.
And while the humble bellybutton doesn't get much credit, it's partially responsible for helping the human race survive. In many ways, it is the hub, the center, of our humanity; it is the place where we were once connected, in a real and physical way, to another human being. In a way that we will never be again, unless we happen to grow another human within our own bodies. I guess that moment in the shower this morning made me think of all the navels, back down the line, mother to grandmother to great grandmother and so on, back to the very beginning. In a very tangible way, we are connected to the women who came before us, who gave us life.*
I feel so blessed to be in a line of work where I support that hub of connection between parents and babies, where I encourage caregivers and parents alike not to rush the severing of that connection at birth. It seems a shame to refer to something so sacred and important as a 'cord stump' or even a 'bellybutton'. I never want to become so burned out in my work that I lose the ability to find a moment of wonder and awe over something so commonplace as a navel.
So yes, I plan to continue kissing that adorable toddler bellybutton, and the two school-age ones for as long as they will allow it, because..... well, just because I can. And because it makes them laugh. And also because I will always remember the days spent waiting for my navel to pop out of my huge, pregnant belly (it never did), those days where I knew the person (or people!) inside so intimately but had no idea what they looked like and what their personalities were. When they were connected to me at their very center.
*I can't find a way to fit adoptive parents into my philosophizing about bellybuttons, but I do recognize that there are other ways to give and nourish life than by carrying a baby. There are so, so many folks out there who nourish life in other ways. I'm just navel-gazing here.**
**I'm sorry. I realize that pun was awful.
Liz Libby is an International Board Certified Lactation Consultant, a Certified Lactation Counselor, and a CAPPA-certified childbirth educator. She lives in Brewster, MA with her three wild boys, canine sidekick, and her partner. Find her at email@example.com.