Hannah Shuckburgh re-discovers the healing power of make-up and pampering after giving birth.
Illustration by Miranda Sofroniou
Three weeks after my first baby was born, I stood naked in front of the mirror, surveying the wreckage. Beside me, in his Moses basket, lay my sleeping son: tiny, peachy perfection with fronds of hair as soft as air and a pink, Cupid’s bow mouth. There was not a blemish on his chubby, innocent face. And there was I: haggard, exhausted, broken. My eyes were red-rimmed, sunken deeply into darkly-shadowed sockets. My skin was marked with spots, dry patches and broken veinss. Wispy strands tufted out from my above temples where my hair had broken and attempted to regrow. I looked down at the fine webbing of stretchmarks where my skin had given way and held out my knuckles: chapped and cracked from pushing the buggy, gloveless in the January cold.
Before I’d had a baby, make-up and beauty had been so much a routine part of life that the daily application of creams and colours was as automatic as brushing my teeth. At night, without the distractions of a crying baby or a metre-high pile of dirty babygros to wash, I would scrupulously cleanse, dotting on serums and eye creams, before lying in bed to carefully apply handcream. My nails were always short and polished – inky Chanel in winter, Essie neons in summer. I was religious about moisturizer, sunscreen, plucking and shaving. I had a busy and demanding job, but I looked after myself, as people who have no children do.
Once the baby had arrived, deodorant was just about all I could manage. Even a few weeks in, not a single bottle of moisturizer or cleanser had been opened. I washed with whatever my husband had left around, in a breathless panic, constantly popping my head around the shower curtain to check my precious newborn, lying on a towel on the bathroom floor, hadn’t somehow stopped breathing. It was time to find myself again.
So, when Adair was six weeks old, Archie, my husband, pushed him round the park as he slept and I went to my local nail salon. MTV blared from the TV in the corner, outside buses hissed, rubbish trucks roared and sirens and fumes filled the air. The woman next to me argued loudly down the phone. But as I sank back into my leatherette chair and submerged my feet in the lurid blue water, the world went quiet. It’s a cliché but in that cheap nail salon on Shepherd’s Bush Green, I remembered the completely transformative power of being pampered.
It’s easy to feel like you’ve lost a part of yourself when you have a baby. While a great pedicure or a good mascara is not going to make you a more confident or better mum, sometimes in the maelstrom of new motherhood, it can be hard to feel beautiful. The simple luxury of a face cream, the cheery sight of a bright manicure, even the ritual of having a bath when the baby is asleep can at least make you feel cherished, even if it’s just for a single moment in the chaos of life.
My friend Rosie says she barely recognized her body after she’d given birth to her daughter. “I felt glowy and amazing when I was pregnant with Sybil,” she says. “My hair was bouncy and glossy, my skin clearer than it’s ever been. But suddenly that all went to pot when she was born. I had acne, chloasma, thread veins, my hair fell out in clumps. During a time when I was often wracked with self-doubt, I looked in the mirror and felt even more deflated.” It’s an experience lots of my friends recognize. When I posted a message on Facebook asking my girlfriends which beauty products they most loved using after the birth of their babies, many mentioned balm and creams that helped them to “feel human again”. It was a poignant turn of phrase. Early motherhood, with its lack of sleep and the demands it places on you physically, can be a dehumanizing experience. There is little space to look after yourself when so much of you is given over to looking after your baby.
As I walked home from that first pedicure, I looked down at my flip-flopped feet and admired the glossy, forest-green shade. Yes, I still smelt of stale milk, my tummy hung in soft folds over my pyjama bottoms, and there was probably nothing I could do about those eye bags; but perhaps there were little things I could do to make me feel a little less at sea. At home, I unzipped my makeup bag, took out a little tub of Bobbi Brown crème blush and smoothed a little pink on each cheek. I curled my eyelashes and coated them with a few flicks of mascara. I patted some lip balm on my chapped lips. I stood in front of the mirror again and looked at my body. I thought, then, about what that body had done for me; how it had carried a baby safely to term, how it had given birth to and fed a child. How it had survived illness, still standing. And there was my face; yes, a little worn, craggy and weary, perhaps, but alive and happy. And I thought: perhaps you’re not so bad after all.