My eyes tear up a little as Ellie twirls herself whimsically on the hardwood floors, perpetually two days overdue for mopping. In my mom-life world, mopping is my nemesis and a battle I often lose to the yogurt on the floor, the toys scattered all over and the muddy paw prints from the dog that undo my efforts as immediately as they are done. From the perch of my kitchen table I watch the spectacle of our morning routine unfold. It involves dancing, tickling the sleeping dog to wake him, unveiling every toy from the princess castle that had been neatly put away, and being a generally curious and inquisitive two-year-old, getting into everything. Sometimes the activities vary, sometimes she pours her orange juice into the dog’s water bowl and sometimes she hides her breakfast fruit in various nooks and crannies throughout the house to find later, but one thing holds true: she always plays with her belly button.
Ellie Belly. I didn’t want that to be her nickname. We chose Ellie’s name in honor of my grandmother – a beautiful, kind and patient soul– as a namesake legacy. My only hesitation with our choice was the fear that she might be teased as an “Ellie Belly”. My fear stemmed from the years of living with an eating disorder that had dominated my life. I am now many years in recovery and much more knowledgeable about how casual cruelty can turn a beautiful name into a reason for Ellie to hate her name and her body. I didn’t want her to face the same challenges I had.
Never, in all of the hours (read: day, weeks and spreadsheets) I spent laboring over baby name lists, did I anticipate calling her Ellie Belly myself. The nickname started before she even turned one, and it not only uniquely suits her, but, most surprising of all is that it has a deep meaning that melts my heart. Ellie Belly carries more beauty to it than my maternal heart could have been prepared to understand.
Ellie’s belly routine started so young that I cannot remember her without it. Right thumb in the mouth. Left hand plucking or stroking the belly button, over and over. And over and over. Hours on end. In Ellie’s world, there is no thumb sucking without belly button touching. By the time she was nine-months-old, this self-soothing process turned the hallowed area where the umbilical cord had detached to turn itself around and inside out, turning her innie into an outie. Her pediatrician confirmed that she had indeed undone whatever stitches were sutured in place at her birth and commended Ellie on her commitment to self-soothing.
She may not realize it, but her belly button attachment fills those deep wells of my mom heart with purpose. I delight in seeing her love the one thing that made us inseparable. I think about my own belly button and the blood and life it represents from my own mother, and I feel a generational connection that is unshakeable and powerfully fulfilling. The belly button chases away loneliness and it connects us to all of the mothers in our family tree.
Then, there’s also the downside to Ellie’s belly-button obsession. Clothing her in the morning, for car rides, for naps and bedtime are all strategic efforts to make sure she can always reach her favorite little worry stone. Rompers don’t work for Ellie. They are too tight in the arms and neck for her to shove an arm towards her belly, and they don’t have open buttons on the front for her to lance her finger through towards that sacred spot. I have to be careful when we buckle into the car seat: if I haven’t arranged a proper access point for her to caress her belly button, the entire drive will be filled with tears and shrieks. She loves dresses, but since she pulls them up to her shoulders and walks around with her legs, belly and chest showing, we are left mostly with outfits consisting of the basics for easy, and appropriate access: pants and shirts. I count it a blessing that she has long hair for a two-year-old because I can always style her hair, even when I can’t style her clothes
Unfortunately, making these little decisions for her has a short life span. Everyday she grows further away from me; every day, getting more and more independent, daring and autonomous. Her individuality and extraversion ignites within me a maternal ache I never knew existed before Ellie. It’s the ache of knowing that these moments, short years filled with very long days, are fleeting. One day soon she will go to school and her classmates might decide that the name “Ellie” is too short and the nickname “belly” should be its perfect companion. If that day comes, when she steps off the bus, reaching for my hugs and kisses and comfort, I will remind her about her belly button. I will tell her how her and I are always connected. I will tell her that even though we won’t always be together, I will always be with her. I will whisper to her that even when she outgrows being my reliable sidekick and mini-me, I have joy knowing that part of me, a reminder of our God-given bond, will never be removed. Where she goes, I will go. Always. And that gives us both strength.
It is in the littlest of our parts that the greatest love can be captured. It is through this often-overlooked body part that my heart is filled to overflow on a daily basis. This is why my eyes tear up as I sit in awe at my kitchen table, coffee mug warming my hands, and watch my daughter touching her belly button and twirling to a song she just made up.