Post-baby, she'd never felt less pretty. It would take witnessing her close friend cross the threshold into motherhood to see what was there all along.

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I’M STANDING IN FRONT OF A MIRROR in a department store dressing room. Here’s what I see: an exhausted, overwhelmed, half-naked woman who had a baby six weeks ago. Even my earlobes look weary.

Before I go any further, let me say: I was raised on a steady diet of Free to Be...You and Me ($17; and bodies-come-in-all-shapes-and-sizes. So the following assessment of my “post-baby body” (as I have never called it before and never will again) is as disheartening to me as it would be to any self-respecting feminist.

Nevertheless, welcome to my dressing room.

My stomach is an empty kangaroo pouch, a bowl full of Jello, a deflated balloon I can lift with both hands. It would be a fun stress toy to squish around if it weren’t attached to my torso. My breasts are eggs Benedict dripping with veins instead of hollandaise. There are new bulges spilling over the circumference of my bra strap.

The year is 2001. Terms like “muffin top” and “back fat” have not come into vogue. When they do, I won’t embrace them. I’ve always been a healthy size 8, but now I have no idea what size I am, so I’ve grabbed all the sizes. When the salesperson asked if I was shopping for an occasion, I said, “Motherhood.” She backed away, hands in the air.

I am 27, the first of my friends to have a baby. I read the books and took Lamaze classes, but there is still a lot I wasn’t prepared for. The mucus plug, for starters. The sound of a newborn’s cry—equal parts kitten, chainsaw, and sonic boom. The new vocabulary: “meconium,” “fontanel,” “lanugo.”

But more surprising than the satisfaction of a tight swaddle or the bottomlessness of my love is how my body looks. Do I pause to appreciate what it’s been through, the person it grew? Nope. Instead I wrinkle my nose and wonder if I’ll ever fit into my old jeans.

I buy a pair of black-and-white checkered pants that will be my uniform for the next three seasons. I’ll wear them when we take our daughter to visit her great-grandmother and when I push her on a swing for the first time. On 9/11, I will be wearing these pants when the towers fall and my husband and I race through the ashes with our 5-month-old, running so fast I won’t notice the jiggle of my belly against the waistband. Never will I have been so grateful for my pair of strong legs.

BUT FIRST, before any of this happens: I go home to my baby-cluttered apartment and call my friend Claire, who is driving across Mexico. The two of us have shared meals, clothes, car keys, mixtapes, job leads, secrets—but right now, our lives could not be more different. While Claire is camping under the stars, I’m running my finger down the index of The Contented Little Baby Book ($14;, looking for “colic, symptoms of.”

Claire mentions she’s learning how to surf. “Wow,” I say, wondering if I’ll ever wear a bathing suit again. “Is it hard?”

Claire says it’s one of the hardest things she’s ever done—“Ha,” I think—but the water is beautiful and warm, so she’s sticking with it. I’m not in any frame of mind to spot a metaphor, but I glance at my daughter in the crook of my elbow and suddenly stop wishing for a friend who understands why I’m wearing cabbage leaves in my bra. It turns out, I do have something in common with Claire: We’re both learning to surf. I will wear a bathing suit again. I’ll fit into my jeans. In fact, the only body part that will remain bigger is my heart. And OK, fine, maybe my butt, but I’m the only one who notices.

BUT THIS ISN’T THE END of the story. Not even close.

Over the next five years, I have two more kids, and Claire comes to know their favorite pizza toppings and the names of their teachers. When the third graders have to write about a person who is important to them, my daughter writes about Claire. Rushing to a meeting at school, I smile at Claire’s picture on a bulletin board alongside J.K. Rowling’s and Barack Obama’s.

And then when my kids are 14, 11, and 8, Claire calls to tell me she’s pregnant. We rejoice. Nobody deserves this more; nobody is better prepared. Still, over the next several months, I bombard Claire with all the information I wish someone had shared with me. I tell her about the mucus plug; she already knows. I tell her she might still look pregnant after the baby is born; she is aware.

When Claire’s daughter is 6 weeks old, my family flies to California to meet her. We’ve rented a bungalow, and the plan is for Claire to come over when we arrive. I’m surprised how quickly I get a text saying, “Parking! Be right in.” Maybe five-point restraints are less confusing than they used to be? (They’re not.)

When I open the door, I see Claire with a bottle of wine in one hand and a car seat in the other. Her daughter is at what my mom would call “a rolling boil”—there’s that sonic boom again, but without the old hair-raising effect. I pause to take in my friend.

I’ve imagined Claire as I was after I had my older daughter: overwhelmed and baggy, depleted and bulky. The woman in front of me is the happiest person I have ever seen. She is also—radiantly, magically—all her old selves again: The girl sitting on the counter in our college house, eating macaroni from the pot. A young paralegal, slipping a token into a turnstile as if she owned the subway system. A beaming bride.

I couldn’t tell you what Claire looked like that night. Is she wearing skinny jeans or a caftan? Converse sneakers or sandals? What I remember is the way she holds the car seat as if it were the lightest thing in the world. As if it were a gift. Which, of course, it is.

For the first time, I appreciate the near-superhuman power of a woman who has just crossed the threshold into motherhood. The glow around Claire isn’t only from the streetlight; it is courage and optimism. It is knowing what to expect, knowing you can’t possibly know everything, and diving in anyway.

We open the wine. My kids bicker about holding the baby, who is spectacular, as I knew she would be. She looks like her mom and her dad and herself—and also, strangely, like the baby who gazed at me from the car seat on the floor of that dressing room. My big girl, the one who taught me how to get up on the board and how to keep my eyes on the horizon.

My husband holds Claire’s baby—a beautiful sight. He and I have arrived at a place we never dreamed of, where our kids can make breakfast, pack their own suitcases. They are the people we’ve been waiting for. And guess what hangs behind them, mounted on the wall: two surfboards, one black, one white.

Elisabeth Egan is the author of A Window Opens ($13; and chief correspondent on the Instagram account @100postcards.