Introducing: This Postpartum Body series
I have become increasingly distressed at the myriad of pressures placed on women postpartum. Even Kate, the Duchess of Cambridge, has acknowledged the pressures that come with the adjustment to motherhood - admitting that even she, with resources and support that far surpass those available to most mothers, struggled to adjust to motherhood.
The subtle (and not so subtle) misogyny embedded in our society does a great job at putting mothers, but especially new mothers, in a dark corner, only happy to acknowledge us when we share perfect little pictures and glorify how quickly we have “bounced back”. This fosters a particular kind of isolating behavior: women are not speak up when things aren’t going quite right. Perpetually bombarded with curated media around pregnancy, birth, and parenthood, the pressure to fit in and be doing it right are shouting down the increasingly fading images of what is normal. This censorship of normal pregnancy, normal birth, normal postpartum is crippling.
And by the way: bounce back from what? As someone once said:
“You are not a tennis ball. You don’t have to bounce back from anything.”
One of the most glaringly obvious distortions of normal is this quiet competition - fed by post after filtered post - to see: who can get their body back the fastest. Strategic lighting and angles, bodies and clothing twisted just right perpetuate unrealistic expectations, not to mention a starkly patriarchal view of what postpartum looks like for a new mother. But here’s a thought from Sara Celina:
I NEVER LOST IT.
YOU NEVER LOST IT.
WE NEVER LOST OUR BODIES.
Misogyny is ingrained in our society. Deeply disguised or thinly veiled, it is all over. And it is all over motherhood. We are haunted by this shadow of shame, of guilt. It lurks in every corner. And with the explosion of social media, its far reaching tendrils have crept into our homes, whispering like a little devil on our shoulder: “You are not good enough”.
It starts even in pregnancy: Suddenly, my belly swelling - and my breasts and my feet and my face - I became public domain. Suddenly, everyone assumes the right to comment on my every curve, my every pore, my every follicle. Suddenly, I am expected to submit to being caressed and rubbed and patted - extra points for a demure smile and a carefree laugh - because I am supposed to like being fawned over like this. I am to submit, to succumb to the comments and the pawing and the unfettered critique and discussion. Society boldly calls for me to stand there, stand there and be a pretty pregnant woman. Gain just the right amount of weight - and then be vilified for doing so. Register for all the pretty toys and clothes — and then be criticized for the choices. Take all the birthing and parenting classes because it’s important to be informed - and get grief for being overly prepared.
And in birth: women are told again and again that their body is not to be trusted. Come here, go there, birth here. Lie down. Be quiet. Scream like this. Push like this. You are progressing too fast. Don’t push yet. You are not progressing fast enough. Time for a c-section! Manage your pain like this. Eat this, drink this. Don’t eat anything. You might rip, so you need to be cut. Sit there while we pull this organ out of you - if you do it yourself it might go wrong! You need this medicine and that medicine. And this IV. And this monitor. We know best. We are in charge of your body. *
And postpartum: look pretty, look happy, look fulfilled - we have decided that this is the happiest time of your life! Have you lost that weight yet? Are you wearing your pre-pregnancy jeans yet? Wow! You still look pregnant! Smile and nod at the incessant comments about your baby, your body. Do it this way, do it that way, and oh by the way - when are you having another one? Lose the weight, but not too fast. Breastfeed your baby, but don’t let anyone see! Oh look, your hair is falling out. Has your period started again? Smile. Nod. Be what we want to see: a 1950’s Stepford mom.
This has to stop.
Shifting hormones and mounting demands and increasing pressure add needless strain to the mental, emotional, and physical health of new mothers. It is clear that society has become almost completely disconnected with what it looks like to support and nurture each other; and new mothers in particular. This must change. We must change. And instead of asking women to focus on getting their body back, can we just be given the space to be women? Mothers? Humans learning to navigate this new adventure? Can we celebrate the emergence of this woman reborn into the role of mother?
So, here’s what:
No, you do not have permission to touch my body without my permission. EVER. It is not cute. You do not have permission to question if I am sure I am only so far along because WOW I really look like I could POP any minute. How would you feel if I walked up to you and patted your stomach and commented on your weight? Don’t say it is different because I am pregnant. I am a human just like you, a person just like you. I am not public domain.
And we deserve to birth with all the knowledge and support of practitioners who see that, by and large, our bodies are enough. We deserve to birth with the support of techniques that are EMPOWERING instead of CONVENIENT. It is our RIGHT to be CONSENTED; to be consented BEFORE any exam, any procedure. No, I will NOT pre-sign a consent for a c-section at my last clinic visit. No, you don’t get to yank out my placenta because it is FASTER.
Do not enter my home and forget that this cocoon of horticultural time is not about you. Do not whine to be hosted while I am bleeding and feeding and resting and healing. My magical body is transforming again and again. You may marvel quietly at the wonder of it. Do not ask about my period. Do not question if I am breastfeeding enough. I am not public domain.
Instead of barging in with expectations, shut up and hand me a peri-bottle. Wash my bloody underwear. Don’t shift uncomfortably when I breastfeed. Take a look at why this postpartum body makes YOU uncomfortable and then keep that discomfort to yourself. I don’t need it.
My goal here - to riff on the immortal words of Justin Timberlake - is to bring normal back. I am going to break it all down, using my postpartum body. Any pang of self-consciousness is not enough to keep me from helping to break down this illusion. Join me in normalizing normal as I highlight some of the common changes that we, as women and mothers, experience in our postpartum bodies. And let’s listen closely for all the quiet (and not so quiet) whispers about who we as a society are expecting women to be, who we are expecting . Let’s shatter these impossible standards. Let’s stop this dizzying dichotomy of what this patriarchal society has come to expect - nay, demand - of women postpartum and what we are really experiencing. And then let’s get real about supporting and honoring and celebrating the beauty and wonder and majesty that is woman.
Stay Tuned! First up: POSTPARTUM HAIR LOSS
*I will explore this more in a later post. It is undeniable that the advances of Western medicine have undoubtedly saved countless lives of women and children in childbirth. However, birth is not a medical event if it is running a normal course and it cannot be ignored that the United States of America has the highest rate of maternal mortality (deaths of mothers during or, more commonly, in the weeks and months following birth) than any other developed country in the world. And while white mothers are 50% more likely to die as a result of childbirth than their own mothers, the risk to women of color is three to four times higher than that. If this is not a clear example of racism and misogyny existing in our society, I don’t know what is.