I wear my stretch marks like battle scars.
I had heard this phrase before, vaguely realising that childbearing and birth were something akin to a war, not fully understanding how radically true this was.
Childbirth is like a particularly intense hazing Nature puts us through. To me, it was this unimaginably violent, painful, radical test my body and mind had to bear, and here I sit, writing about it, trying to put words on the impossible, looking at my child yet not realising I have done it and lived to tell the tale.
Another part of me is laughing, pointing at the very pretentious act of writing about something experienced by millions of women every day, these millions not feeling the particular need to be writing about it all. This is the part of myself that laughs and points: Look at that little privileged girl, acting as if she were the only one that ever gave birth, making a big deal out of it. But bear with me and allow me to ponder on it all for a while.
In hindsight, I think it’s safe to say that child birth really Is a big fucking deal. If men were doing it, there would be memorials in every city to every fallen comrade who died or sustained injuries giving life, and I can guarantee you that budget cuts would not be made on maternal/paternal health.
Childbirth is intense on a personal level, no matter what the experience: for me it was more that 30 hours of stalled labor and sheer anxiety spending every minute of these 30 hours monitoring my baby’s heart rate, making me beg for a Caesarian which I got in the end, comforting me in my personal belief that natural childbirth is barbaric, that epidurals are the best thing in the world (you can add capital letters to that, Let me rephrase: epidurals are The Best Thing In The World. Trademarking for good measure) and that I don’t see the point of that much pain if i can avoid it. Also, c-sections rule. Like Beyonce rule. That’s how much they do rule. The world. Period.
Not everyone has the same experience and you will certainly find many women strongly disagreeing with me and swearing that natural childbirth was the most beautiful thing they have ever experienced. The key here is to support women in their experiences and choices without making mothers feel that they failed somehow. Phrases like ‘your body was designed to give birth’, while coming from a good intention, can leave mothers who can’t give birth vaginally with a feeling of failure, as if their body and themselves had failed their child. Let me state something clearly: it is true that c-sections are major surgeries and as such carry significant risks for mothers and babies. However, sometimes they’re needed, as simple as that, and women who undergo them should not be made to feel as if they failed their childbirth experience or only got the second best option. It is this hierarchy of experiences made by so called experts and crunchy parenting trends that only reinforce feelings of guilt in new mothers.
There are as many stories as there are people and mine is just a straw in the haystack, just my version of an event. I’m putting in the disclaimer because having a child is one of the experiences that put me the most under scrutiny in my life. See how privileged I am? So privileged that I had not realised it before. So far I had not felt judged for my choices, or at least I was able to let things slide, until motherhood and its explosive molotov of emotions and reactions came knocking.
Let’s break things down: you’ve just evicted a human being from your body, no matter how, and you’re exhausted and overjoyed and overwhelmed and things have not settled in yet, but the Guilt and Judgment parts inherent to the way our societies treat motherhood are just looming outside the corner. Will you be breastfeeding? Yes? No? Exclusively? Yes? No? If so, why not? Will you be Abandoning your child to get back to work? Do you know, this and that would be the best for your child but that’s your decision. It’s funny how so many people can inject that much contempt in those little words: it’s your decision, as if your choices were radioactive concepts that seriously needed to be questioned. As a first time mother, the last thing you need is a self-righteous fucking ‘lactation consultant’ (seriously, that’s a thing) or midwife or well-meaning random person telling you to hold your two seconds baby in the rugby position to help her latch on a breast that still has no milk. How fun for everyone. Breastfeeding is such a sensitive issue, I could go on and on about the impact of WHO breastfeeding regulations on women.Indeed, research has shown that recommendations instated by WHO To exclusively breastfeed for at least six months tend to make women feel guilty, as researchers have dubbed this recommendation ‘unrealistic’. Yes, this would technically be the best option for babies. However, studies have shown that while the majority of women initiate breastfeeding at the hospital, in France and in the States, a month later the figure drops drastically. Why? Because breastfeeding is hard in and of itself, and is made even harder by midwives and professionals telling women who are having difficulties that they’re not managing because they’re not trying hard enough, which is of course something every new exhausted mother with a crying baby dangling down her breast needs to hear. Embarrassment, milk supply issues, pain, lack of access to information and appropriate health services, lack of support and maternity leave, major changes in lifestyle required by breastfeeding are other several reasons often cited by women to stop breastfeeding.
Another thing that turned the WHO guidance into added pressure for mothers is the way it is presented, in a very black and white fashion: it’s either breastfeed exclusively or don’t even bother. This is exactly how it was for me: my initial desire to alternate between breastfeeding and formula feeding (p was met very coldly by the midwife at the ‘baby friendly’ hospital i gave birth in, while the pain and latching issues we were having were just not taken into account in the conversations I had with the midwives, piling on the pressure. Don’t get me wrong, I know that the more a child breastfeeds, the more it stimulates milk production and offering formula might confuse your child as well, increasing latching issues. But I also know that many women would like to be able to discuss all their options in a guilt-free and safe environment, and would appreciate the flexibility of combining breast and formula feeding. Meeting their concerns with contempt isn’t likely to increase breastfeeding rates. As for me, in the end I just dropped the whole breastfeeding hoopla: I was in tremendous pain, my baby was crying bloody murder she was so hungry, she was only latching on one breast, she was starting to be jaundiced and I had to beg for supplements. I therefore figured I was simply not having this wonderful bonding experience some women wax lyrical about, that my child needed a sane mother and not a crying mess and that formula with a relaxed mother was better for her than breast with a wailing banshee.
The pressure on women is so bad it prompted me to read Elisabeth Badinter and-gasp- AGREE with certain points she made.
And we all know me no likey essentialist so-called feminists that try and keep veiled women out of public institutions.
Badinter wrote about the whole Mother Nature/crunchy movement that is emerging and questioned the pressure applied on women to breastfeed, stay at home and make crafts, take care of children etc, stating that the ultimate aim of this trend is, as it always has, to keep women in private spheres and keep them from investing themselves too much in their community role.
Truth is, like for everything else, society apply an incredible amount of pressure on women to be super-mothers. The sacralised version of the Mother with a capital M is re-emerging after having been seriously put into question by women’s movements in the seventies, encouraged by the economic crisis and how much more vulnerable it has made women. In this model, a True/Good/Perfect Mother suffers to bring a child to the world, breastfeeds exclusively for a long time, bakes cookies while eating none herself because she needs to lose weight to be a good role model to her child but also to remain sexual as women are sexual objects and should remain so under the current patriarchal paradigm we’re forced to live under.
After several months of talking to other women, the conclusion I’ve reached is quite radical in its simplicity: choices are not the same to everyone, and each woman should be able to freely opt for what she feels more comfortable in without the Midwife/WHO/Religion/your mother police having a ball tearing these choices apart. It’s hard enough making these choices and owning them, and no one needs the extra guilt. The important thing is to ensure women have all the information they need to make informed decision, and all the support they need to feel comfortable with their choices and situations. Needless to say, it is rather pointless to make women feel guilty for their choices on the one hand and support and make budget health cuts on the other, taking away from mothers the structural, public support they need. Governments should stop issuing recommendations they do not give themselves the means to achieve, making women bear the brunt of achieving said recommendations on their own.
However, even the question of choice is a false debate: how much choice does a woman with poor access to healthcare have? Not every country has free universal coverage and even in those who do, access to medical follow up during pregnancy and good healthcare for delivery is constrained by a woman’s socio-economic circumstances. Even breastfeeding for example might not be a choice but the only possibility given the cost of formula, or on the opposite, maybe breastfeeding can’t be an option because of lack of maternity leave.
Public health structures, class, personal choices, and structural factors all weigh in to shape a woman’s experience of childbirth and child raising: what is at stake is to make sure women do not pay the price of judgmental trends and inappropriate public policies.