Motherhood Taboo: The Postpartum Myth
Recently, I was talking with one of my momma friends about our personal transformations into motherhood, and when the topic of postpartum care came up we shared our disbelief at what appears to be not only our shared reality, but the reality of most mothers crossing this incredible threshold into motherhood.
We asked each other, ‘This time is so critical to mothers, and yet, why is it that neither gynecologists nor midwives will acknowledge the long road ahead, address the magnitude of how much care mothers will need way beyond the routine 6 weeks postpartum? Why is it that there exists little or nothing in our communities to co-care for mothers and fathers during this incredibly overwhelming, stressful, sleep-deprived time? And why is it that there is no wisdom around parenting, passed on through any version of rites of passage other than graduating high school, an occasional babysitting job, or attending a baby shower with Hallmark greetings and cake?’
To be sure, midwives, doctors, and doulas are preoccupied with the process of pregnancy and childbirth. Only recently have I met any midwife who offers guidance beyond prenatal and birthing, even though pre-conception is a critical phase of life preparation for the baby-to-be, and a time of transformation that must begin alongside parent-to-be’s intentions to create new life together. In the United States, postpartum care only goes so far as your purse strings can stretch for a doula — and even then, the presence of a doula lasts no longer than a few weeks postpartum. Beyond this, there is nothing but parents — mothers carrying the brundt of the weight— going back to cooking for themselves, scouting out community substitutes in the form of drive-thru windows and playground visits, doing their own laundry, taking care of themselves and their babies and maybe even their day jobs and constant breast milk pumping. And they do the bulk of this alone or in isolation.
My Postpartum Story
For me, the postpartum clock ground to a halt the morning after I became a mother. I recall my OB GYN coming into my recovery room and asking me, “So, are we good?”, meaning, ‘Are you ok with the fact that I insisted you have a Caesarean section childbirth because your baby was breech?’ I recall his words entering my post-op Percocet-induced, oxytocin intoxicated, exhausted ears (I hadn’t slept for three days) as I came back with a smile and what I wished would be true but was too soon to tell, “I’m good.” As time passed I could feel the slowly ticking time bomb of my postpartum truth echoing, “No, I’m not ok with this!” I knew I wasn’t “good” — how could I be? Despite my incredible health and my baby’s health and my natural birth plan I’d been cornered with what felt like a knife and shaking heads. Breech. Ok here and in most countries for centuries, somehow not ok here now. No, I’d taken a hit for the American medical team. And then, with the only options presented to me in the aftermath — hunky dory mommy or look-out-postpartum depression — how was I to know that the reason I was insomniac, filled with anxiety, unable to connect to my son, and basically in shock a good deal of the time was because I was experiencing the same trauma people experience in wartime. I had PTSD.
Of course, I didn’t figure all this out until my son’s first birthday. I recall re-telling my birth story and how filled with grief I was, and how this didn’t feel right at all. How could I be grieving on my son’s first birthday? It felt so insane. But then, my husband — exhausted from this huge transformation and his own lack of sleep — had gone back to work after only 2 weeks, and I was at home with a lifting restriction of 10 pounds that prevented me even from lifting my son into his car seat. Pure isolation. Sure, friends came to the house. Sure, I was tended there for a few weeks now and then. I received some amazing love, care, and cooking. Relatively speaking, I was a lucky one. But this was a huge transformation that needed to be seen and shared, and where was the long-term support?? My husband and I even sold my house in Denver and moved to be closer with our community in Boulder, Colorado, where “It takes a village” is claimed as its cultural norm, but where in practice we found a lot of people absorbed in their own personal transformation — predominantly single or dating people without children — and when I reached out for help it just didn’t compute in that “village”. Of course, we were putting our son to bed when most people were just lining up at the Indian buffet for dinner — what could we expect?
I ventured out further to get back into my community, doing my part, scraping up the energy to attend transformational events and gatherings. But even when I made it out to a weekend workshop I was challenged by the men facilitators when my husband brought my son in to breast feed, even though I had previously notified the organizers that I would be breast feeding him at times during the workshop. Yes, even breastfeeding my son was seen as a problem in my “village” community. Why did I continue to feel like I was on the front lines of a battle when I needed to feel my heart cocooned in a family community cave?
The Illness of Becoming a Mother in the United States
This is the mother’s problem, says the medical community. She has postpartum depression. Otherwise, she’d be fine and wouldn’t need anything outside her nuclear family toolkit. I noticed this choice felt completely insane in itself, and I literally felt like I was going insane as I experienced the projection of what I call anti-village culture upon me, claiming it’s about me and not about this immensely wounded system which lacks any real experience of community. No. Sanity is 40-hour a week jobs for mom and dad while baby goes to daycare and gets raised by other mothers who themselves likely have put their own children into daycare so that they can work to support their families. Sanity is the isolation booth of take-care-of-yourself and don’t-lean-on-anyone and live alone in a house where your kid(s) also lack community and focus all their attention on the stay-at-home parent, who can never give them ALL of what they need. No THIS is sanity, right? I’m just depressed, I have a mental illness because I can’t integrate this fucked up and compartmentalizing system into my being. I have core strength issues, nevermind I’ve been hacked up with no justification other than upholding the status quo. Give me drugs. Give me a therapist. Take away my kids if I have trouble making it happen. Send me to prison if out of desperation I try to kill my kids because my entire being screams THIS IS NO WAY TO LIVE. No, what we don’t get is that the sense of desperation in mothers is real and justified.
Begging a New Paradigm
By the time my son was one year old it had become painfully apparent to me that I would need to find an entirely new community for myself, my husband, and our child. I had no motherhood circles in my midst, I barely made it out to a weekly women’s gathering, and the only support was a postpartum group at the local motherhood center that focused on motherhood as a problem and a mental health issue rather than seeing mothers in their full experience. And I had it good compared to most mothers.
As a polyamorous couple, we also struggled around feeling seen within our community of lovers. I was shocked while on dates with men when they wouldn’t even ask me about any aspect of my motherhood or my son. Men I dated now wanted to compartmentalize me into being a lover. Motherhood is not sexy, after all, and neither is talking about my kid. So not only did I need a new community, but I needed to start dating men who were interested in my family, and most of these men are fathers themselves.
I had this incredible hunger to be seen as a mother in this complex and wild woman’s body, but there was a gaping hole where this previous connectedness had once been. And then, I looked around me in the parks and the grocery stores and the libraries and the schools and saw an ocean of mothers needing so much; and mainly, to be seen as mothers in all the fullness and struggle and celebration, and to be supported better by those around them, especially in their own communities. As a Life Coach, I recognize the incredible need for long-term postpartum care and tending of the incredibly powerful and vulnerable vessel of wild women mothers everywhere. They need so much in order to give to their children, and yet in the United States they live mostly in varying levels of scarcity, isolation, and nuclear family insanity.
What ‘Village’ Really Means
The postpartum myth is that pregnant mothers and newborns alone are beautiful and to be celebrated and maybe even supported, and that beyond that mothers should be able to deal with motherhood on their own. In the only modern nation — and one of the only countries among less industrialized — to deny any form of guaranteed paid parental leave, this has got to stop. What can each of us do to shift the paradigm? Let’s begin by being present with every single mother we see, and taking notice of what is really true for her, and being bothered enough to help. Invite friends with kids over for a meal, even if it creates a bit of chaos in your house for a night. Take time to be with each other’s kids, and be audacious enough to co-mother or co-father them, even if for only a few hours here and there to start. If you don’t know what to do but you notice you want to integrate family and childless community you can simply come alongside another and say, ‘I’m not sure what to do here, but I’d love to see us more connected, and I’d love to help out. What can I/we do? And how can we be together, feeling seen by each other, hold one another, and enjoy the experience together while doing it?’ This is the true meaning of “Takes a village”.
The Return to a Helping Culture
I have a girlfriend who is the married mother of two young children. A few years ago she and her husband packed up their entire lives and moved the family to Barcelona. I caught up with her on a brief visit back in Denver, and when I asked her what was the most striking about the shift for her she said, ‘It’s how they spend their time. In Barcelona, people don’t focus on accumulating like we do in the U.S. We can’t even go to stores on Sundays — they’re closed! We spend our time so differently. When we plan a get together with another family we don’t stay for one or even two hours; we spend the whole day with them. It’s either we’re going to go to the beach or at their house all day, and maybe even stay the night. We spend our time together cooking, taking care of each other’s kids. It’s about the connection. In the United States, we live in such a consumerist culture with advertising filling every empty space — filling our time shopping and tending to and feeding our own in isolation — and we don’t even realize it because it’s so pervasive.’
A return to the essence of village culture requires that we recognize how our time out shopping and acquiring, and tending to our own personal needs in isolation must shift. Instead of isolating and taking care of our own, we choose to show up for others, to come alongside and say, ‘I can be bothered to be there for you. I want to help.’ You might ask, ‘But I don’t know what to do! What then?’ In my experience, in order to know how to help you come alongside another’s life, sit with them awhile, share quality time together. Once you’re in another person’s life you quickly take notice of what’s happening in their lives, and then begin to know what to do and how to help. And surprisingly, you might be caught noticed by others who also see your needs and want to help you. Sure, there will be times a mom or a dad just needs emergency help from you and they can’t be bothered to reciprocate or hang out, but usually, they will come around and take notice of your life, your desires, your needs, and one day when you need them the most they might just show up for you. And it might not even be about helping. The most low-maintenance scenarios we can be in as a family involve just being with other people and children in places where everyone can move their bodies, and your presence is already diffusing the energy otherwise focused on mom or dad. This is the essence of community. This is what it means when we say “It takes a village.” But it’s not just that it takes a village to raise a child. It takes a village to raise us all.
Susan Coates is both Life Coach and Mother of a 3-year old, and specializes in embodiment, intuition, and physical improvisation. In 2015, she started Momma Circles, which provides space for mothers collectively to feel seen and supported in their experiences as mothers and wild women, and to offer specialty coaching for women crossing the threshold into motherhood. She and her family live in the family-centric neighborhood of Park Hill in Denver, Colorado.
Go to www.MommaCircles.com to read more, to join a Momma Circle, or if you’re interested in life coaching or motherhood coaching support with Susan.