America is not for pussies. Literally. For proof, look no further than the cultural expectations we place on the newly postpartum woman — to get up, get moving, lose the weight, get the hell out of bed and back up on a dick. I can't believe we don’t have a reality show competition for fastest postpartum recovery. Oh wait, we do, it's call the tabloids.
For serious. There's a reason most countries let a lady chill for several weeks after she's pushed out a baby: Pregnancy and labor take a toll on your body, to say nothing of the time it takes to acclimate to motherhood, to learn the basic care and feeding of an infant. Just because you CAN get up and mop a floor within 24 hours doesn't mean you should.
But here in the U.S. of Cray, most of us don't have the luxury of taking it easy for more than a few days after having a baby. If we do manage to pull off a few weeks or months of actual maternity leave, chances are, it won't be used for relaxing. It will be used for immediately jumping into caring for your baby with zero help. So unless we can pay someone to hold our hand through it, it's a race against time to magically become a totally self-sufficient supermom and return to our old selves again, pronto.
That's why I was pleased to see this Daily Beast piece on postpartum care in the U.S., "Why Are America’s Postpartum Practices So Rough on New Mothers?" In it, author Hillary Brenhouse laments the disappearance of the "social childbirth" concept in America alongside the American frontier in the 19th century and analyzes the repercussions.
In a nutshell, we're doing it wrong. Pretty much everyone but us has some version of a "lying in" period for postpartum women:
This country is one of the only utterly lacking in a culture of postpartum care. Some version of the lie-in is still prevalent all over Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and particular parts of Europe; in these places, where women have found the postpartum regimens of their own mothers and grandmothers slightly outdated, they’ve revised them. The U.S. seems only to understand pregnancy as a distinct and fragile state. For the expectant, we issue reams of proscriptions—more than can reasonably be followed. We tell them what to eat and what not to eat. We ask that they visit the doctor regularly and that they not do any strenuous activity. We give them our seats on the bus. Finally, once they’ve actually undergone the physical trauma of it, their bodies thoroughly depleted, we beckon them most immediately to rejoin the rest of us. One New York mother summed up her recent postpartum experience this way: “You’re not hemorrhaging? OK, peace, see you later.”
The idea here is that if you're not about to die (literally), then you ought to be able to get up and take care of your baby. And don't you dare complain about it, or we will accuse you of actually hating your baby (if you don't believe me, read the comments on every single article any woman has ever written about the difficulties of pregnancy or early motherhood, including my own). Now shut up and wow us.
Everywhere but here sounds like a dream in this respect: In China, Brenhouse writes, you might rest for 30 days, and be fed soup that helps with lactation. In Mexico, you get 40 days of chill. And you won't be limping out of bed to tend to a crying infant in the middle of the night. There are women here to help with that, and you'll return the favor when they are recovering.
It's not just that these rituals make the individual mother feel good. It's that on a large scale, they acknowledge that all new mothers deserve to rest, deserve to be cared for, and that it promotes well-being not just for individual women, but for families, communities, countries. It's an acknowledgement, Brenhouse writes, "that the postpartum stretch shouldn’t feel, as it did for so many of the American women who took part in my informal survey, like one long sleepless night."
Yes, there are logistics to consider. Women work. Families are not in one place anymore. Just because a woman can swing a bit of maternity leave, it's not likely her partner can, too. Somebody's gotta work. And even if a woman has time off, the likelihood that her friends or family could spare more than an hour or two a day, what with their own lives, work schedules and families, means that the new mother is just shit out of luck.
Add to this that the first postpartum checkup for most women in this country is six weeks after giving birth, and the only medical professional you come into contact with is a pediatrician. The result is a clusterfuck of vulnerability at a time when you are the most hormonally imbalanced, emotional, in pain, and operating on a learning curve.
You'd think everyone would be sympathetic, but no. Brenhouse writes of women who were vacuuming a day after labor to clean up before visitors, or having guests come over and then ask the new mother for a cup of coffee:
A popular site that advises women on how to find and work with a baby nurse counsels: “Ask your baby nurse what she likes to eat and stock up at the supermarket.” It is true that hiring a postpartum helper is far less expensive in, say, Hong Kong than in the U.S. But the problem is not one of money. The problem is that no one recognizes the new mother as a recuperating person, and she does not see herself as one. For the mourning or the injured, we will activate a meal tree. For the woman who is torturously fatigued, who has lost one 10th of her body’s blood supply, who can scarcely pee for the stiches running up her perineum, we will not.
What's really cool is that, on top of all this you're-on-your-own-sucker bullshit, the conversations a new mom will likely encounter are along the lines of: "Do you love it?! Is it everything you dreamed?!"
I remember someone asking me a mere three days after giving birth, "It's getting a little bit better every single day isn't it?" Um, no. No, it isn't. It actually felt like the same kind of shitty for WEEKS without a noticeable difference.
We are so stoic and cool, America! And we've got the postpartum depression rates to prove it — something like 10 to 20% of new moms here in the U.S. experience it, compared to, say, 3.9% in a place like Malaysia, where postpartum care lasts six weeks.
As Brenhouse notes and as we have all been saying for some time, paid paternal/maternal leave will help with some of it. Longer hospital stays, more frequent postnatal checkups (sooner than six weeks), will help. A focus on emotional well being and physical health, not appearance or weight loss or flat stomachs, will help.
But being honest about the experience will also help. If we all succumb to the pressure of making motherhood look like a basket of daisies 24/7 (WINK! LOL! HAPPY FACE!) then how will anyone really understand what it's like?
Interestingly, someone Brenhouse interviews uses the plane crash oxygen mask analogy to discuss what mothers need postpartum to properly care for an infant — everyone knows you have to put the mask on yourself before you can help your child. Mothers who are stretched too thin to have their own needs met will invariably find that it is difficult to immerse themselves in the caring of someone else, and this will overshadow some of the real joy that comes from motherhood.
Unfortunately for many of us, the only mask we can wear is the mask of perfection that hides the realities of recuperation. The truth is that we need help. New motherhood is hard. Caring for an infant is hard. And the only way we will ever shift policy to address the concerns and realities of childbirth is to raise some holy hell about it. And everyone will just have to deal with the fact that it's not pretty.