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The fragility of ma­ter­nal tran­si­tion

Bitch: A Feminist Response to Pop Culture - - NEWS - By vanessa már­tir

The fragility of ma­ter­nal tran­si­tion.

The process of be­com­ing a mother, which an­thro­pol­o­gists call “ma­tres­cence,” has been largely un­ex­plored in the med­i­cal com­mu­nity. In­stead of fo­cus­ing on the woman’s iden­tity tran­si­tion, re­search is fo­cused on how the baby turns out. But a woman’s story, in ad­di­tion to how her psy­chol­ogy im­pacts her par­ent­ing, is im­por­tant to ex­am­ine, too. —alexan­dra sacks, m.d.

WHAT NOT TO EX­PECT WHEN YOU’RE EX­PECT­ING

It starts the minute a woman an­nounces that she’s preg­nant. Her body be­comes some­thing that be­longs to ev­ery­one but her­self. Peo­ple touch her belly with­out even ask­ing. Strangers and friends alike mon­i­tor what she eats, drinks, does: “Are you walk­ing enough? Are you walk­ing too much? Maybe you shouldn’t be eat­ing that? Eat this, not that. Drink this, not that. Your feet are swollen; you’re do­ing too much. You need to sit.” The preg­nant woman is rarely asked what it is she needs, or how she re­ally feels.

At 28, I found my­self preg­nant, in an abu­sive re­la­tion­ship, and un­happy in my cor­po­rate job. I didn’t have a close re­la­tion­ship with my mother and still don’t, so nav­i­gat­ing preg­nancy and my en­try to moth­er­hood was es­pe­cially iso­lat­ing. This was ex­ac­er­bated when my preg­nancy was di­ag­nosed as high risk, and I was put on bed rest for six weeks af­ter I nearly mis­car­ried at two months. I later swelled up so badly that my feet looked like two pot roasts. When I talked about how mis­er­able and un­com­fort­able I was and how I cried ev­ery day, my daugh­ter’s fa­ther re­sponded: “You’ll be fine. Women have been do­ing this for mil­len­nia.” I stopped com­plain­ing and suf­fered in si­lence. Doula and mid­wife Car­men Mo­jica, whose work fo­cuses on women of color, says:

I heard the “preg­nant woman in the field” story for the first time when I was preg­nant. It goes some­thing like: “Dur­ing slav­ery, women work­ing in the fields would just squat, push the baby out, tie the baby to their backs, and keep on work­ing.” When I spoke to women about this, they shared sim­i­lar sto­ries, ones where the woman was Indige­nous and she birthed while hug­ging a tree, or the field was a rice paddy. No mat­ter the cir­cum­stance, the point of the story is to im­ply that birth is easy There is very lit­tle at­ten­tion given to the emo­tional and spir­i­tual trans­for­ma­tion and chal­lenges that women ex­pe­ri­ence in child­birth. Of­ten, I find my­self val­i­dat­ing feel­ings that are ev­ery­thing but happy and joy­ful. Preg­nant women are ex­pected to be ex­cited and happy through­out their whole preg­nan­cies. I ask preg­nant women how they are feel­ing, and many times, they aren’t happy. They are scared, un­com­fort­able, anx­ious, in­dif­fer­ent, and/or am­biva­lent about their preg­nan­cies.

and that we should and can just jump back into our reg­u­lar lives as soon as pos­si­ble.

I was in la­bor for 26 hours. The con­trac­tions were un­re­lent­ing. When I was asked if I needed an epidu­ral, my mother re­minded me, “Your sis­ter never needed that.” My aunt said, “Me nei­ther.” I turned the meds down.

I had to be in­duced at hour 16 be­cause I was stuck at three cen­time­ters. Sens­ing what I was deal­ing with, my doc­tor whis­pered, “I shouldn’t be telling you this, but you’re hav­ing back la­bor, the worst la­bor. The pain will get worse once I give you the Pi­tocin. You are not weak for need­ing help, Vanessa.” That’s when I fi­nally got the epidu­ral. I had an emer­gency c-sec­tion 10 hours later.

The next day, the sta­ples hold­ing the wound shut snapped in two places. I was told that the wound would not be resta­pled; in­stead a vis­it­ing nurse would come to my home ev­ery day for four weeks to dress the wound, at a cost of $30 per visit.

My mother came the first day to pre­pare a Hon­duran rem­edy to in­duce my pro­duc­tion of breast milk. Then she was gone.

My daugh­ter’s fa­ther went back to work days later. I don’t re­mem­ber him ever ask­ing for pa­ter­nity leave, or whether it was even an op­tion then. Say­ing we couldn’t af­ford it, he pushed me to end the nurse ser­vices af­ter two weeks. The nurse cau­tioned against this, but still taught me how to dress the wound my­self, which was ex­cru­ci­at­ing. She didn’t look at my daugh­ter’s fa­ther as she walked out.

GO IT ALONE, AND SMILE

“The cul­ture in the United States, specif­i­cally, is not fam­ily friendly,” de­clares Mo­jica. “There is a lack of un­der­stand­ing about the tri­als and tribu­la­tions of moth­er­hood, and a myth that women are tire­less be­ings who are sup­posed to bounce back from preg­nancy and child­birth in­tact and un­changed. This is most re­flected in the shitty ma­ter­nity leave that women get, if at all, and the lack of so­cial struc­tures for work­ing moth­ers, as well as the fact that there is vir­tu­ally no med­i­cal at­ten­tion in the post­par­tum pe­riod, with the ex­cep­tion of a six-week visit in the ma­jor­ity of cases.”

In her es­say “Writ­ing the Wrongs of Iden­tity,” Ghana­ian Amer­i­can writer Meri Nana-ama Dan­quah states, In those lies black women are strong. Strong enough to work two jobs while sin­gle-hand­edly rais­ing twice as many chil­dren. Black women can cook, they can clean, they can sew, they can type, they can sweep, they can scrub, they can mop, they can pray…. Black women are al­ways do­ing. They are al­ways ser­vic­ing ev­ery­one’s needs, ex­cept their own. Their do­ing is what de­fines their be­ing. And this is sup­posed to be well­ness.”

The ex­pec­ta­tion to go it alone and not com­plain crosses ra­cial and eth­nic lines, even when moth­ers have some sup­port in their tran­si­tion to moth­er­hood. This is es­pe­cially the case for sec­ond-gen­er­a­tion im­mi­grant moth­ers and those whose par­ents are poor and have lim­ited re­sources.

Toni, a 60-year-old who raised her 35-year-old daugh­ter as a sin­gle mother, re­flects: As a Black woman, I think I was treated with the fa­mil­iar stereo­types: that I would be su­per­woman, stoic, when I be­came a mother. Black women can’t be vul­ner­a­ble or sick; we are in­vin­ci­ble. And if we are sick or raped, we should shut up and suck it up, or we are not ‘real Black women.’ Lisa, a Chi­nese Amer­i­can mother to a 17-month-old, says: I felt con­stantly ex­hausted and over­whelmed, and I re­ally felt the lack of hav­ing my in­de­pen­dent life or pur­suits. And I didn’t feel that I could voice that to my par­ents or to my in­laws, be­cause both my mom and my mother-in-law were at-home moth­ers but had more kids and fewer fi­nan­cial re­sources and less spousal help. I felt un­grate­ful if I com­plained about any­thing, in­ca­pable for not be­ing able to do ‘bet­ter,’ pa­thetic for be­ing so tired. And ev­ery time I tried to bring it up with my mom, she was dis­mis­sive. She would say things like, ‘You’re lucky your hus­band helps at all,’ or ‘We couldn’t af­ford take­out when you were lit­tle,’ or ‘You want a break?! But don’t you love your daugh­ter?’

I was sched­uled to re­turn to work six weeks af­ter the birth, but I was strug­gling. The c-sec­tion wound was still very painful, and I was hav­ing trou­ble wean­ing my daugh­ter off breast­feed­ing. When I told my boss I needed more time, she said if I didn’t re­turn when I was sup­posed to, she would let me go. And that’s ex­actly what she did.

These are the in­flex­i­ble sys­tems and per­spec­tives that don’t al­low for com­mu­nity, com­pas­sion, or em­pa­thy. My daugh­ter’s fa­ther left me alone to care for our daugh­ter and tend to a wound from a ma­jor surgery. My mother thought her duty ended af­ter she helped feed my daugh­ter. When peo­ple vis­ited, it was to see the baby, and I had to smile and play the role of host­ess de­spite the pain and ex­haus­tion. And af­ter all of that, my boss fired me.

YOU ARE NOT WEAK FOR NEED­ING HELP

Preg­nancy and child­care are not the en­tirety of par­ent­ing, but they are an un­de­ni­ably enor­mous part of a mother’s well-be­ing. A re­port re­leased in May 2017 by PL+US: Paid Leave for the United States, a non­profit that ad­vo­cates for paid fam­ily leave, re­vealed that mil­lions of Amer­i­cans aren’t of­fered a sin­gle day off of work fol­low­ing the birth or adop­tion of a child, and one in four new moth­ers go back to work 10 days af­ter child­birth.

The PL+US re­port shows many com­pa­nies are pro­vid­ing these ben­e­fits only to top-level em­ploy­ees, de­spite the re­port’s find­ing that “the peo­ple who most need paid fam­ily leave are the least likely to have it.”

Even when dis­abil­ity leave is of­fered, it is at 50 per­cent pay, which of­ten isn’t enough con­sid­er­ing day­care ex­penses when it’s over. The newly re­leased Care In­dex re­vealed that in 33 states, the cost of in­fant care is higher than the cost of col­lege tu­ition: $9,585 vs. $9,410 per year.

In the midst of these re­al­i­ties, gov­ern­ment ben­e­fits for the poor such as wel­fare and the Sup­ple­men­tal Nutri­tion As­sis­tance Pro­gram (SNAP), for­merly known as “food stamps,” have been con­sis­tently cut over the past 20 years. The Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion has pro­posed more than $190 bil­lion in cuts to SNAP over the next 10 years by chang­ing el­i­gi­bil­ity rules and in­creas­ing work re­quire­ments, de­spite re­ports that have de­bunked the stereo­type that re­ceiv­ing as­sis­tance dis­cour­ages work­ing. Ac­cord­ing to a re­cent re­port from the U.S. Depart­ment of Agri­cul­ture, an in­creas­ing share of in­di­vid­u­als who re­ceive ben­e­fits through SNAP live in house­holds where at least one per­son is work­ing.

These pro­grams are rooted in cap­i­tal­ist, pa­tri­ar­chal, and misog­y­nist sys­tems that seek to limit women’s op­tions and re­sources, es­pe­cially those of women of color, so as to con­trol

them and “keep them in their place.” These sys­tems do not pro­tect us and do not al­low space for us to heal or tran­si­tion into our new roles.

De­spite be­ing dis­pro­por­tion­ately af­fected by poverty and the lack of ac­cess to child­care, moth­ers of color are of­ten left out of con­ver­sa­tions on women’s rights. While re­pro­duc­tive rights are es­sen­tial, so is the abil­ity to par­ent with dig­nity while meet­ing ba­sic per­sonal needs, which in­cludes paid ma­ter­nity and/or fam­ily leave. Stud­ies have found that women who took longer than 12 weeks of ma­ter­nity leave re­ported fewer de­pres­sive symp­toms, a re­duc­tion in se­vere de­pres­sion, and im­prove­ment in their over­all men­tal health. But that isn’t the whole story of the tran­si­tion into moth­er­hood.

Moth­ers of color also need help that would al­low them to have time away from chil­dren and chil­drea­r­ing to re­mem­ber that we are more than our roles as moth­ers. We have to work on our own pur­suits, to walk, to in­ter­act with our friends, to live. We need safe new-mom groups to con­nect with other new moth­ers and to dis­cuss not only our child’s de­vel­op­ment, but also our own tran­si­tion into par­ent­hood. And when nec­es­sary, we need ac­cess to men­tal-health ser­vices.

A safe new-mom group would be a space to dis­cuss all as­pects of moth­er­hood, where be­ing the only new mom of color in the room will not sub­ject you to racism and mi­croag­gres­sions. Safe places to talk about the tran­si­tion into moth­er­hood should not erase the needs of par­ents who do not use the same lan­guage or par­ent­ing la­bels like “mother,” or who do not iden­tify as a woman, or con­sider them­selves straight or able-bod­ied, or come from a nu­clear fam­ily. The par­ent­ing mar­gins in­clude queer and gen­der­non­con­form­ing par­ents who also need open spa­ces to dis­cuss their tran­si­tions into chil­drea­r­ing. Dis­cus­sions on these tran­si­tions should bring peo­ple out, not push them fur­ther into the iso­la­tion that is a sig­na­ture ex­pe­ri­ence for many new par­ents. Many feel alone. It’s crit­i­cal to re­mem­ber that there are all kinds of ways to build fam­ily and that all of us need com­mu­nity and sol­i­dar­ity.

In her 2017 New York Times ar­ti­cle “The Birth of a Mother,” Dr. Alexan­dra Sacks writes, “When peo­ple have more in­sight into their emo­tions, they can be more in con­trol of their be­hav­iors. So even when the fo­cus re­mains on the child, un­der­stand­ing the psy­chol­ogy of preg­nant and post­par­tum women can help pro­mote health­ier par­ent­ing. Moth­ers with greater aware­ness of their own psy­chol­ogy may be more em­pa­thetic to their chil­dren’s emo­tions.”

Women of color, es­pe­cially those raised in poverty and sec­ond-gen­er­a­tion im­mi­grants, have been taught to adopt a grin-and-bear-it at­ti­tude that tells us that we just have to “do what you gotta do,” even if that means work­ing mul­ti­ple jobs and never us­ing sick leave or tak­ing a day off.

I come from a peo­ple that didn’t go to ther­apy. Men­tal health wasn’t a pri­or­ity. It wasn’t some­thing we talked about, though I can see now how my mother suf­fered (and still suf­fers) from var­i­ous men­tal-health is­sues. I don’t blame her for not go­ing to ther­apy or tak­ing care of her­self. She was par­rot­ing what she was taught in her home­land of Hon­duras, which was then re­in­forced in the Black and Latino com­mu­ni­ties she’s lived in since she ar­rived in the United States at age 15.

The stigma sur­round­ing men­tal health is very much con­nected to fa­mil­ial si­lence. We’re taught to not dis­cuss our fam­ily busi­ness, and do­ing so is of­ten seen as a be­trayal. When Trinida­dian im­mi­grant Cheryl sought ther­apy af­ter her di­vorce in 1987, “for the emo­tional pain of my teen mar­riage, for the end­less si­lence be­tween my par­ents, and for the heart­break­ing scars of mi­gra­tion, my mother cried, no bawled, like I had just told her I was go­ing to kill my­self. She had grown up with fa­mil­ial si­lence, and now she felt be­trayed that her beloved daugh­ter was go­ing to spill long-held se­crets. She ac­cused me of not re­spect­ing the job

Preg­nancy and child­care are not the en­tirety of par­ent­ing, but they are an un­de­ni­ably enor­mous part of a mother’s well-be­ing.

she had done as a good mother; she said I was un­grate­ful and al­ways want­ing more than she could give.”

Ac­cord­ing to the Se­leni In­sti­tute, African Amer­i­can and Latina women have a higher risk of de­vel­op­ing peri­na­tal mood or anx­i­ety dis­or­ders (pmad) when com­pared to white women. There isn’t enough re­search on why that is, but stress, par­tic­u­larly poverty and scarce re­sources, are proven con­trib­u­tors to the de­vel­op­ment of pmad. If left un­treated, in­tense stress can trig­ger mood and anx­i­ety dis­or­ders that dis­rupt the over­all health and func­tion­ing of moth­ers of color.

Erica, a mar­ried mother of three, shares that af­ter suf­fer­ing from post­par­tum de­pres­sion (ppd) af­ter her sec­ond child, she be­lieves that ppd is con­nected to lack of sup­port and re­sources: My son was [born] pre­ma­ture, and my hus­band and mother couldn’t get off work, so I was home with a 3-year-old and an in­fant. The worst mo­ment was when I found my­self stand­ing in the hall­way with the baby and the thought oc­curred to me that I didn’t care if ei­ther one of us sur­vived the night. The next week was the hol­i­days, and my mother-in-law was com­ing. She saw me and took the baby, and Lau­ryn…. I wanted to die. I wanted to burn the house down with us in it, be­cause there was a pain so ter­ri­ble in me I couldn’t even ex­plain it. And then the pain was taken over by a noth­ing­ness, and empti­ness…. The only thing that worked was my mother-in-law tak­ing the chil­dren, cook­ing, clean­ing the house, mak­ing me go to sleep, and mak­ing me eat—that saved me.

Pro­vid­ing ac­cess to men­tal-health ser­vices is crit­i­cal, but we also must work to de­con­struct cul­tural views that shame moth­ers seek­ing out men­tal-health ser­vices. It is not a sign of weak­ness to ask for help, and we need to push back against the no­tion that we’re bad moth­ers when we seek im­prove our own emo­tional well-be­ing.

YOU SHOULDA THOUGHT ABOUT THAT BE­FORE YOU GOT PREG­NANT

Many women feel like their dreams die when they be­come moth­ers. This doesn’t hap­pen to men in the same way. It’s women who are told that ba­bies come first and our needs come later. Tak­ing care of our­selves is con­flated with tak­ing care of our chil­dren. Hav­ing dreams out­side of moth­er­hood doesn’t make us bad moth­ers. If any­thing, by ful­fill­ing our dreams we are show­ing our chil­dren that they too can pur­sue their own.

Con­nie, a Colom­bian mother of three, says that Lat­inx cul­ture “looks down on moth­ers who aren’t con­sumed by moth­er­hood and mar­riage.” She says: To seek joy else­where is self­ish and un­grate­ful. I also lacked role mod­els in my fam­ily and com­mu­nity that did not see chil­dren and mar­riage as a com­ple­tion of their life. I love my fam­ily, and my part­ner; how­ever, I have other passions that fill me: My teach­ing ca­reer, while ex­haust­ing and de­mand­ing, gives me a sense of ac­com­plish­ment. Ex­er­cise, and, of course, writ­ing. I’m learn­ing to not apologize for the lat­ter.

So what can we do? How can we sup­port moth­ers dur­ing the trans­for­ma­tion and tran­si­tion into moth­er­hood and be­yond? We can start by dis­man­tling the idea that the sole or pri­mary pur­pose of women is to be­come moth­ers. This isn’t just about gain­ing au­ton­omy, but means un­der­stand­ing that these lim­it­ing and gen­dered ideas of­fer ad­di­tional fuel to those who op­pose paid parental leave and sub­si­dized child­care.

The truth is that get­ting fired from that cor­po­rate job was a bless­ing in many ways, though it threw me into a tail­spin. But in that tail­spin, I started writ­ing my first book. Once while I was writ­ing, my daugh­ter’s fa­ther—who was jeal­ous of any­thing that didn’t in­volve him—told me, “You think you’re gonna be a writer? You ain’t gonna be shit.” Af­ter that, my jour­ney be­came two-pronged: leav­ing him and fin­ish­ing the book. I had been mis­er­able in cor­po­rate Amer­ica and knew I couldn’t go back. I wanted to fi­nally own my iden­tity as a writer and pur­sue it as a ca­reer. Along the way, I found teach­ing as an­other calling. In 2010, af­ter three years of work­ing as an ed­i­tor and teach­ing on the week­ends, I quit my job to pur­sue writ­ing and teach­ing full time.

I am liv­ing my dreams, ful­filled by my work, and I am a bet­ter and more present mom be­cause of it. Still, it was lonely be­ing a sin­gle mom, and I felt largely un­sup­ported and un­cared for, suf­fer­ing from bouts of de­pres­sion and liv­ing in poverty for some time. Like I had been taught, I grinned and bore it, but am now dis­man­tling that so I can be more whole for my­self, my daugh­ter, and my part­ner. This es­say is part of that jour­ney.

Dur­ing the process of in­ter­view­ing 20 women of color for this piece, I learned that the ma­jor­ity felt as I did when I first tran­si­tioned into moth­er­hood: lost and ut­terly alone. The in­ter­vie­wees of­ten said, “No one ever asked me these ques­tions.” I re­al­ized I wasn’t asked these ques­tions ei­ther, and we have to tell our sto­ries so the false ideas of moth­er­hood end with us.

“De­col­o­niz­ing moth­er­hood is a process of shed­ding be­hav­iors and be­liefs about birth, the body, and the fe­male body in par­tic­u­lar,” says Mo­jica. “I think it in­volves un­learn­ing the be­lief that rais­ing a child is a soli­tary event and re­turn­ing to prac­tices that are com­mu­nity based. Other coun­tries still ob­serve the cuar­entena, or the 40 days af­ter birth; that would be one start­ing point that as a cul­ture we can pro­vide bet­ter sup­port. To de­col­o­nize moth­er­hood would in­volve de­col­o­niz­ing the idea of fam­ily from nu­clear to ex­tended and cho­sen fam­ily. We would have to un­learn that fam­ily life oc­curs in iso­la­tion and be­gin to push back against cap­i­tal­ism and pa­tri­archy.”

***

To de­col­o­nize moth­er­hood, I have to start with me, in my home, with my fam­ily. So for my daugh­ter’s 13th birth­day, I planned a brunch cel­e­brat­ing both her en­try into wom­an­hood and me, who moth­ered so dif­fer­ently and broke a cy­cle so that my daugh­ter won’t have to flee like I did at age 13 and make her way in the world alone. I in­vited 25 strong and in­spir­ing women of color to re­mind us how right Maya An­gelou was when she wrote: Now if you lis­ten closely I’ll tell you what I know Storm clouds are gath­er­ing The wind is gonna blow The race of man is suf­fer­ing And I can hear the moan, ’Cause no­body, But no­body Can make it out here alone. This fea­ture was orig­i­nally pub­lished on­line as part of our 2017 se­ries on Fragility. Visit bitch­me­dia.org to read about gam­ing, child­hood si­lence, and more.

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