How sexism prevents us from talking about postpartum care

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Photo by Alex Boyd on Unsplash

Long story short: I’m 33 years old. I had a chronic health condition that was misdiagnosed for so long it led to anxiety, depression and not so fun bouts with OCD (the real kind, not like when you think liking things neat is the same thing as having a real mental health condition)and PTSD. Following roughly four years and a surgery, I started to feel better. Then I peed on a stick and found out I’m having a daughter in May.

So we’re all caught up now.

My pregnancy has been good. Alarming good. Like I just stopped what I was doing and knocked on wood after I typed that good. I feel (gasp!) almost better than I did when I wasn’t pregnant which sounds like something I’m totally making up, but I’m not. The headaches I got once a month are gone. The residual pain from the hip surgery I had in 2018 — much better, thanks to all those relaxin hormones (which can we all just admit the name for that hormone sounds totally made up?).

Sure, I go to the bathroom a lot, and sometimes I get dizzy. But all in all, I feel great and even when I don’t — I don’t feel that bad because I realize that every pain I’m experiencing now has a purpose. Whereas I spent four years in chronic pain for no good reason, pregnancy pain makes sense. Your body is doing something pretty amazing. It’s creating a little human in there. That’s bound to come with some aches and pains, right?

Plus, as someone who spent years on the outside looking in on this pregnancy world, I always promised myself that I would remember how much I wanted it if it ever happened to me. I wouldn’t lament the heartburn or the stretch marks or the aches and pains. And I certainly wouldn’t complain about them to other women, because you never know who is trying and not succeeding in having children. I was one of those women.

(Side note: If you’re truly feeling awful in pregnancy, I don’t mean to dismiss your pain. You’re entitled to feel bad and talk about it. But please, try to be sensitive about who you’re talking to. That friend who has been trying for months to get pregnant — is probably not the best person to complain to about your tender breasts or food cravings. She will probably be supportive but in her head she’s probably thinking “If you can’t handle it. Then let me handle it then.” Or something along those lines. Or she’s nicer than me and is not thinking that at all. Either way, best be on the safe side and save this venting for someone else like your partner who got you into this situation, or one of those mom forums or just anyone else really.)

I’m not sure how I felt about the pregnancy when I first found out. I’m not even sure how I feel about it now. I’m happy, sure. But as someone who yeah, has health-related PTSD, there’s a part of me that’s always waiting for the other shoe to drop. There’s a part of me that’s always expecting something to come along and take all this away.

So there are things I’ve procrastinated on for fear that I wouldn’t want them around should this not turn out as I hoped— buying things for the nursery, baby bump pictures, baby books, you name it. If there’s something I can put off, I’ve put it off.

But as much as my anxiety is making me a bit slow in some departments, it’s motivated me in other areas and I’ve thrust myself into the world of pregnancy, childbirth and child care education with the enthusiam of well, me before chronic illness kicked my butt and changed my brain a bit.

In short, I’ve gone full Leslie Knope on the pre-parenting and parenting thing. If there is a class to take, I’ve taken it or am about to take it: childbirth classes, CPR classes, first aid classes, advanced child care classes, first aid for severe bleeding classes, breathing and relaxation classes for labor and breastfeeding classes.

And the books, I’ve been reading the books — all the classics, as well as any pamphlet, flyer or booklet that is provided to me by one of my many, many class instructors.

They have a lot of good information — but in all of my extensive research and preparation, I’ve noticed one area where the information is particularly lacking — postpartum care.

I counted.

In the pregnancy booklet I got at childbirth class, there are 35 pages devoted to labor and delivery — a process that takes hours or days, during which you are supervised and supported by a team of medical professionals.

There are six pages in the booklet devoted to postpartum care, a weeks-long process in which you are fully on your own as you recover from either surgery or, at the very least, one of the greatest feats of strength you’ve ever completed in your life.

The numbers seem a bit off, is all I’m saying.

I understand that labor and delivery is complicated and there are countless ways that things can go wrong. There are different procedures and pain management tools and it’s important for new parents to educate themselves the best they can about what will arguably be one of the biggest days of their lives.

What I don’t understand is why we seem to have so little concern for what comes afterward and, why as a society, we seem to be so embarrassed to talk about it.

Case in point — that Oscars ad. You’ve probably heard about this, right? Frida Mom, a company that sells postpartum personal care products, made an ad showing a new mom basically just being a new mom. She uncomfortably gets out of bed, shushes her baby, walks carefully to the bathroom in her disposable underwear and thick pad, and then pees.

It’s hardly graphic. It’s just real life.

But, then again, as a society, we’ve always had a thing about women’s blood.

That’s why when I was a kid I thought that menstruation was blue because all feminine hygiene commercials made it look like their products were absorbing blue Gatorade or something, rather than blood.

God forbid a girl see her period as something normal and natural and not something to be ashamed about? How inappropriate. (Side note: I really hope the sarcasm is coming across here, because it’s coming at you hard.)

Our inability to talk about the postpartum phase and all the blood and pain and discomfort of it — is just a perpetuation of that same bullshit. It’s just a further continuation of our discomfort with the female body and everything it is capable of.

We don’t want to talk about the aftermath of childbirth. We don’t want to know about the blood, the stitches, the scars, the pain. And sure, some of that is because as a society we’re a bit squeamish. But I think there’s more to it than that.

I think, in part, we refuse to look at the messy parts of childbirth and postpartum because, in doing so, we’d have to admit women’s strength.

It’s easier to diminish women when we can pretend they are delicate, weak, fragile and precious. It’s a whole hell of a lot harder to put women down when we’re forced to look at their strength in all its gory glory.

Women can create life. In their bodies. Like superheros or human 3-D printers. That’s undeniable, badass-level toughness right there.

So that’s why we try to deny it.

Think about it. We all know people who have watched a gruesome, blood-soaked video of an athlete getting an atrocious injury over and over again without a moment’s hesitation. But if you show that same person the Frida Mom ad where the mom is simply wincing and wearing a diaper, they’d say “I don’t need to see that. That’s gross.”

This is sexism, the sneaky kind that’s really hard to see. It’s little comments like these, that if you strip them back, you can see they’re influenced by really harmful ideas about women — that they’re unclean and that their uncleanliness makes them inherently bad or sinful.

And we attribute that sin, that uncleanliness, with blood.

Case in point, in some parts of this world today, women and girls are still required to sit in isolation when they’re on their periods. They’re forced to spend their days of bleeding in huts, alone.

Sure, we don’t do that here. But we can’t even handle a commercial in which a new mom has to wear pads and disposable underwear to contain her blood. And even our childbirth books are too embarrassed or uncomfortable to give postpartum care more than a cursory glance.

We still have some work to do.

And for the sake of my daughter, I hope we can figure it out before she’s postpartum, or ideally, a hell of a lot sooner than that.

I’m a freelance writer and editor. I’ve written nonfiction children’s books, bar reviews, health care communications and more: https://ashleystrehlehartman.com/

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