Mothering the Mother, Part II: How Postpartum Care Helps Us Love Our Bodies

by Svea Boyda-Vikander on July 29, 2013

“A safe pregnancy is a human right for every woman regardless of race or income.” – Amnesty International

“I have horrible [postpartum] stretch marks that I feel the need to cover and of course my breasts are nowhere near where I would like them to be.” – Courtney, Beauty Revealed Project.

So here I am, sitting cross-legged with a computer in my lap, typing around the soft belly that still protrudes (that always will protrude), while my seven week-old daughter sleeps in the next room. I’ve got a clean cloth diaper stuffed into my bra and I’m thinking about the talk I will give at the upcoming BWF Conference in October.

(((Registration is open! You should come! I want to meet you!)))

My topic is ‘Mothering the Mother’, an expansion of my most popular blog post ever, decrying the lack of postpartum care provided to American women. And I am being sponsored by the Beauty Revealed Project, a fantastic community and an online collection of photos and stories celebrating women’s real postpartum bodies.

Darien McGuire Photography

To some, this may seem like a strange fit: What, one might ask, does postpartum care have to do with bodily self-acceptance? If I bring a new mother a big pot of soup, is she suddenly going to love her stretch marks?

The answer is no; the answer is yes.

Our society-wide refusal to acknowledge the changes that come with motherhood is one of our greatest acts of misogyny. The bare facts: The United States is one of four countries in the world refusing paid maternity leave to its new mothers (the others are Liberia, Swaziland, and Papua New Guinea). Despite 20 year-old research stating that changes in our healthcare model would soon require in-home postpartum support, American women do not receive postpartum care beyond a six week check-up. And our maternal mortality rate is the highest in the Western world.

These policies and their resulting tragedies perpetuate a widespread distaste for the childbearing process. Somehow, it has become OK to force a woman back to work just a few days after a human being came out of her body. To cut it open (routine episiotomies, routine cesareans) and leave it untended for six weeks or more. To let women – especially poor women, and women of colour – die preventable deaths after they have created life. The birthing woman’s body, not perceived as an economic resource, removed from its dubious status as a sexual object, is just not valued.

Sweet Serenity Photography

This devaluation spreads to other non-essential aspects of women’s postpartum bodies. The postpartum pooch. The stretch marks. The sagging flesh, the milky leakiness, the scars. There is nothing ugly about these body parts. But google any one of them and the instructions you find will be on how to hide it. How to get that ‘pre-baby body back’, terminology which I find so offensive because, really, where did that body ‘go’? It’s still here. Right here. My body did not disappear into some Platonic realm from which it must be reclaimed. No. My body, my (fortunate, privileged) healthy body birthed a baby.

It is so hard to see one’s own culture(s) because these are beliefs we are born into, ideas by which we live and die. So I’d like to try a little experiment. Let’s imagine the cover of a celebrity-ogling magazine. You know, the kind that watches bumps like my toddler watches diggers.

The cover shows a glamorous new mother.

She is lying in bed, her body relaxed and comfortable.

She is not groomed because she does not need to be, it is not expected of her.

She is not lifting weights or on her way to yogafit class; she is nursing her baby.

The headline reads, “K. Kardishian, New Mother! Inside: pics of her beautiful baby and fabulous new stretch marks!”

Yeah. I can’t imagine it either.

But I maintain that the physical manifestations of having birthed a child do not need to be hidden. They could, hypothetically, be celebrated. I swear they could be seen as sexy. I have heard they can be markers of status. Or simply perceived as healthy, normal, even unremarkable.

open book studios

What would it take for any of these to happen? We would have to start with the postpartum period. With gently caring for women who are gently caring for their newborn babies. With giving their bodies space to recuperate. With touch and massage, actions which tell them that their bodies are OK. With giving them nourishment and love. Showing mothers that we care about them will allow them to internalize that care and to care about themselves. Bodily self-acceptance cannot be far behind.

I have been lucky to receive incredible postpartum care over the past two months. I had midwives and friends, community to bring me meals and a partner to look after me. I did not have to get back up on my feet and do the impossible. I could rest. My body and my heart both show the benefits of this care. And as I sit here and feel my milk let down, telling me that my infant daughter will soon wake up and call me in to nurse, I feel grateful that my body birthed a baby. I know deep inside that my body is more than a cog in a machine, or something to be looked at. That it is strong, powerful beyond measure.

The health of our bodies has everything to do with how we feel about them.

KaylaMarie Photography

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The Beauty Revealed Project is on Facebook and online at www.beautyprojectrevealed.com. The staff of this wonderful, encouraging page accept photo and story submissions from postpartum mothers. They also assist in the arrangement of free or low-cost postpartum portraiture sessions with professional photographers. The Beauty Revealed Project is a not-for-profit organization and a labour of love.   

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{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

Meagan Church July 30, 2013 at 3:43 pm

I have been a long-time reader of yours and admire the work you do. I completely agree that post-partum care is so vital, important and absent in our society. As with a wedding where all the details go into the big event of one day, but no focus is given to the life-long commitment, the focus of birth is typically on pregnancy and delivery, but what comes afterwards is often an after thought. And that’s when so many women feel the most uncertain, lost and alone. Then we are bombarded by images and pressures to get that pre-baby body “back.” There is a local radio spot for a plastic surgeon that features a few friends talking about how one friend looks just like she did before kids…how fabulous! And it only took a few procedures! The commercial makes me sick. I admit that I’m 18 months post-partum with my third child and I’m not overly enthused by how much my belly still protrudes, but the fact is, I earned it. I earned each stretch mark, too. Motherhood transformed me in many ways, including physically. It’s something to be proud of. I will definitely be sharing this post with my readers. Again, thanks for the work you’re doing!

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Emily July 30, 2013 at 8:19 pm

I’m slowly overcoming my fear of my body changing because of childbirth. I don’t have kids yet and part of the reason is that I didn’t want my body to change so drastically (and in my old mindset, for the worse). Posts like this are helping me to become okay with the changes that happen and to love my body for what it can do. Sometimes it is still a struggle for me to think about how my body might change, but I know it will be worth it. Thanks for posts like this.

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Beth July 31, 2013 at 9:02 am

This is beautiful! I’m a mother of four and have never worn a bikini (I was a temple attending Mormon for thirty-six years which required modest, one piece swimwear or tankinis-explains a lot). This article stirs up a desire to hit the swimwear clearance sales going on right now and bare the silvery map on my belly and upper thighs gifted from my four sons, to be brave, and proud of what my body has accomplished. Thank you.

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Kari July 31, 2013 at 12:57 pm

This post brought me to tears. I’m a long time struggler of body image issues and eating disorders. After getting healthy and birthing my two babies I began to cherish my marks of life. Especially after having my second child and thinking it might be the last. What you wrote is just beautiful. I bought a bikini this summer (ready to bare my motherhood) and I think it’s time to flaunt my accomplishments. Women who support women are such blessings. Thank you.

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Jonelle July 31, 2013 at 1:36 pm

I can really appreciate this post, but I would like to share another perspective. I’m a 31 year-old mother of 2, I also work as a doula and childbirth educator. My son is 3 and my daughter is just 8 weeks. I’m on the other end of the spectrum from a lot of women, in that I have trouble gaining weight during pregnancy and because of that I lose weight really quickly after giving birth. It’s a problem because as I nurse my babies my body literally withers away to almost nothing. With my son I was 130 lbs when I got pregnant, got to 153 at delivery, but by the time he was 6 months old I was down to just 110 lbs. He was a huge baby after birth being 29 lbs by 10 months old. But I was left with this tiny body. Both of my babies were born early (4 weeks and 2 week respectively) so I didn’t end up with stretch marks. Now all of this sounds just fine, except that other mothers are brutal to me. When I was 36 weeks pregnant with my daughter I literally had two other pregnant women who were due right around me scoff and turn their backs to me at the park after I told them how far along I was.
When my daughter was about a week old I was at the grocery store and a women asked how old my baby was, I told her 1 week with a smile. Her response was “well you don’t look like you f***ing had a baby a week ago.” and turned and walked away from me. It hurts to be ostracized by other mothers in that way. It’s not like I’m starving myself to be thin after the baby comes, and you can see that by how big my babies get (my daughter has doubled her birth weight at 8 weeks old). I have had potential clients not trust me because I don’t get large during pregnancy. The other thing that happens is that because my body bounces back so quickly people don’t think I need to be taken care of postpartum. But I have the same needs any other women does. But because my outer self looks healed up people assume that I must be great! After my son, I was genuinely concerned about the amount of weight loss that I had, being 5’6″, 110lbs was far too thin for me. I was worried about doing damage to my body but I would be told to not complain if I tried to talk about it. Or I would be told that I shouldn’t tell any other mother that I’m upset about being so thin.
I guess my point is that we as mothers all sacrifice parts of our bodies, my breast are certainly much different than they were. But I would never dream of making a rude comment to or about a women for not having her body bounce right back after a baby or for having stretch marks and it is really hurtful that I face so much judgement for the fact that my body does. We all have to support one another no matter what our bodies look like after a baby. It’s such a tender time.

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Svea Boyda-Vikander July 31, 2013 at 4:23 pm

Jonelle,

Thank you for your comment and for sharing your story. I can relate – while not as thin, I too am on the slender side of motherhood. People are not rude to me about my postpartum body but they do seem pretty comfortable talking about it (“You just had a baby?!” and before that, “You don’t even look pregnant!”) which, as someone who used to have an eating disorder, I find difficult. I had never really thought about it in this context before, but along the lines of what you were saying about people not realizing you need postpartum help, it seems to be harder for people to see me as a mother. Questions like, “Is this your baby or are you the au pair?” are well-intentioned but they demonstrate a well-ingrained stereotype about what a mother looks like – and I don’t like that that image doesn’t include me.

Our society has trouble accepting all women’s bodies (and bodies, period!). I focus on celebrating larger women’s bodies in my writing because these are the ones who experience the most hate. But every mother (including adoptive mothers and surro mothers) has a beautiful body and every mother needs respect and care.

P.S. I understand it could be scary or unhealthy to lose that amount of weight so quickly, but I think it’s kind of incredible that your body literally gives of itself to feed your babies. Mine does the same, but again, to a lesser extent. Like its biggest priority is to make sure the little ones thrive.

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Laurel July 31, 2013 at 5:03 pm

I also lost my baby weight and more by 6wks postpartum. My 15mo old is still nursing and I am still trying to gain weight because I simply don’t have enough energy! It also makes gaining muscle mass incredibly hard.
I really thank you for having this post, and in turn would love another postpartum post. Not just about loving our bodies and the incredible work they do, but also what is “normal” for our postpartum bodies. I mean night sweats, leaky breasts, those first few pees and BMs, vaginal pain or C-section recovery, the shifting of your internal organs, all of that. I think I wrote a list :). I was a doula when I had my daughter and I knew a lot, but it seems you learn so much about the birth whereas all your body goes through in the first few months after is kind of glossed over. I think it would help to know in advance to prepare for taking the time to nurture ourselves and being more comfortable asking for help. Having a baby (birth) is far easier than having a baby (parenting)!

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Kate Novotny February 13, 2014 at 11:47 am

Beautiful!

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