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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