The one about what NOT to say.
At no time have I ever felt my female-ness as under siege as I do now that I’m a mum.
From the very beginning of your (visible) pregnancy, you become public property. Almost everyone you encounter will say something to you about your pregnancy/baby. It’s most apparent in the lines of questioning: you’re expected to have a (acceptable) position, quite early on. What’s your birth plan? Oh, you want an epidural? Are you thinking of opting for a caesarean? Are you going to find out the sex? What are you hoping for? What will you do if it’s a girl? Are you going to have it baptised? Public or private? Are you going to breastfeed? Are you using a dummy? Oh, you’re co-sleeping? When are you going back to work? Oh, at least it’s only X days in childcare.
All of these questions, as mild or as well-meaning as they seem, come with a raft of expectations: The rules of how you’re supposed to want to give birth and begin bringing your child into the world. What this means about you, and your ability to parent. And, more importantly, how valid you are as a woman.
I didn’t have a birth plan. I very much hoped for pain relief. I was open to a caesarean, if that’s what I needed to do. No, we weren’t going to find out the sex – no, we didn’t need to purchase a whole raft of gendered items for someone who didn’t even know they were a person yet. I would have been equally ecstatic to learn I’d given birth to a healthy baby girl. No, I wasn’t going to have my baby baptised – regardless of your position on the matter. We opted for private. Yes, I’ll breastfeed, if I can (more on this, later). Yes, we’re co-sleeping (‘cause the alternative where he cries all night is unthinkable). I’ll go back after 6 months – it’s all we can afford, but I’m so glad we’ve managed even that. Thank god for daycare – I can retain some sense of my identity, and my son gets an immune system and social development.
(In retrospect, what I would love to say to these people is: Will you be there at 3 am when my child has screamed for 3 hours straight and won’t be settled? Will you pay for me to extend my maternity leave to 12/18/24 months? Will my epidural prevent you from being able to feel your toes? Basically, what the fuck is it to you?)
If you speak to any mother, any parent, you will VERY quickly discover that there is no singular experience of birth or parenthood. And, is that any surprise? Yet, we’re all held to this idea that we’re supposed to give birth at home, in our beds, with no pain relief, like it’s 1935, to be considered a real woman.
I kid you not, but one person said to me (upon hearing that I went into labour naturally and endured 24 hours of contractions, before having an epidural, another 12 hours of labour, another epidural and an emergency caesarean), “I’m so glad you got to experience that.” Why? Because writhing in pain for 24 hours, becoming dehydrated, and exhausting myself means I’ll love my baby more?
While I found it pretty easy to rebuff the insinuations of strangers, I was amazed to find this level of judgement and suggestion of inadequacy from people close to me. I think my ‘favourite’ version of this comes with the preface, “In my day …”. Akin to the “I’m not racist, but …”, “In my day …” is straight from the Trump book of logic. Does it come from a place of fear? For them, is it better the devil you know, when it comes to advances in obstetric and neonatal care? Or, is there a sense of bitterness and envy that it’s somehow easier ‘these days’?
Like all things, I guess it’s hard for most people to have a conversation about birth and parenting that’s not subjective. After all, we’ve all been parented, and a fair proportion of the population will give birth at some stage of their lives. And, the birth part, that’s a scary prospect – fear drives conservative views. So, here’s some suggested questions for the next time you encounter a heavily pregnant woman, or new mum:
Is there anything you need?
Have you got enough support?
Are you worried about anything?
What’s scaring you the most?
Can I hold the baby for an hour while you go and have a nap?
Would you like me to bring you something to eat?
Is there someone you trust, who you can ask for advice?
And, the key to all of the above: just listen. Hear what she has to say. Be supportive. Only offer advice if she asks for it. And, under absolutely no circumstances, say, ‘In my day …’.
If you’re interested in more on this topic, check out Time’s Motherhood Is Hard to Get Wrong. So Why Do So Many Moms Feel So Bad About Themselves? which goes into much more eloquent detail on the Goddess Myth, and how dangerous it is.