Updated: Feb 15, 2022
TW: Miscarriage, Stillbirth, Loss, Body Image, Sickness. etc.
This is a topic that is close to me as my wife and I have had a very difficult journey with pregnancy, loss, and postpartum mental health. In fact, my wife and I wrote this post together, as she has so much wisdom to share in this, and I am not a woman (surprise!). In writing this post, it felt important to us to confront how complex this topic can be.
So, this post is a shout out to all of the women who have had to endure some really dark seasons alone. Even as a therapist, I have had so much to learn about what it means to support someone through pregnancy and postpartum care. I am so sorry if you have ever been dismissed and haven't had room to process your experiences. This post is also a shout out to our friends who did support us. Thank you so much.
Yes, there is so much beauty that comes from pregnancy and having a baby and being a mom. But, in this post, we want to touch on and recognize the hard parts which don't get much air time. Cue our ramblings:
Changing bodies, societal pressures, aches, pains, nausea - and the pressure to carry on with normal life through it all.
The lack of boundaries and remarks people make towards women's bodies during pregnancy.
Debilitating pregnancy complications like: Hyperemesis Gravidarum (HG), Preeclampsia, Infections, Gestational Diabetes, Breech Position, and more.
The fear of loss, the lack of compassion or care if a women aborts, the grief of loss of a child by miscarriage or stillbirth.
Difficulty with adjusting to a new body. The grief that is felt when a body changes. Saying good-bye to your old body and accepting your new one.
Pressure for mothers to have a "natural birth" rather than getting an epidural.
How difficult, painful, and unpredictable labour can be. Caesarean recovery.
Pressure from partners to have sex when your body doesn't feel ready.
Pain, discomfort, and challenges with adjusting to breastfeeding. Feeling shame when baby doesn't latch on.
The journey of postpartum mental health. Feeling suicidal and not knowing why. The impact of hormonal changes. Feeling completely overwhelmed but needing to get up anyways.
The journey of postpartum body. "Bounce-back" culture. People telling you that your postpartum body needs to change. Comments like, "Don't worry, the extra baby weight will eventually go away." The day after giving birth, a doctor grabbing my wife's stomach, jiggling it around while saying, "...and now all we have to do is take care of this extra pudge!"
The change of role and responsibility. The pressure and guilt moms feel from society.
Expectations from your friends, family, your partner. New demands in your relationships.
NO SLEEP. LIKE AT ALL.
Dismissive and hurtful comments that come after the loss of a child.
"At least you weren't further along!"
"At least you know you can get pregnant."
"Is it because you were drinking or doing something you shouldn't have? Did they say what you might've done to cause it?"
"You should probably lose some weight before you try again."
"It was the wrong baby."
… and the one that stung the most for us:
"This baby wasn't in God's plan."
Yes. My wife heard almost all of these comments after our miscarriages.
And yes, those people weren't trying to cause harm. They came from a well-intended place. And yes, it was still devastating despite their intentions.
Issues related to women's experience of pregnancy, miscarriage and infant loss, and body image are consistently dismissed and disregarded in our culture. Most people seem to only want to hear stories about the positive and 'beautiful' aspects of motherhood; but not the hardships, pain, or loss.
Can you leave more room for your friends, partners, moms to talk about these things? Here are some things for you to consider when attempting to create space and safety for the Mothers in our lives:
When talking about something difficult, notice your own discomfort before speaking. When we take a moment to slow down and recognize our own experience in a conversation, it is remarkable how often we respond in a way which attempts to relieve our own discomfort. We do this by: trying to "solve" something, giving unsolicited advice, saying, "I'll pray for you," and finding something to blame. Don't respond with "but" or "at least." Instead, notice their discomfort and yours, and sit with them in it. This is your opportunity to let someone else be seen and supported.
Don't make assumptions. Yes, there are lots of women out there who genuinely had a beautiful experience and didn't have to suffer as much as many other women do. Lots of people make the assumption that your pregnancy was probably wonderful because of a lack of cultural discourse and education on the topic. "If it wasn't simply wonderful, it must have been the Mom's fault/attitude/etc." The more you learn about women's health and experiences regarding motherhood, the easier it will be recognize the complexity and individuality in each person's experience.
Ask about their experience--The good and the ugly. Ask open-ended questions that allow for them to be the expert on their experience; and don't ask any questions at all if you're unable to handle discomfort (otherwise, their response is for you, not for them). Here are some example questions that you can try:
"What's something about your __________ that you don't often get to talk about?"
"What's a question you wish people asked you more often about ___________?"
"Is there anything that surprised you about ___________?"
"Did you have enough space to talk about your labour?" "What was that experience like for you?"
Want to do something practical? Take something off of their list of things to do. Cook them a meal, pay for their next date-night, buy them (the right sized) diapers, organize a meal train, buy Mom a gift (like a cozy robe, blanket, or pajama pants). If they feel comfortable enough to allow you into their home, then ask if you can help fold the laundry, do their dishes, clean their bathroom/floors, offer to hold the baby for three hours and let them sleep, etc.
And please, for the love of God: Stop telling pregnant women to eat saltine crackers! In pregnancy, morning sickness is common. And so is this advice. Maybe this is us projecting our own experiences, but we heard this advice way too often and (surprise!) it didn't change my wife's HG experience where she was puking up to 20 times a day. She isn't stupid and she's looked on more websites then you to figure out how to find relief.
Celebrate mothers and their bodies. The body of a mother goes through a significant journey and sustains the life of a child. PLEASE stop body shaming and assuming you have any right to tell mother's what their body should look like. Don't assume that they need to "bounce-back" and return to their pre-pregnancy body. Instead, celebrate that mother's bodies change, grow, and sustain life.
The purpose of this article was to make sure that women feel seen. That not only are there wonderful parts to motherhood, but that there are also aspects that are uniquely painful. It took my wife over 10 months before she felt ready to process some of her experiences related to pregnancy and labor. Not everyone is ready to talk about this stuff, but you can still help mother's feel safe.
As we mentioned before, these topics are complex, which means this article probably missed something. What would you add to this list?
Do you have any feedback/questions on this article? Feel free to leave a comment and let me know. I'd love to continue learning with you :)