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A Mother's Wish for Mother's Day

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Guest post by Allison Phayre, Ph.D.

I remember the stunning joy I felt when I found out I was expecting my first baby.  I was carrying a new life inside me, and it felt like the most incredible miracle.  Oh sure, I experienced all the “joys” of the first trimester too, the breasts that felt like lead balloons, the hormone surges, the extreme tiredness…but I had a new life growing in me, and it was the best feeling in the world.  We kept it to ourselves for the first trimester…too many friends had suffered some bitter losses in that delicate time and we felt it was better to just keep it mum and hope all would be well.

What stunned me though as I moved into the second trimester and then the third was the number of total strangers who somehow felt it was their mission in life to comment on my pregnancy, my body, or my baby.  I had people guessing the baby’s gender, trying to guess the baby’s name, commenting on their “worst” names, telling me I shouldn’t be eating or drinking whatever I was consuming, or offering all manner of horror stories about labor and birth.  What was even more astounding was the number of total strangers who would come up and start rubbing my belly, as if I had transformed into some laughing Buddha to be rubbed for good luck!  And it didn’t end at the doctor’s office—in fact sometimes it felt like they were the worst offenders!  I was told what to avoid (caffeinated drinks, alcohol) and what vitamins to take to make sure my baby was getting everything she needed.  I had to learn to lie on my left side to sleep, to keep baby’s blood flow optimal, and what childbirth classes were “most practical”. 

In so many ways, I was taught very effectively that it was all about the baby.  My experience, my discomfort, my personal space, my body were all suddenly public property to varying degrees.  My doctor could tell me how to sleep, what to eat, even when to have sex with my husband.  Total strangers suddenly felt it was their right to comment on all of the above, or even touch my body without my permission!  I was told by well meaning older mothers to “get used to it” and to “enjoy the experience”.  What I want to know is, why do we think as a society that it’s okay for mothers to suddenly become a sacred vessel only, this container for the all important baby?  This attitude permeates our whole culture and is especially entrenched in the obstetrical culture.  If I had a dollar for every time I heard my OB tell me, “We just want a healthy baby,” I would be a rich woman.  Sometimes she would add, “and mom”, but not every time.  What kind of message does that send to Mom?  Gee you’re great, but baby matters most.

Please don’t misunderstand what I am saying.  My babies are the most precious things in my life.  I have so many friends who have struggled with the heartbreak of pregnancy loss and infertility.  I know exactly what miracles they are, and what a miracle pregnancy is.  But if I have one wish for Mother’s Day, it is that we remember that the mother sacrifices a lot of herself even before that baby is born.  It’s not fair to tell a mother that her wishes for her birth experience don’t matter, as OBs often do by dismissing birth plans or refusing to be guided by them.  It’s not fair to tell a mother that risks to her person from cesarean delivery are less important than risks to the baby, as doctors do when they advise moms to avoid VBAC because it’s “safer for the baby”, even though it’s “slightly riskier for mom”.  Mom and mom alone understands on a very intimate and basic level how her safety and baby’s safety are intertwined, and the right balance of risks between those two people is going to be different for each mom and baby.   Please, let’s take back the birth culture and practices in this country, so every expectant mom is not a vessel to be handled whatever way her care providers prefer, but remains an autonomous PERSON who is in control of her own body, her own pregnancy, her baby, and her birth.


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Reader Comments (15)

Regarding VBAC risks, George Macones' abstract in the NIH VBAC Conference program reads: "Short-term maternal complication rates (uterine rupture) are similar to other procedures in obstetrics and medicine overall. Short-term neonatal risks are possibly increased with VBAC, although close in magnitude to complications observed wth any vaginal delivery."

May 9, 2010 | Registered CommenterJill

...and Happy Mother's Day to all the motherreaders.

May 9, 2010 | Registered CommenterJill

This writer read my mind!!!! We are so loss averse in our culture that we cling to anything that gives the appearance of safety.

As a doula, I've had to make my peace with how close death is to birth. I've been present at two births where fetal demise seemed likely in the first moments after birth... I've felt the joy and relief when the babies took their first breaths. One situation happening in the hospital and handled in a very traumatic manner for baby and parents... the other out of the hospital where the mom was barely aware that anything was out of the norm and made a part of recovery process for her baby. I've also been present twice where mom was nearly lost, once being the only person present when the hemorrhage process started.

Was this scary, sad, traumatic? Yes. Did I cry for days afterward? Yes. Did it change my views on natural, out-of-hospital birth? No, because these occurrences are rare, unpredictable and just as likely in the hospital as out. What it did was show me how fragile life is and how close birth and death can be. And it showed me how relatively powerless we are to stop them from happening. It is possible and important to deal with the situations when they arise, I have seen with my own eyes that a skilled midwife can deal with it as well as a whole team of doctors and nurses.

Happy Mather's Day (as my daughter is fond of saying)

May 9, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterVanessa Manz

Thanks so much for an excellent post. And yes Jill, even though the evidence says one thing, I have often heard people claim VBAC is some sort of trade off, being safer for the mom but more dangerous for the infant. I think that shows non nuanced thinking, taking the most exciting complications for each option (mom, cesarean ->hemorrhage and die vs. catastrophic uterine rupture -> infant dies) and refusing to consider all of the other important factors.

Allison, you stole the post from my head! I still may write something similar, like a planned. It is in response to Jessica Valenti, a prominent feminist, announcing that she is pregnant for the first time. I think there is a strong intersectionality of feminism and motherhood that you eloquently hinted at in your post. Thanks!

May 9, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterMomTFH


May 9, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterMomTFH

MomTFH - seriously? Man, I missed something. I've always wondered if things might really get cracking when young feminists with a wide audience started getting pregnant.

Happy Mothers' Day, Jill, all the crew at the Unnecesarean, and all the mamas reading out there. Thanks, Allison for this post. The last paragraph is a beautiful articulation of why the idea of fetus vs. mom is so artificial and ridiculous.

May 9, 2010 | Registered CommenterCourtroom Mama

I got very tired of hearing while pregnant - "Be careful XYZ-ing, you're XYZ-ing for two!" Eating, sleeping, driving, exercising... I just started telling people that I was naturally the very person who was most concerned with the baby's health, and that they should trust that the baby was in good hands. I was distinctly getting the feeling I was just a vessel for the precious cargo of our species, and couldn't be trusted to value it over my own selfish motives.

May 9, 2010 | Unregistered Commentersufficiency

Great post! During my sister-in-law's fairly difficult birth with her first, I felt like the health of the baby became a threat being held over her head by the end. Sort of a "either you comply with us or you won't have a healthy baby" kind of thing. Ironically, once the epidural wore off they let her try different positions rather than lying flat on her back, and once she squatted and leaned forward like she had instinctively been wanting to do, the baby's shoulders turned to the angle they needed to be and here he came, almost too fast. They acted sort of irritated by this (and the fact that her IV got ripped out in the process) but we were like "do whatever it takes to have a healthy baby, right?" I suspect "healthy baby" actually means "healthy baby our way" or "healthy baby with lowest liability risk."

May 9, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterRachel_in_WY

@Courtroom Mama, I am not even sure how I caught it. I don't go to Feministing very often, but I think I follow their twitter feed, and it may have been mentioned there. It took a bit of creative searching skills to even find the post about it on Feministing. I did find it, and I did write the post about it here.

May 9, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterMomTFH

Thank you for this post. I am 32 weeks pregnant with my first baby and having one of those crummy, hormone-soaked days, and am so sick I could scream of having people telling me to be careful, don't eat this, don't move like that, my face looks fat, my butt is bigger--all the intrusive remarks well-meaning people make to a woman who is visibly pregnant. I've stopped going to the gym except for water aerobics because I'm tired of people telling me what I should or shouldn't be doing, preferring to walk outside where I can have some peace. Despite being perfectly healthy, my feet and ankles are swollen, inviting criticism of every pair of shoes I put on (flats--too flat! Heels--bad for the baby! Sandals--no support!). Less salt, more water, special stockings and keeping my feet up have not provided a miracle cure. I suspect having the baby is the only thing that will. And the ominous pronouncements to "just wait" about how exhausted I'll be with a newborn, how I'll never be able to go out to dinner or go jogging again, because it will change everything! And yet it's supposed to be fun, fun, fun, so much fun that I'll want to leave the career I love and the paycheck I need because it changes "everything." on days like this I seriously wonder why I signed up for this in the first place. I know I'll love the baby very much when it arrives. I am looking forward to breastfeeding and to experiencing birth (hopefully without a Cesarean!!) But I kept waiting for the time in pregnancy when I was supposed to be floating along on this cloud of bliss and it has never come.

May 9, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterLPC
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