Kate, the Duchess of Cambridge, and I were pregnant at the same time. My daughter arrived first, and despite my extended hospital stay, I was at home to see the footage of her leaving hospital rosy cheeks glowing, Princess Charlotte bundled in arms, another dress more lovely than anything I own. The plaudits soon rolled in; Kate had achieved the highest prize in motherhood – another natural birth. Oh, and a healthy baby.
Sitting on my couch at home I watched the cameras surrounding her. Glad I was spared the scrutiny of their lenses. That I could keep my dressing gown at midday, my grey-tinged skin, and slow painful walk to myself. I told myself the dress, the make-up, all hid the unglamorous reality of birth. Pain-killers and maternity pads can hide a multitude of sins.
After her first was born Kate was praised for her willingness to expose the truth about post-partum bodies, for her expanded uterus puffing out the custom-made Jenny Packer dress. ‘Hooray for Kate’ the magazine columns and opinion pieces cheered. This time people felt the need to criticize her for looking too good. Nonetheless, Kate had given birth only hours earlier. She did look that good. Those facts are true. But was it The Truth?
It seems hardly a week goes by without another facebook post exposing The Truth About Post-partum Bodies going viral. Many are beautiful stories. Many of the women sharing them are facing down daemons of their own, proudly and rightfully. Who am I to say they should not be celebrated. Mothers are judged this way and that way, no matter what choices they make. Ceasarean births are the easy way out. Women who have vaginal birth don’t understand what caesarean mothers go through -at least vaginal birth is what your body is made for. Get the damn epidural. Epidurals are cheating. Don’t cut the cord too quickly. Don’t cut the cord. Your baby needs you – it’s the fourth trimester! You need to rest to recover. Baby blues are normal. Are you at risk of PND? Your body is amazing. Get back to your pre-baby body quickly. Love your tiger stripes!
The proliferation of messages can be exhausting; made all the more over-whelming by sleep deprivation and hormonal swings. So we love the women who cut through all these headlines to show us something raw and real. The bathroom mirror selfie, newborn in a sling. The caesarean scar, a harsh line across the skin punctuating the rage in the writing. The hilarity of adult-nappies snapped in a maternity ward photo.
But are they the truth?
Perhaps they are only part of it.
Because it is easy to share a photo one day post-partum of yourself in nappies, but much harder to admit that you are still wearing them months down the track. It is easy to get shares of your scar photo, but no-one wants to see the infection you picked up, no-one wants to hear about the smell of your flesh in the doctors rooms. It’s easy to talk about how strong you are for growing and birthing a baby, but much harder to talk about how you have been left too weak to hold the baby, let alone take a selfie. It is easy to talk about how you love your body now, how proud of it you are. But how to talk about a body that has let you down? The one that couldn’t conceive, or couldn’t go unmedicated, that couldn’t labour, that couldn’t stop bleeding, that couldn’t breastfeed, that couldn’t heal. That hasn’t healed and here you are months later still wondering why you have been left like this. Or to talk about your body at all when it was not your body that was broken but your mind.
I’m reminded of Sarah Wilson/Writehanded’s piece – Is your feminism ableist? We place so much emphasis on independence, on self-reliance. We judge before we have any understanding of what individual barriers someone faced. We create ideas of what women should be able to do. We are supposed to feel empowered. And so in the rush to celebrate what many women can and do achieve we sometimes leave out those who need the help the most.
We talk about the old days, when it was our great-great-grandmothers who died. We wring our hands in sorrow, or not, over the 800 women who die daily in faraway countries in childbirth. We are told to feel lucky. Reminded the ideal birthplan is the one where ‘both mother and baby survive’. And that is all. As though, that is all.
We didn’t die. Is that enough? Is that enough for you? Is it enough for me?
Jane Seymour, third wife to Henry VIII; the ideal wife. She produced an heir, and then had the grace to die afterwards. She did not live to incur the wrath of Henry as so many of his wives did. Her purpose in life as a medieval women was fulfilled. But what did Jane want? Not death, surely. Her labour was long, two days, three nights – reportedly because of a malpositioned baby. Centuries later, I feel for Jane. Both of my children were malpositioned too. But she had to labour without the medical support I eventually received. I developed a post-partum infection caused by an excessively long labour, this was the probable cause of her death. The loss of her life was a tragedy for her. Just as it is a tragedy for those 800 women dying every day. So many avoidable deaths. Dead not because they experienced severe complications – dead because, like Jane, they lack access to the basics of sanitation, medication and nutrition. They are individual tragedies, not just statistics to be thrown in the face of any woman who has the temerity to complain about her own lot. We cannot dismiss women’s experiences as first world problems. As anyone who does not have it can tell you, health is not a first world problem. It is a problem.
The line between survival and death in a difficult birth can be paper thin. Walk this line and your view of the world changes. You only have to go back decades to get to a time where no women who experienced complications akin to mine survived. I am a historical anomaly. Childbirth has been made safe. So we want to believe it has been made safe for all women. We want to believe we are now in control. But our bodies and minds are no different from what they have always been. The only change is technology.
Have we forgotten so quickly that it wasn’t just a life and death matter? That even back then women survived with injuries that could not be healed. That women were pushed to the margins of history because the burden of procreation kept us there. What space was there in the public sphere for those left crippled, incontinent? Smelly old ladies. Women unable to conceive more children. Women of ‘delicate constitution’ who nonetheless had produced a number of children already. What would history be like if Jane hadn’t died? The truth is a labour that long without medical support could have left her with many significant health problems. How would the raging tyrant Henry we know from history books have treated an incontinent wife? We’ll never know. Jane will never know. This has been women’s shame for millennia. This is the truth. This is a truth.
We are no longer forced into confinement after birth. Women live their lives in the public sphere. We are expected back at work, back at the school run, back at playgroups. If we are expected to do these things we need to acknowledge the physical barriers some women still face. Without being accused of oversharing, or even being ungrateful for our children’s lives. We only get one body, and we have to live in it for all our life.
Everyone has a horror story we are told. We do all endure, however we birth our child, but to claim we all endure equally is false. What happens to you matters deeply to you. Why do we feel a need to lay a claim to the greatest suffering? Why do people then blithely announce that it ends when you hold your baby. That our bodies heal. Effectively shutting the women who have not healed out of the conversation.
We can’t all walk out of the hospital like Kate. The dress, the hair and make-up are the least of it. For many women childbirth is the beginning of a long journey back to health. We need to talk about that. Not least because poor physical health impacts on poor mental health. So while it is wonderful to praise the women who feel strong, and who feel brave, we also need to embrace the women whose bodies and minds are weak and shattered. The women for whom giving life took everything they had and who now begin a journey back to health. The women whose bodies are still suffering. The women who no longer know their bodies any more. The women who feel shame and keep silent.
This is the truth. This is a truth.