It's no secret that being a woman is confusing. You should be sexual, but not too sexy otherwise you're inappropriate. You should be attractive, but you shouldn't try too hard to be attractive. You should always be available but you shouldn't be too "easy" or associate yourself with too many people. Talk about confusing. However, I'd argue that nothing is more confusing for a woman than the mindf*ck double standards society has about pregnant vs. postpartum bodies. The messaging that a pregnant woman hears on a daily basis is so very different, and often completely contradictory, to the messaging a new, postpartum mother hears the moment her baby is born. No wonder so many new mothers feel lost and alone and confused; what they've been told when they were pregnant, no longer applies.
I remember the soothing, calm, supportive and usually body positive messaging I received when I was pregnant. People constantly told me my weight gain was "beautiful" and my body was "incredible." I was told to take it easy and rest and that others would help me; I wasn't on my own. I felt like I didn't have to worry or really focus on anything other than myself, my body, and my pregnancy. It was glorious. I twas reassuring. It was also, sadly, fleeting. The moment my son was born, society changed its tune. I was told to hate my body and hide the fact that I was ever pregnant by losing weight and doing what I could to get rid of stretch marks. I had to get back to my "pre-baby body" as quickly as possible. I had to do everything, all at once, on little-to-no-sleep and I had to instinctively know what to do as a new mom, because if I didn't I wasn't a "good mother" at all. It was all so confusing and overwhelming and I was left wondering what happened? What had changed? Why was the birth of my son the catalyst for a completely different conversation? Why did society seem to love pregnant bodies, but dislike postpartum bodies?
I'm sure sexism, misogyny and a slew of other reasons are to blame. I'm sure unrealistic beauty standards and gender stereotypes play a major role. I'm sure it will be a while before real, systemic change occurs and women are respected, supported and trusted in all areas and phases of their lives; not just when they're pregnant. Until then, however, I think it's important to look at the two conflicting messages a woman hears when she's pregnant and when she's postpartum. After all, you can't fix what you don't know is broken.
Eat All The Time Vs. Go On A Diet Immediately
When I found out I was pregnant, I honestly thought, "Well, I might be nauseas and exhausted, but at least I can eat all the time and eat whatever I want!" False. After meeting with my nutritionalist, I learned that it's not healthy to simply "eat whatever" and gain as much weight as I wanted to. Eating healthy and gaining a healthy amount of weight is important to a healthy, "normal" pregnancy. Still, our culture grants women — honestly, for the first and usually only time in their lives — to "eat whatever you want" because it's not about the woman, it's about the baby, and the majority of society knows about as much as I did when it comes to prenatal health.
Of course, the other end of that uneducated coin is the messaging that every postpartum woman should "watch what she eats" and go on a diet and go back to starving herself and/or restricting her diet in the name of conventional beauty standards. If you were able to indulge and enjoy food when you were pregnant, well, that time has passed. You're no longer pregnant and there's not another life to think about when it's dinner time so food, for you, dear postpartum woman, is no longer a necessity. Stop eating.
This messaging, it seems, tells women that they can only enjoy food if someone else benefits. If there's a fetus inside you that needs nutrition, have at it! Enjoy that buffet and eat that second helping and indulge in that dessert. However, if there isn't, your body doesn't need or deserve the same treatment. Talk about dehumanizing. Talk about dangerous. Talk about infuriating.
Gain Weight Vs. Lose Weight As Soon As Possible
When you're pregnant, you're expected to gain weight. When you're postpartum, you're expected to lose weight. When you're pregnant, you're granted this silent permission to expand and take up space unapologetically and be seen as a whole human being that should embrace and value their size. It's, again, the only time in a woman's life when society decides it's OK that you're actually seen.
As soon as you're no longer pregnant, the cultural messaging every woman has been bombarded with since she was old enough to notice, continues. A new mom must shrink herself down instantly; she must lose weight in seconds; she must go back to being small, silent, and unseen. She shouldn't expand and take up space, she should compress and decrease and lessen herself to the size (or smaller) that she was before she procreated.
Love Your Growing Belly Vs. Wear A Waist Trainer
When I was pregnant, I remember people encouraging me to show off my pregnant belly. Many of the expensive maternity clothes I perused in various shops were somewhat small, and clung to my belly as to accentuate my pregnancy. It was OK — no, enjoyable — if I showed off my stomach and let everyone know that, hey, I'm pregnant and super happy about it.
Now, the new postpartum fad is to wear a waist trainer, so that your stomach becomes smaller and hidden and almost non-existent. A waist trainer is something of a corset, that has been known to alter a woman's waist size permanently or semi-permanently. What a woman was once encouraged to feature, she is now encouraged to mask.
People Are Quick To Help You Vs. You're On Your Own
When you're pregnant, people start opening your doors and giving up their seats on the train or bus and even offer you complimentary snacks or water. Strangers are quick to hold your groceries or lift anything remotely heavy (and sometimes not heavy at all) and ask if there's anything they can do to help you.
That support, for the most part, goes away the moment you have your baby. Yes, I will admit, I have been on the train and have had people offer me their seat when they see me holding my baby and/or toddler. Still, the offers are few and far between, and nothing like what I experienced when I was pregnant. Talk about creating a false sense of social support that only crumbles the moment your baby is either pushed or cut from your body, right?
You Must Take It Easy Vs. Do Everything On No Sleep
When I was pregnant I was constantly encouraged, if not ordered, to "take it easy." Sitting on the couch for hours on end was perfectly OK and more than acceptable because I was growing another human being inside my body. I shouldn't lift heavy things and I shouldn't run or do anything too physically taxing; I should just rest and relax and enjoy an over-abundance of "down time."
When you're a new mom, that all goes out the proverbial window. You don't have time to relax or take care of yourself and, if you do, you're "lazy." How dare you even think about self-care and how dare you waste a single second of the day sitting or resting. You have another human being to care for so get it together and go, go, go.
Show Off Your Pregnancy Vs. Hide The Evidence That You've Ever Been Pregnant
It's OK to show others that you're pregnant, but once you're a mother you should hide the fact that your body ever experienced pregnancy or childbirth. If you have a c-section scar, hide it; if you have stretch marks, hide them; if you still look five months pregnant days, weeks, or months after you gave birth, hide it; if you have extra skin or a wider waist or more weight, hide it. Hide. It. All.
What women were once encouraged to be so proud of, is now something they need to deny ever happening to them. You can be a mom, but you shouldn't look like you've been through the physical process of becoming a mom. Ugh.
You Have All The Time In The World Vs. You Have No Time At All
Time seemed to stand still when I was pregnant, and the people around me seemed to take notice, too. "You have all the time in the world," and "There's no rush," and "Pregnancy takes time" were all kind sentiments shared with me, and I felt like I really didn't have to rush to prepare for baby; baby would come when baby was ready and that's all there was to it. There was no need to be anxious and I wasn't really on some sort of stopwatch, even though there was, indeed, a timetable and there was a deadline on the horizon. Whatever my body was experiencing wasn't going to be instantaneous. It was going to be a slow, steady process that took months on months on months.
Then I had a baby and all the time that seemed to steadily crawl throughout my pregnancy, bum rushed me instantaneously. I felt like I had no time at all. I had to take care of the baby as soon as the baby started crying; I had to hurry up and figure out motherhood as quickly as possible; I had to adapt to this life change in seconds; I had to lose weight and get back into my pre-baby jeans and it shouldn't take months, it should take minutes. Suddenly, I had no time to do the things our culture expects of new mothers.
Your Relationships Are Important Vs. The Only Relationship That Matters Is The One You Have With Your Child
In order to take care of my pregnant, growing and ever-changing body, I was encouraged to continue my relationships. "You can't, and shouldn't, do this on your own," my incredible OB told me, and she was right. When I was feeling at my worst or most exhausted or just most unsure, all I did was lean on my romantic partner, my dear friends or my mother, and all was well. I made an effort to spend time with them and continuously cultivate those relationships because, not only were they important to me, I was told they were necessary.
That changes, however, when you're a mother. Suddenly, the only relationship I'm told I should care about, is the relationship I have with my son. I don't have "time" to spend with my friends and, if I do, I'm a "bad mom" who cares more about socializing than she does her own child. My romantic relationship is important, yes, but only so I can give my son a stable environment, and demonstrate to him what a healthy relationship looks like. Rarely, if ever, am I told that I need to cultivate my romantic relationship for my benefit (or the benefit of my partner); it's all for my son, now. I no longer matter.
You're Fragile Vs. You're A Superhero
While all of the juxtaposing, hypocritical messaging a woman receives when she's pregnant and when she's postpartum are infuriating, the "you can't make your own decisions" vs "you're a superhero and we should all worship you" is, by far (in my opinion), the most infuriating.
When a woman is pregnant, certain people (and certain law makers) assume she no longer has the right, or the ability, to make her own decisions about her own body. She can't, and shouldn't, decide if she wants to continue the pregnancy and put her body through the rigorous and often difficult stages of pregnancy, labor, delivery and postpartum life. Her body is no longer hers, it's either the government's (apparently) or the fetus'. However, when you become a mother you're a "superhero" and you can do everything, all at once, and you don't need self-care or help because you're like this other-world entity, doing it all in a single bound. Talk about confusing.
Whether a woman is pregnant or postpartum, she needs to be trusted and supported. Whether a woman has a fetus in her body or a baby outside of her body, she needs to be empowered and comforted. Most importantly, regardless of whatever stage of life a woman is currently experiencing, she needs to be respected. Regardless.