Few, if any, moments in life are as vulnerable as new motherhood. All of a sudden we are responsible for the most precious thing in the world, and with the stakes as high as they can possibly be, it’s impossible not to occasionally wonder if we're really up to the task. If we're biological parents, as most new moms are, we've also experienced the most dramatic physical shift any human being can experience, which is unnerving to even the most confident, self-assured person. In the midst of this huge transition, we're also surrounded by all sorts of messages, subtle and blunt, that teach new moms that they need to fix themselves.
Children are born free, without shame or insecurities. Sadly, however, over the course of our lives we are taught that we aren’t enough. We learn, from our communities and especially via the media, that in order to be considered "acceptable," we have to be different, somehow. We have to do more, buy more, wear this instead of that, talk this way instead of that way, be thin but not too thin, be sexy but not too sexy, wear makeup but not look like it, and so on. We need to care about how we’re perceived, but not seem like we care because that's not cool, either.
Unfortunately, little of this changes when we grow up and certainly not when (or if) we become mothers. Though as adults we sometimes like to act as though we stopped being vulnerable to superficial societal messages, the truth is that the messages continue, and often get even more insidious as we age. When we become moms, it's no longer just a seat in the cafeteria that's at stake when we don't measure up to arbitrary social standards. In many overt and covert ways, we’re taught that our relationships, our health, and even our children are at stake if we don't "fix" ourselves to adhere to a certain ideal.
We’re not broken, though. We are enough. We are doing amazing things, often with woefully little help and support. That’s something we should constantly remind ourselves of, whenever anyone tries to make us feel like we’re less than.
By Never Featuring Normal Mom Bodies In The Media
Most mass media images don’t explicitly exclude new moms. However, by never presenting images of bodies with looser skin, or stretch marks, or functional breasts, or anything but the tightest bellies, hips, and thighs, the media collectively teaches all of us that there is only a narrow way to have a body worth seeing, and that narrow standard doesn't include most postpartum bodies. By excluding images of us, along with anyone else who has experienced significant shifts in weight for any reason, they teach us that the only way to be considered acceptable is to change ourselves to match what we're shown.
By Relentlessly Pushing Postpartum “Miracle” Products
Of course, us feeling broken and unacceptable is hugely profitable for all of the companies who sell wraps, pills, creams, and all sorts of other products designed not to actually make us feel better or help us recover from pregnancy and childbirth. Instead, they're peddled to remove all the visible evidence of the fact that our bodies created life.
By flooding Instagram hashtags for postpartum moms, having their representatives stake out online mom groups, and even stealing popular mom bloggers’ images for their own use (in addition to traditional advertising), these companies make sure moms who are using social media to find support also get constant reminders that someone out there thinks their body needs fixing, and that their products can “help.”
By Promoting Fitness Programs That Help Us "Snap Back"
I’m a big fan of healthy movement and I love working out. I also think it’s important that moms have fitness classes and programs that are designed with our particular bodies in mind, whether it’s helping us heal our core and pelvic floor muscles, or just being gentle enough for bodies that need some extra TLC after giving birth.
However, there’s a difference between fitness programs that are mindful of new moms’ bodies, and programs that are hostile to new moms’ bodies. Programs that use fear and shame to win customers, or that separate “hot moms” from everyone else, are sending the message that new moms aren’t OK just as we are.
By Praising Celebrity Moms Who "Snap Back..."
From tabloids and magazines in the checkout line to gossip sites and even news outlets flooding social and traditional media, it’s almost impossible to avoid all-caps, exclamation point headlines about the latest famous mom to model a bikini mere weeks after giving birth. Never mind that for many of these people, looking a certain way is literally their job, and they have an army of people, along with Photoshop, who help them accomplish that look. Many of us, and the people in our lives, hold ourselves to the same standard.
...And Shaming Celebrity Moms Who Don't
Heaven forbid the superstars who grace our magazine covers actually reveal themselves to be human, and decide that they just want to chill out for a minute after making a person instead of going back on a starvation diet and making an appointment with a trainer or a plastic surgeon.
They, who often look far closer to the impossible ideal than the rest of us, are held up as tragedies to be avoided at all costs. (Often lurking off to the side of those reports? More ads for belly wraps.)
By Saying All Babies And Moms Have To Meet The Same Rigid Standard
There are lots of great OBs, midwives, and pediatricians who help their patients recognize what our own “normal” is, and work with us to feel our personal best. Unfortunately, there are also those out there who, either because they don’t have the time to spend with their patients or because they’re poor communicators, send the message that if every baby isn’t above average in height and weight (which is impossible, because math), or if every mom is taking her own time to lose weight or whatever else, that they’re doing something wrong and need to be fixed.
People come in all shapes and sizes, and that includes moms and babies. As long as everyone is meeting milestones, staying on their own growth curves, and have good health indicators, it’s OK if we don’t match everyone else.
By Peppering Us With Ridiculous Questions And Comments
Our friends and family members are notorious for letting their concern for us and our new babies manifest in really inarticulate ways. When you’re new to parenthood, and people you love are constantly asking you things like, “Should the baby be nursing that often?” or declaring that, “The baby will never learn to walk if you keep wearing him in that thing!” it can really ding your confidence.
Nine times out of ten, these people aren’t actual parenting experts; they’re just from different parenting generations and cultures and don’t understand that there’s more than one right way to be a parent. It’s totally fine to ignore them, and even better to tell them that you have done your research, you are doing what works for you and your family, and you aren’t interested in their criticism.
By Pressuring Us With Unrealistic Expectations And Demands
Far too many mom group postings include the phrase “Am I overreacting?” from new moms describing callous, cruel, and even abusive treatment from partners with unrealistic expectations and demands.
No, you’re not being “too sensitive” if it hurts your feelings when they compare you to another mom on TV, or their friend’s partner, or anyone else to wonder why you look or feel the way you do.
No, you are not overreacting if you’re upset with a partner who is demanding sex before you’re ready, or if you’re feeling too tired or touched out even if the doctor has “cleared” you for sex.
No, you don’t need a pill, or any “tips and tricks” to “get your body back” or get in the mood for someone who doesn’t respect your body or your boundaries.
You are amazing, and your partner needs to have a whole stadium full of seats, where they can admire and appreciate the wondrous things you do on your family’s behalf.
By Causing Us To Compare And Judge Each Other
Every mom is different, every pregnancy is different, every birth is different, every child is different. It’s one thing to compare notes to make sure we’re not suffering more than we need to, and get the help we need if we are. It’s another to use our experiences to judge other mothers, or to look over at our friends (or even ourselves in the past), and think that we’re doing something wrong because our experiences don’t look a particular way. We need to be easier on ourselves and each other. As long as we and our children are safe, happy, and healthy, we are doing all right.