Women love to tell their birth stories — those long, exciting walks while laboring, the spine-snapping pain of transition, and those first moments holding their child. But then it becomes the baby's story: first words and first steps and smash cakes. Mothers might allude to ~tearing~, or breastfeeding troubles, but their recovery, postpartum, is narratively beside the point. A new memoir, Body Full Of Stars: Female Rage And My Passage Into Motherhood, by Molly Caro May changes that. "When it comes to birth, I think we become very baby-focused, and when the mother has done her job she is forgotten," May tells Romper.
I think there is a fear that motherhood is going to shatter us and we are never going to be the same. — Molly Caro May
In her memoir, which I will be foisting onto all my mom friends in short order, May finds herself in a kind of purgatory after the birth of her daughter Eula ("like eulogy?" asks her mother), beset by a somewhat debilitating pelvic prolapse and free-floating rage. "I think there is a fear that motherhood is going to shatter us and we are never going to be the same," May tells me. And her book is devoted to the idea that you don't bounce back from childbirth; you're stamped with a "no re-entry" and shuttled on to the difficult work of transitioning into someone new. "Maybe motherhood will give her a reason to become a great human," May writes of her future mother-self while laboring, and there is truth to it, but the task is far more difficult than she might have imagined.
When a woman's body prepares to give birth, her joints become weirdly loose. Body Full Of Stars is likewise an emotionally limber, intellectual, sometimes wrenching but often funny book that acts as a time-lapse for the change taking place postpartum. It is also a shot across the bow to our dismissiveness of women's health, and female-centric literature. May says she didn't tell anyone she was writing the book until it was finished, at which point she dropped it on her agent. "I knew it would have an edge and speak to all the parts of the female experience," she says of craving space to write the book she wanted.
"I need you to recognize me," she tells her partner Chris in the book over and over, and I thought about all the men who won't read this book, but should.
There is an inkling of awareness around the support women need but do not receive postpartum — whispers of it in trendy neighborhoods — but May's physical challenges have a greater immediacy. A Canadian study published by PloS One found that as many as 50 percent of women have urinary incontinence after childbirth. The American Society of Colon and Rectal Surgeons estimates 40 percent of women have a rectocele — a bulge from the rectum into the vagina. Somewhere between 15 and 20 percent of women experience "significant" symptoms of depression or anxiety postpartum, according to Postpartum Support International. For May, her baby's elbow creates a tear almost the length of her vaginal canal during delivery and leaves her frequently incontinent — a condition that worsens during certain parts of her cycle, and during emotional parabolas. Through her attempts to heal through pelvic therapy and bodywork, May connects the pelvic bowl, about which almost nothing is taught in the U.S., to the welfare of females generally. "A woman's pelvis looks like an alabaster fan with holes reaching up to the sky," she writes, "It is a portal. It has a pulse. It is here a woman can converse with ancestors, herself, and any energy that shows up."
I really wish that there was this education that a little girl learns, well, this is your pelvic bowl and this is what holds up your organs and this is how you look after it.
The "energy" that shows up throughout the book is rage — a thrashing, animalistic rage that May takes out into the woods near her Montana home in search of release. Her focus on nature and our "animal bodies" is part of her advocacy for body fluency — "I really wish that there was this education that a little girl learns, well, this is your pelvic bowl and this is what holds up your organs and this is how you look after it," May tells me.
But beyond that, she makes an argument for women's place in nature, or against our estrangement from it (it was Germaine Greer who once suggested, "If you think you are emancipated, you might consider the idea of tasting your own menstrual blood — if it makes you sick, you've got a long way to go, baby"). In the book, she makes that connection, burying the umbilical cord and revisiting the site as she heals, introducing it to her daughter as a place of connection.
It seems wildly unfair that men can be lauded as literary greats for writing multiple books about "my summer in the forest service" but as soon as a woman mentions her moon cycle, everyone takes flight. No wonder we are so estranged.
Throughout the quirks of my own postpartum period, the doctor never told me to simply go for a walk in nature, and yet that act is capable of improving mood, helping knit the core back together, and strengthening the body. Amid an epidemic of postnatal mood disorders, pelvic prolapse, diastasis recti, and isolation, why are we so blind to new mothers' needs?
From May's grandmother Pat-Pat to her mother on down to her daughter, we have four generations of females stacked into an idea of how matriarchy works. But May's mother in particular is central, called on for support, then pushed away when her advice is not what May wants — it's so familiar, the revelation that our mothers are sacred keepers of knowledge, but also that OMFG they drive us crazy.
"Maybe this is how it has always been: the women together, the men in and out," she writes of her reliance on her mother.
Any time I see a woman laboring with her mom there, I am touched by that.
"I do think that a lot has been lost," May tells me, as we discuss the role that our mothers play in childbirth today. "Any time I see a woman laboring with her mom there, I am touched by that. I didn't want [my mom] there," she says, "but I chose that."
We have the luxury of making individual choices, she explains — think your 10-point birth plan and decision to make your own baby pureés — but that also means we are all starting from scratch when we become mothers. In one scene, her daughter Eula realizes that her belly button connects her to her mother, and May's to her mother, and grandmother to great-grandmother.
Of the stories we do tell each other about our births, note how often there is an element of rage — against an intervention by the OB-GYN, or a bum steer by a lactation consultant, or the gall of your husband hopping into the shower while you waited for the Uber to arrive during labor (OK, that's my story). We aren't good at talking about the postpartum journey, or finding support in people other than our partner, May says.
"You have to resource your woman friends, and yourself... which is hard, I'm not a good reacher-outer," she tells me. But it's important, because, "our big patriarchal society doesn't support women." In addition, she says, we expect a lot of our partners. "There is this deep intimacy and with that comes this reliance [but] you can't expect everything from one person," she says. Which leads into the final concern of the book.
For every woman I think there are a series of first moments, and then there are some big heavy-hitting moments.
May is emphatic that society is letting women down, but she also makes a powerful argument that we need to rediscover our ability to heal ourselves. In a particularly gutting passage, she relates the moment as a teenager in Paris when a stranger assaulted her in an elevator, even as she stood surrounded by her family, enduring it in petrified silence. It makes narrative sense in the book to use this moment as something of an inflection point that caused her to bundle away her femininity; hide it under frumpy clothes and a fleshier body, but as we discuss #MeToo and the rediscovery of all our moments on the phone, she tells me, "For me it's a thing, it's not the thing."
"For every woman I think there are a series of first moments, and then there are some big heavy-hitting moments," May says of the way that girls are shaped by the world.
Another flashback in which she split her lip as a child while playing with her brothers results in a revelation:
May's search for a strong body postpartum and peace with her female form ends up playing alongside the chorus of #MeToos outside the book, and the connection between the two journeys is implicit. There must be a way to heal, and yelling about it is a part of that process. There, she beat Oprah to the punch, who told the Golden Globes crowd recently that she had tried her best throughout her career to say something about "how we experience shame, how we love and how we rage." Note the way she invokes rage as an action. As a way of getting from one place to another. That's what this book is about — passages.
The question she ends on in the book is, "What kind of woman am I to be now?"
And that answer should be liberating, says May. "Yes, there are things that shift [after motherhood], but in really positive ways," she tells me.
In service of that, we have a story brimming with heart about early motherhood. As May finds her way into sync with nature, watches her daughter grow, and eventually moves into the house that her husband built for them, she treads along the path many mothers before her have taken, living out a lesson learned slowly: "start with love of self and all women."
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