I was at my doctor's office when the nurse asked me to rate my pain on a scale of zero to 10. My first thought? Which pain. I have more than a few. I'm also not entirely sure pain can be adequately quantified. For example, my pain ebbs and flows from a six to a 10 each day... but it doesn't mean at a six it's any less valid than when it's at a 10. I worried the nurse would think it was, though. I settled on a "believable" seven.
For me, and so many other moms, motherhood hurts, but we live a culture with a long history of not taking "mom pain" seriously.
In my experience, mom pain starts during pregnancy. Your hormones surge, causing your joints to relax and your belly and breasts to grow. Your skin stretches, your posture changes, and you inadvertently put pressure on your pelvis, hips, shoulders, and back. Not surprisingly, 50 to 80 percent of pregnant people have back and pelvic pain, according to a study published in the journal Current Reviews In Musculoskeletal Medicine. Another 31 to 60 percent have carpal tunnel syndrome, causing painfully swollen wrists.
In fact, pain seems to be so common during pregnancy that it's viewed as a necessary part of the process. But rarely are pregnant people given the space to talk about their pain. In my experience, if I say anything about even feeling uncomfortable I'm lectured about how "thankful" I should be, and told that, hey, I essentially did this to myself. And since pregnancy often limits your options for effective pain relief, it's difficult not to feel trapped in a cycle of pain that you can't speak about or treat.
Then comes childbirth: almost universally considered the worst pain imaginable. Unfortunately, there seems to be a pervasive idea in our culture that medication-free childbirth is more "natural" and, therefore, better for moms and babies. The patriarchal idea that labor pain is punishment for being female has been around for thousands of years, to be sure, but more recently it seems to have evolved into the idea that you're not a "real mom" unless you give medication-free birth and subject yourself to an inordinate amount of pain. But as OB-GYN Dr. Amy Tuteur notes on her blog, The Skeptical OB, there's no longer really an evolutionary reason for laboring people to experience pain anymore.
The repetitive nature of motherhood hurts, too. We bend over to pick up our kids, carry them around in our arms, on our hips, in baby carriers, and push them in strollers.
Labor pain, pregnancy and childbirth are really hard on your body and can cause often long-lasting injuries, including dislocated joints, broken bones, and damage to your pelvic floor. According to research published in the journal PLoS One, one year after childbirth 77 percent of moms still had back pain, 49 percent had urinary incontinence, and 40 percent had both. The same study reports that these injuries seriously impact these moms' lives.
Pelvic pain is also common, especially during postpartum sex. One study published in the journal BJOG: An International Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology found that 85.7 percent of new moms have pain during postpartum sex. While that number decreases with time, 23.4 percent of us still have pain during vaginal sex 18 months after giving birth. Researchers noted that most providers don't ask moms about sex pain, and most of us won't bring it up, either, because we are too embarrassed.
Breastfeeding hurts, too — from your bleeding, raw nipples to your aching, hunched-forward back, neck, and shoulders. A study published in the journal Pediatrics reported that 44 percent of new moms experience breastfeeding pain. But as the popular breastfeeding organization La Leche League writes on their website, "Breastfeeding is intended to be comfortable and enjoyable — so experiencing painful or sore nipples is a sign that something isn't quite right."
The silence surrounding mom pain is another example of systemic sexism and a social structure that marginalizes women.
The repetitive nature of motherhood hurts, too. We bend over to pick up our kids, carry them around in our arms, on our hips, in baby carriers, and push them in strollers. Women are four times as likely as men to get a wrist condition called de Quervain's tenosynovitis, according to Parents, and is such a common condition found in new moms that medical professionals have nicknamed it "mommy wrist," or " mommy thumb." The "cute name" doesn't make it hurt any less, FYI.
As reported by Live Science, research shows that hormone changes during pregnancy and childbirth can trigger painful autoimmune diseases like rheumatoid arthritis (RA), multiple sclerosis (MS), and lupus in moms. In the first year after birth your risk of developing one of these disorders increases by 15 to 30 percent. According to Arthritis.org, it can also cause moms with rheumatoid arthritis (RA), like me, who were previously in remission to experience a relapse.
Mom pain is so pervasive and so severe that it seems almost impossible that more people aren't talking about it. So, why aren't we?
Historically, and culturally, women's pain has been a women's issue, which has always made it easy to overlook.
The silence surrounding mom pain is another example of systemic sexism and a social structure that marginalizes women. As reported in HuffPost, since the beginning of recorded history (and probably before), women have been gaslighted about how we feel. The term "hysteria" was coined by Hippocrates in Ancient Greece to label women as over-emotional, but was actually still used in the U.S. until the 1950s to dismiss our symptoms.
As Medical Daily Journal reports, the idea that pain is "just in our heads" is alive and well in modern society. Women in pain are more likely than men to be misdiagnosed with mental health disorders, even when their pain is proven by clinical tests. They are also more likely to be prescribed medication to treat those disorders instead of pain medication to treat their pain.
We've long known that motherhood is hard on women. Before access to birth control and abortion, women died from conditions related to pregnancy, childbirth, and the toll having large families had on their health. Over a hundred years ago, when Margaret Sanger witnessed her own mother die after having 11 children and seven miscarriages, she was inspired to create the clinic that would become the first Planned Parenthood to mitigate that impact. But despite her efforts, and efforts of dedicated health care workers across the country, women are still dying today. The United States has the worst maternal mortality rate of any developed nation, and Black women are three to four times more likely to die during childbirth than white women.
Mom pain is real, but motherhood shouldn't have to hurt.
Historically, and culturally, women's pain has been a women's issue, which has always made it easy to overlook. As Joanna Bourke, a professor of history and author of the book, The Story of Pain: From Prayer to Painkillers notes in the New Statesman, white men have long dismissed women's pain (and the pain of other marginalized people), as unimportant, resulting in further dehumanization.
To make things more complicated, jokes about gender and pain permeate our culture. As a society we joke about "man colds" causing men to be out of commission for days, while women power through high temperatures, nausea, and cold-related pain. We joke about labor, saying things like, "if men gave birth, we'd give epidurals at the start," failing to acknowledge that our culture looks down on women who ask for epidurals during labor and delivery. We unintentionally perpetuate myths that women have higher pain tolerances than men and, as a result, can and should put up with more pain.
A review published in the British Journal of Anesthesia found that women actually feel pain more intensely than men. Another study published in the Journal of Law Medicine & Ethics noted that those women who do seek help for pain are treated less aggressively than men.
Misogyny still exists in medicine. In fact, one could easily argue that it's pervasive. I think it's time we start talking about our mom pain and for our doctors to start believing us, whether we rate our pain at a six or a 10. Mom pain is real, but motherhood shouldn't have to hurt.