There is so much about being a new mother that can overwhelm even the most experienced of moms. Being a new mom doesn't mean that a woman has necessarily just given birth for the first time: New motherhood is all about those precious moments just after birth and stretches well into those early days and months with a new infant, no matter how many other kids might be running around the house. America has one of the highest maternal mortality rates of any developed nation in the world. In a country so often viewed as the world's flagship, shouldn't we be doing better by and for our mothers? Why are new moms dying so much in America?
Maternal mortality is complicated by a number of so many different factors in the United States: In a new report issued Tuesday, Quartz examined these factors and trends surrounding the deaths of new American mothers. Its report looked at each factor in substantial and comprehensive detail. The factors include:
- Lack of access to prenatal care
- "Birthing while black" and health care disparities by race
- Rising C-section rates in America
It's clear there's no denying that maternal mortality in the United States is on the verge of becoming a public health crisis — and there's one thing that seems to be driving this crisis when you look at individual factors as part of a much bigger and systemic issue.
The issue of maternal mortality in the United States all comes down to how our culture objectifies motherhood. It's only when we take an enormous step back from the individual factors such as health care access, racial disparity, and medical practice that we can begin to see the much larger and more disturbing picture of maternal mortality in America. The complicated truth lies in how mothers are both revered and reviled in American culture, and how our cultural assumptions about motherhood can actually influence how many new moms will die.
When you think of a pregnant woman, what comes to mind? For me, it's the image of a swollen and pregnant belly. Others might picture a cute onesie, a pair of baby booties, or maybe even pink and blue balloons. You know what's missing from this picture? The actual woman herself. How we mentally conceive of pregnant women — as either parts of her body such as her belly or womb, or as external things like baby clothes and diapers — shows exactly how pregnant women, and motherhood in general, is objectified.
Pregnant women are often viewed as vessels. If you want to take a particularly dark view on the matter, pregnant women have even been compared to parasitic hosts. These notions reduce a woman to nothing more than a collection of baby-carrying parts, and speaks nothing to her existence and wholeness as a human being. The clearest evidence we see for this kind of worldview of objectified pregnant women is in anti-choice, anti-abortion legislation: Conservative lawmakers will do just about anything to save the life of every fetus, but once the "host" has served her purpose, they couldn't give a damn. If the mother's life really mattered that much, then the GOP wouldn't have tried (and failed) three times to repeal Obamacare and replace it with a health care plan that disproportionately targeted women.
Then there's the idea that motherhood is somehow equivalent to personal success. Think of it this way: What's the little rhyme we used to chant on the back of the school bus? "First comes love, then comes marriage, then comes So and So with the baby carriage!" Here's what we don't hear kids chanting: "First comes college, then comes about two to five years of complicated self-discovery and sexual experimentation, then comes a job that's underpaying you compared to your male colleagues of similar or even lesser experience, then comes the sobering reality that it's much harder to get pregnant at 30 than you were lead to believe, then comes being forced to take unpaid leave."
In American culture, motherhood is made the pinnacle of a woman's life trajectory and the sum of all her accomplishments. Motherhood is seen as the ultimate female accomplishment and is put on an impossibly precarious pedestal. It's a mental trapping women can so easily fall into — myself included. I remember thinking that, when I was at some of my lowest points in my infertility journey, I was a broken woman — that I wasn't complete as a person. I often wrote at the time how I wouldn't let infertility define me — but looking back now, I did in a way by thinking that I wasn't a complete person if I couldn't become a mother.
The Quartz report on maternal mortality in America makes two important points about exactly how America needs to do better by its new moms.
Two things are clear: The first is that the US health system needs to render its women, its mothers, fully visible, a process that starts with collecting and publishing more and better data. The second is it needs to see the whole woman, the whole mother — white or black, poor or wealthy, fit or unhealthy — ...and all the other new moms get to hold their babies, and to raise them.
There is no denying that all of the individuals factors in the Quartz report are real, valid, and urgent. But it's only when you take a step back and dig deep that you can begin to see just exactly how these disparities have taken root. We must stop treating pregnant women as objects, whose children serve as character extensions. We are whole women, independent of children or our ability to have them. It's only when we can stop these cultural assumptions of objectified motherhood that the real work of keeping mothers healthy and alive can begin.
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