A good friend (who is also a mom and therapist) recently texted me asking what I thought of the depiction of motherhood in the book “The Giving Tree.” I hadn’t read it since I was a kid, so I didn’t remember any details and couldn’t give her a real answer. But I was tired and it was the end of a long day with the kids while I was sick, so I responded “If the gist is that my children steal all of my physical resources until I wither up and die, then it’s accurate.”
She then filled me in on the storyline: a tree gives and gives whenever a little boy asks, even when it means cutting herself down to stump, but it apparently makes the tree very happy. I responded “Who gives to the tree? Not in a ‘just do things for people to get something back’ way, but in a ‘there’s no possible way to give and give and give unless something is replenishing you’ way. It’s not a sustainable business model.”
And there we have it. My feelings on modern motherhood summed up in a sentence: it’s not a sustainable business model.
Let’s be clear on something from the start: I’m not talking about motherhood in general. I’m talking about the modern American take on motherhood, with its expectations, spoken and unspoken rules, social media influences, hyper-individualism, and lack of societal support for postpartum families. This was never how motherhood was meant to function. This is the unsustainable model.
I got pregnant with my first child when I was 29, and gave birth at 30. Though we struggled to conceive and ultimately got pregnant via IVF, I was relatively young and healthy. I chose an OB practice affiliated with a nearby hospital that is a trauma center with a Level III NICU (I’ve shared many times that anxiety and I are very well-acquainted, so this shouldn’t surprise you). I wanted to ensure the best possible care for my baby. When I developed preeclampsia, and he was born at 35 weeks, weighing barely 5 pounds, I was grateful I’d made that choice, assuming we had some kind of extended stay ahead of us. While the NICU team was present in the delivery room, he was totally healthy and never needed any special care. They took him up to the regular nursery for a somewhat prolonged observation period, but that was it.
Imagine my surprise when 36 hours after giving birth, an OB from my practice came to our room and said “so you ready to go home?” I was terrified. This baby was TINY and he wasn’t even supposed to be born until the end of next month! But as a new mom, I felt pressured to say yes. I didn’t think I had an option to say no. So I smiled and said “sure!” Next thing I knew, I was standing in my living room, crying hysterically, alone with this premature newborn as my husband went out to refill my blood pressure medication.
Over the next few days, family members came by to hold our tiny baby. They oohed and aahed over him. I sat in the corner and cried. I called my old psychiatrist, convinced I was losing my mind. She asked me where I hurt and I said “everywhere.” She told me this was the baby blues, and that while she was happy to speak to me on the phone every day if I needed, this was likely just part of the normal adjustment phase and we needed to wait another week or so to let it pass.
I felt terrified and alone. For the last 10 weeks of my pregnancy, I’d been to see my OB for monitoring and a checkup twice a week. Suddenly I was on my own. My son developed jaundice, so he was being seen by his pediatrician every 48 hours. I, on the other hand, was left to monitor my blood pressure at home, though I was scheduled to come in at 2 weeks postpartum instead of the usual 6 weeks. It felt like an abandonment.
This is not how the first days postpartum are meant to go. Where is the midwife coming to check on me in the comfort and safety of my home? Where is the provider monitoring my adjustment because I am as new to this life and my baby is? Where is the community of experienced mothers encircling me, holding me up as I walk through these first uncertain days?
Things settled down and my husband, son, and I found our groove as a family. My preeclampsia resolved, my son’s jaundice cleared, and I found a wonderful lactation consultant who helped me figure out how to feed my itsy-bitsy baby. My husband returned to work a couple weeks later, and I began to venture out on my own. I remember meeting my mom for lunch one day and her noting that I seemed to take pride in taking him out places. I did. It felt like an accomplishment.
Then, at 8 weeks postpartum, it was time for me to return to work. I remember crying on the kitchen floor the night before I my first day. Wailing and begging for more time with my baby. But my job offered no paid time off, and this was the most unpaid time we could afford. So back to work I went.
This is not how a mother’s return to work is meant to go. Where is the government protected time for mom and baby to bond and for mom to physically heal? Where is the paid time off for a family to establish itself without sinking into massive debt? Where are the workplace protections that shield a mom from being mommy-tracked or seen as a burden to her team for taking an extended leave?
I gained a significant amount of weight during my pregnancies. And it certainly did not melt away postpartum, no matter how much I breastfed. Having three children in the span of four years, with each pregnancy involving some length of bedrest and all-day sickness that necessitated never having an empty stomach, I was left with a body I didn’t recognize. As if my personal feelings about the changes in my body weren’t enough, social media stepped in to really up the ante. Other moms posting really flattering pictures of themselves made me question what was wrong with me. Never mind the fact that everyone’s body structure and metabolism are different, I assumed I was just lacking willpower. And then came the sales pitches. You know the ones I’m talking about. People you haven’t spoken to in years (or ever) slide into your DM’s congratulating you on your new baby. You check out their profile and they’re talking about how much energy they have, how great they feel in their body. And another DM pops up asking if you’re interested in joining her support group for moms trying to lose weight. It can be soul crushing.
This is not how mothers’ postpartum bodies are meant to be viewed. Where is the societal embrace of all body types? Where is the acknowledgement that even though our bodies have changed, they haven’t been lost, so there’s nothing to “get back”? Where is the wonder and awe at what our bodies have created, sustained, and endured? Where is the community telling new moms that they are phenomenal and deserving of respect, love, and care instead of preying on each other?
As a therapist specializing in perinatal mental health, I see the impact that all of these larger system failures have on moms. Is there an individual component of perinatal mood and anxiety disorders? Absolutely. Some women are predisposed to anxiety or depression. And I believe there are biological components to these disorders as well. However, that doesn’t explain the full picture.
In the absence of supportive community, mothers suffer. In the absence of wraparound care for their postpartum bodies, mothers suffer. In the absence of openness about the darker side of the transition to motherhood, mothers suffer. In the absence of respect for the tremendous sacred work of mothering, mothers suffer.
We were never meant to do this alone. We were never meant to do this under the public scrutiny of social media. We were never meant to do this in a culture that reveres the pregnant woman but then discards her once she’s delivered the baby.
If we don’t begin to recognize, honor, and meet the needs of mothers, the modern motherhood model will collapse. We cannot continue to ask women to mother selflessly but provide no care for them. No new medication will heal this. Mothers are suffering at a deep level and we need to hear their anguished cries. We need to wrap our arms around their weary bodies. We need to provide them with a safe place to rest. We need to pick up their work and make it our work. We need to become a community again.