One of the most ridiculous things that has ever happened to me was giving birth and realizing that the only piece of women’s health advice I could recall in my postpartum haze was quick tips for getting my pre-baby body back. I’d received these kinds of recommendations in various forms through the many women’s magazines I’ve read over the years, all of which have consistently provided information presumably crucial to my womanhood, such as how to give a good blow job or tighten my abs, and the few weeks of birthing classes I attended were not potent enough to counteract their programming. When I tried to remember the illustrated guide for unclogging a swollen milk duct, all that would come to mind was a photo spread of a svelte postpartum celebrity, which had been accompanied by exclamatory captions assuring that I, too, could still be sexy after giving birth.
Apparently everyone I talked to in the subsequent weeks had been educated on postpartum health by these same publications, since the most common remarks I received echoed their language. “You look so good for a new mom.” “You don’t even look like a mom.” And, my favorite, “I can hardly tell you had a baby!” I had stitches in my crotch, milk blisters on my boob, I was bleeding through a diaper lovingly referred to as the “salami sandwich” by my nurses (Recipe: Don one cotton mesh panty. Line with ice pack. Layer gauze over ice pack, then place a row of witch hazel pads over gauze. The witch hazel pads look like little salamis! Spray perineal area with pain medication of choice. Pull up your panties. Change when blood soaks through the gauze or the medication needs to be refreshed, whichever comes first), and people wanted to talk about my appearance. I was filled with love and pride and wonder, having endured one of the most painful and profoundly meaningful experiences of my life, which had yielded an unspeakably precious reward, and people wanted to assure that my body bore no reminders of that sacrifice or of the joy that followed.
I pretended that these conversations and attitudes about postpartum bodies had no effect on me, but they did. When our daughter was finally able to sleep through the night and I discovered I had the energy to not only go to work, but go to the gym, the 24 Hour Fitness employee who processed my membership asked how long it had been since I’d given birth. A year, I said. He replied, “Took you a year to get back, eh?” I was so angry and stunned that I couldn’t reply. I signed the membership form and started my workout in silence, but lay awake that night thinking about the small mindedness, ignorance, and misogyny that would consider a woman’s membership at the gym worth commenting on when there was so much more at stake for her in the year after giving birth.
Body image is not something I struggle with, so women’s magazines, well-intentioned comments about my appearance, and interactions like the one I had at 24 Hour Fitness didn’t do much to lower my self esteem. I wore swimsuits at hotel pools and walked through bath houses naked. I nursed our daughter in public and looked straight back at people who looked at me. But at times I felt deeply sad, because bringing a child into the world was a profound, sacred experience for me, and the conversation surrounding childbirth was so inane.
Within the small, protective circle of family and good friends, I never felt that sadness. My husband, who had been more diligent in his studies of women’s health and childbirth than I, was almost embarrassingly proud of all that had been done to bring our daughter into the world, inviting me to watch video footage he had taken of my (large, very healthy) placenta and extolling the virtues of breastfeeding to anyone who would listen. My sister photographed our family in our postpartum squalor and rendered us with understanding and reverence. Yet even here, I was aware that the information most readily available to us about postpartum wellness had to do with the cosmetic changes a woman is expected to make once she is done with her pregnancy. My own head was filled with useless knowledge about the timeline for resuming exercise after childbirth (6 weeks is the standard recommendation in the US, with variations dependent on type of birth, age of mother, fitness level prior to pregnancy, and medical conditions). I think it’s notable that this is the kind of information I’ve apparently found most important to retain.
I love my body, but on some level I share my culture’s ambivalence about caring for a woman’s postpartum form and I am still trying to slough it off. At the end of our first year with our daughter I felt intimately acquainted with my body’s strength and fragility, and newly conscious of what a gift it is to have a form that can be stretched to the limits of its endurance and be called upon to nourish a new life moments later. Of course women’s bodies ought to be approached with respect, wonder, and care. My culture and I may slight them in the information we choose to present or retain, in the decisions we make about the medical care we fund or the parental leave we provide, in the way we speak about them in public and in private, but this is due to ignorance and misinformation, not from any deservedness on their part. Is this obvious? It wasn’t obvious to many people I spoke to, and it wasn’t obvious to me.