Motherhood has long been scrubbed up and refined so it doesn’t appear unseemly from the outside, but the beautiful blur isn’t precise and is far from the whole story. It’s the same inaccuracy we apply to so many women’s issues, shrouding it in mystery or misunderstanding, like how I only learned about endometriosis this month, or the way we all say vagina when what we really mean is vulva, unless we don’t say it at all, because women’s parts—ew.
The journey to motherhood has been curated into a glossy, digestible package: hand resting on swelling belly, the pitter patter of kicks, warm babe laid upon tired but enchanted mama’s chest, milky breath, tiny wrapping fingers. We’ve established that, prenatally, mothers are sick in the morning, but are radiant, fulfilling their body’s destiny. Their child’s birth is the best day of their life (second only to their wedding day, of course). Mothers bond with their newborn, breastfeed, and bounce back. They are overjoyed and selfless. They smile.
The gory bits are omitted in service to an ideal that makes the world comfortable: women adore motherhood. It is, for lack of a better term, their birthright, and doesn’t entail suffering because then we’d have to acknowledge women’s suffering, and that wouldn’t be fun, especially when we aren’t going to do anything about it anyway, so what’s the point of dwelling on ugliness? What’s the point in valuing a strictly female thing? To do so would mean that what women endure matters. Instead, we operate under a fantasy. There is one acceptable, discussable, mother experience, and in that experience, there are no drawbacks.
In other words, becoming a mother is kind of like joining fight club. You don’t talk about it, not really, and you come away covered in blood.
The first time I heard about the baby blues was when I was sobbing into a burp cloth, leafing through pamphlets a nurse had stuck into my hospital bag, hoping to discover what was wrong with me. There was a single paragraph in a stack of information among baby poop schedule charts and breastmilk expression how-tos. After nine months of regular doctor appointments, after my baby had been the main topic of conversation with family and friends for the better part of a year, I learned that the baby blues—a cutesy term slapped onto what is essentially temporary depression—affects 80 percent of those who give birth. Eighty percent is most. It’s so large a statistic, you’d think someone who saw me as large as a walrus might have said, “I see you are pregnant. FYI, this is probably going to happen to you.” Yet, mum’s the word.
This wasn’t the only surprise. During pregnancy, there was darkening nipples, carpal tunnel, vertigo, and skin tags. During birth, there was the ring of fire, convulsions, and vomit. Postpartum, there was fainting, profusive bleeding, latching despair, baby blues that blended into ambiguous postpartum depression, mastitis, and pelvic floor pain, which affects a quarter of birthers. This is another condition that is grossly under-discussed despite prenatal visits, mom groups, and other countries offering postpartum pelvic therapy automatically.
There is a huge cost to concealing the unromantic: new mothers expect to coo and glow, and they do, but when they also encounter gestational diabetes, bloody carnage, tears, and sleep deprivation, they mistakenly assume they are anomalies or failures. They accept their fate as strange, unchangeable, and unspeakable.
Every time a mother breaks the unspoken rule and steps out from the imposed silence to say, “Hey, the Empress has no clothes! She’s just wearing postpartum mesh underwear!” I feel activated.
It happened this month when Brooklyn Decker detailed the extent of blood clots and bruising during her childbirth recovery, and earlier this year, when Ashley Iaconetti catalogued the night sweats, acne, constipation, and debilitating nausea incited by her pregnancy. It happens every time #postpartumbody surfaces stretch marks and sagging stomachs. It happened when Chrissy Teigen offered a window into the harrowing grief of her miscarriage.
It’s estimated that one in four pregnancies end in loss. I didn’t know that until it happened to me and I searched for solace on the internet. If we spoke about these experiences and understood that they are natural and common events that have little to do with the individual, a woman wouldn’t feel so flooded with responsibility and shame. She would still be deeply sad, but perhaps not so sucker-punched or isolated. It’s called expecting, yet we don’t share enough for women to do just that.
But the tide is beginning to turn. Not only are celebrities using their platforms to expose themselves down to their organs, but we are also seeing progress in fiction, where once mothers who weren’t holy nurturers were called “unlikeable characters” despite their other attributes. At the recent Emmys, Olivia Colman won Lead Actress in a Drama for her role in The Crown, playing Queen Elizabeth II, a withholding mother, and Kate Winslet earned Lead Actress in a Limited Series for Mare of Easttown, playing a grieving mother who was damaged, edgy, committed moral missteps, and whose belly bulged naturally because Winslet insisted she not be airbrushed. The winner for Lead Actress in a Comedy Series, the indomitable Jean Smart, was perhaps the most revolutionary of all—nominated in two categories at an age for which women’s parts have historically been nonexistent. There is increasing space in story, and in our culture, for the entire spectrum of lady humanity.
I started writing my pregnancy and motherhood memoir, My Body Is a Big Fat Temple, three years ago when, expecting my first child, I wanted to prepare myself but had difficulty collecting narratives about the journey. The picturesque views to come were unsurprising. Fierce and unconditional love is motherhood’s strongest platform. But I was stunned by the more treacherous obstacles. If I’d known, I would have worn better shoes. We must present an accurate and complete picture so prospective mothers can fortify themselves, and so the world can appreciate, honor, and better accommodate the undertaking. This is especially crucial considering that the maternal mortality rate in the United States is the highest in the developed world, is only increasing, predominantly affects women of color, and most deaths are preventable.
The more we share, the more the breadth of motherhood gets its due, from the unbridled joy to the darker underbelly. We don’t have to hide the unpleasant details of our lives. We don’t have to freshen lipstick and flatten flyaways, or hush impolite conversation in favor of remaining demure, stylish, and sexy without being slutty. We can have heartburn and herniated discs. We can be feverish and rude. We can fart, crack, bleed, and leak. Motherhood can be a painful endeavor, while also being immensely rewarding. It can be nuanced and unique. A woman can be wearied and still love hard. There are as many mother experiences as there are mothers, and we can be ourselves in all our wide-ranging abundance.
Alena Dillon is the author of My Body Is a Big Fat Temple, a memoir of pregnancy and early parenting, and Mercy House, a Library Journal Best Book of 2020, which has been optioned as a television series produced by Amy Schumer, as well as The Happiest Girl in the World, a Good Morning America pick. Alena’s work has appeared in publications including LitHub, River Teeth, Slice Magazine, The Rumpus, and Bustle. She teaches creative writing and lives on the north shore of Boston with her husband, son, black lab, and lots of books.