While feminism has made leaps and bounds in the last year, from feminism being dubbed word of the year to the success of #MeToo and the launch of #TimesUp, one thing hasn’t changed. It is the stereotype that happy, healthy women must marry and have children to… be happy and healthy. But perhaps more damaging than that stereotype is this one: that motherhood should be a non-stop, glamorous, pain-free joyfest. Which is why Serena Williams’ candor in discussing her health challenges after childbirth in a Vogue cover story is not just brave, but revolutionary, and may just save the lives, as well as sanity, of other women.
Celebrity moms are touted on magazine covers—a week or two after giving birth, showing off their incredible “post-baby body!” (Usually looking better in a bikini right after giving birth than most of us do on an average day.) While my friends and family who have given birth bemoan sleepless nights, and barely enough time or energy to take a shower, celebrity moms are back on red carpets in stilettos looking like a million bucks in no time flat.
But just as postpartum depression used to only be whispered about until celebrities like Brooke Shields and Adele began bravely sharing their own stories, the physical toll childbirth takes is rarely discussed publicly—and certainly not by celebrities whose livelihood often depends on the illusion of perfection. Discussing the realities of childbirth is about as messy and imperfect as you can get.
While Serena Williams’ near-death experience following childbirth may sound extreme, it’s not as shocking as you may think it is in 2018. According to the CDC, approximately 700 women die in America annually from pregnancy or childbirth complications. Some researchers put estimates as high as 900 (a lack of government funding for accurate compilation of data at the state level is an underacknowledged element of reproductive political and policy battles). This means America has the highest maternal mortality rate of any developed nation. Black women are particularly vulnerable, with an analysis by NPR and ProPublica finding black women are 22 percent more likely to die from heart disease than white women but 243 percent more likely to die from childbirth than white women. As tragic as those deaths are, far more women are injured, many permanently, by childbirth.
An analysis by Cosmopolitan magazine of a number of studies found childbirth injuries to be widespread. It noted that a study of 1,500 mothers published in the journal PLoS One found that 49 percent had urinary incontinence a year after giving birth while 77 percent had ongoing back pain. Cosmo also cited a study of 1,200 women published in the British Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology that found that 24 percent reported lingering pain during intercourse a year after childbirth.
But those were just the most commonly reported long-term effects. Other women experience more serious problems from losing control of their bowels to ongoing pain when walking or exercising. A cottage industry has actually emerged to address some of the medical problems facing new mothers, including one recently dubbed a “vaginal facelift.”
Based on the numbers, some of the women injured are most likely celebrities. But if your job is to be glamorous for a living, discussing incontinence is probably not at the top of your to do list. Yet not discussing the messy and painful realities of childbirth means that most women end up suffering in silence, embarrassed, and believing they are alone—or worse: that there is something wrong with them if they can’t make it through pregnancy, childbirth, and motherhood with the physical and emotional ease that supermodels and superstars seem to.
In the Vogue profile, Serena’s husband refers to her body as “one of the greatest things on the planet.” Anyone who’s seen her knows that is true. Which is why the fact that she is admitting that even she became physically vulnerable thanks to childbirth may give other women peace of mind. The fact that she came out on the other side, healthy, happy and radiant, on a Vogue cover no less, may give some women hope. But here’s what I’m also hoping her admission will do: change the way society, and men in particular, talk about pregnancy and motherhood.
Here’s what I mean.
Pretend for a minute that men could get pregnant. Do you think if Tom Brady had recently won a Super Bowl and was in the prime of his career, that any reporter would ask him when he was planning to get pregnant and have kids? I’m pretty sure the answer is no, because most men would think of it as insanity for him to even consider intentionally putting his body through such physical trauma at its peak. My guess is the judgment and whispers about certain female celebrities, accused of hiring surrogates, out of so-called vanity, would be a non-issue. Doing so would probably be hailed as smart business.
While Serena has clearly embraced the joys that motherhood has brought into her life, she did note in the interview that her peer Roger Federer has two sets of twins and hasn’t skipped a beat career wise, something that would be unlikely for her, or although she doesn’t say this, really any woman.
Which is why I find it so baffling that with all of the physical risks and dangers still associated with childbirth, citing physical well-being is still not viewed as a socially acceptable reason to eschew motherhood. When recently mentioning to a couple of educated feminist male friends of mine that this was among a number of reasons motherhood has never been on my bucket list one breezily said of the childbirth process, “it doesn’t last that long,” clearly not realizing that the aftermath can last a lifetime.
I have had more than one female friend share that the impact on their bodies has been a key factor in their decision to limit their family size and yet they have said they have been scolded by others—including other women—for this reasoning. As if the choice to forgo childbirth because you don’t want to risk incontinence is somehow less worthy than forgoing it because you don’t want to risk your financial security.
To be clear, I’m not saying women should avoid motherhood. I am saying it should no longer be treated the way it long has been: as the default choice for all women. Instead it should be treated as what it is: a really serious choice that should involve consideration and contemplation because giving life is a big deal—a big, risky deal. So just as we applaud those willing to donate organs to save the life of a stranger but don’t judge one’s humanity on her decision to do so, we should stop judging womanhood on whether or not one embraces motherhood.
We should celebrate women brave enough to face the challenges of pregnancy and motherhood. But we should also celebrate women like Serena Williams who are brave enough to tell the truth about motherhood’s pitfalls, and celebrate women courageous enough to make the decision to challenge society’s definition of womanhood by saying motherhood isn’t for me.