Writing about mental health from a feminist counselling perspective
My good friend Lily recently did an episode on "mom pressures" for her podcast (the fantastic Lady Sh!t with Lily and Britt). She asked me to write a few things about the pressures moms face, and I accidentally wrote her a novel about it. Here's what I came up with one evening.
Pressure around whether or not to even have children, and if you have one, pressure to “give them a sibling”
So many clients have told me about constantly getting questions from friends/family/coworkers/acquaintances/strangers about whether or not they’re having children. Some of these clients are actively trying to get pregnant (and struggling with it). Others haven’t decided about parenting but are feeling the weight of other people’s expectations. And some are decidedly not having children and hate having to justify themselves. “You’ll be a great mom!” one of my clients was told. “That’s not a good reason to have kids,” was her (awesome and hilarious) response.
And then the questions you get when you have an only child. I personally don’t mind questions out of curiosity/interest, but a lot of times the seemingly innocent “are you going to have another?” turns into that person convincing me why it’s important to give my existing child a sibling to socialize with. The thing is, I don’t want a second child. So, there’s that.
Pressure about the kind of birth you’re going to have
I was asked too many times if I was going to have a “natural” birth. This one always confused me because I definitely wasn’t planning an “unnatural birth”, whatever that might involve. Turns out what people meant to ask was whether I was having a vaginal birth or a c-section. I guess when you put it in those words, it’s more obvious how intrusive of a question it is.
People also really want to give you their opinions about whether or not you should get an epidural. I kept hearing about the importance of “trusting in your body’s ability to give birth without medication”. What people never understood was that I have a pain disorder which would have left me wildly incapable of getting through the birthing process without medication. But most people didn’t ask about what the best fit for me would be – instead, they told me. By the way, A., was 9lbs2oz and getting an epidural was the most amazing thing I could have done for myself to have enough energy to get through the labour. No shade to women who decide to do things differently – I just wish there wasn’t so much pressure to have a one size fits all birth experience.
Pressure around breastfeeding
I got really lucky with A. She began breastfeeding about 10 minutes after she was born and she just figured it out immediately. It didn’t go perfectly all the time, but I definitely didn’t have some of the struggles that other women had. Many clients had to deal with pressure from health professionals, other moms, and “well-meaning” relatives to do everything in their power to give their babies breastmilk. There are so many reasons why breastfeeding just doesn’t work. And the pressure to make it work “no matter what” just gets to be way too much. Caring for an infant is hard enough without this added pressure.
Pressure to recover quickly after childbirth and get your “pre-baby” body back
After I left the hospital, I was given a small amount of painkillers. I cried the first time they ran out. I refilled them two more times after that. I was just barely making it through from one dose to the next, for weeks. My partner went back to work after two weeks, and I’d say that’s a pretty standard amount of time, but let’s put this in context. I couldn’t walk without pain for two months after A. was born. Getting up and down the stairs was hard enough. I had to do this by myself for 11 hours a day on little to no sleep while I desperately waited for my partner to come home. Everyone thought I should be doing better than I was, and while I think my pain was greater than average, I know I’m not alone in the pressure to recover quickly. It helped so much to have my physician friends liken childbirth to a “major trauma”. I felt like I’d been hit by a car, and yet I was expected to take care of A. by myself on top of my recovery.
I don’t know where the idea of getting a “pre-baby” body came from, but this much is clear to me: when you go through a pregnancy and deliver a baby, your body is never going to be the same as it was before that. For some people, it might look very similar, but trust me that you don’t go through something so altering without that being transformative in every way. You now have a different body. A body that grew a tiny human inside of it and brought that human into the world. I don’t understand why there’s a pressure to pretend that never happened.
Pressure to have your life centered around your child
Moms are expected to give 100% of their time and energy to mothering, and, here’s the crucial part – they’re expected to do all with complete satisfaction and enjoyment, as if it’s their only life purpose. I know some moms who enjoy the daily tasks of mothering. But I also know some moms who – despite loving their kids and being a mom – don’t. There’s no one right way.
Pressure to simultaneously have a full life outside of raising your child
I don’t know how intentional this one was, but I definitely felt the pressure to be doing a lot of exciting things in addition to keeping a tiny human alive. People weren’t sure what to talk about with me, and so after a question or two about how my daughter was doing, they would ask, “So, what else are you doing?”
As it turned out, keeping a newborn alive actually covered it. I think it’s just naivety – people don’t always understand that being a new mom literally takes all your time and energy.
On this note, I find it interesting that people call parenting a full time job, when in my experience it is actually more like three full time jobs – a daytime job, an evening job, and an overnight shift job. Three full time jobs where you can’t count on getting a lunchbreak or even a coffee break, or even a shower. This is what mothering is like. And that leads me to the biggest pressure:
Pressure to always be on
The biggest thing that added pressure to absolutely everything was that you never, ever, get a break. As a mom you’re not allowed to have a five minutes in the bathroom without being interrupted. There’s a pressure to always be on, always be available, and to do it all without complaint. It’s completely invisible labour and that’s probably the worst part of it.
Nicole Perry is a Registered Psychologist and writer with a private practice in Edmonton. Her approach is collaborative and feminist at its heart. She specializes in healing trauma, building shame resilience, and setting boundaries.
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This space will provide information, stories, and answers to big questions about some of my favorite topics - boundaries, burnout, trauma, self compassion, and shame resilience - all from a feminist counselling perspective. It's also a space I'm exploring and refining new ideas.
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