A conversation I had recently:
Me: Oh yeah, he’s just starting to get mobile now, so that’s a bit scary!
Nameless Mum of Two: How old is he now?
Me: Just about 8 months.
NMOT: Wow, 8 months and just starting to crawl. You’re lucky, mine both crawled at 6 months. You don’t want them crawling. *eye roll*
Me: (internally) OK, I’ll be quiet now then.
Dear reader, I’d like to tell you a little bit about why telling a mum she’s ‘lucky’ is one of those things that sounds like a compliment but makes you want to scream in someone’s face…
I, like many (most?) women I know found giving birth pretty traumatic. And why wouldn’t I? There was an actual person coming out of my actual body. Granted, I was aware that this was going to happen for over nine months previous to the event and you might think that the human brain, with all it’s vast capacities, would be capable of imagining something close to the experience. But you’d be wrong. It can’t. In fact, even the stuff I could imagine changed. I was induced so it all started in hospital; I had to have an assisted birth in theatre; and my Bubs was taken out of the room the minute he was born to be checked by a paediatrician (he was very healthy).
My friends’ births all happened in very different ways. From water births lasting less than 8 hours, to emergency c-sections, to labours lasting over 3 days. Bleurgh. Now given the choice, I’m sure most of us would choose a short water birth if we had to pick from that delightful menu. Hmm, actually, would I? You can’t have diamorphine when you have a water birth and that’s about the only thing I’m looking forward to about going through labour again. So maybe I’d choose a short, drug-addled birth. Mmm, diamorphine…
But I digress! The interesting thing is that my friends’ reactions to these births didn’t necessarily match-up with what others’ ideas of a ‘good’ and ‘bad’ births are. When I began open up to my Health Visitor (who is amazing) about how I felt about my birth (crap crap crappedy crap, in case you were wondering) she told me that when she was a midwife she saw that any type of birth could be distressing. You could be in the hospital with a woman having no pain relief, keeping relatively calm and using a birthing pool. You might think what a lovely birth it was, as a midwife who’s seen it all. But that same birth could leave the mother in a state of shock and feeling very vulnerable. Because, you know, as I mentioned before. Actual person. Your actual body. Combined. Actually happening.
But any woman who had a relatively quick birth, or who have managed to not have any pain relief, or even whose baby just had a small head, will inevitably be told that their ‘lucky’ at some point. The problem with this, especially when it comes from the mouths of other birth-mothers is what it implies. Because your basically saying ‘my labour was harder/worse than your labour’ or ‘oh it wasn’t that bad dear, do pipe down’. While some of that might be physically true, it is just plain unhelpful. If a woman is continually told this she may end up feeling belittled. She might begin to feel she can’t talk about her birth in negative terms at all. She might even feel she is being weak and self-important for wanting to express her feelings of trauma. And that would be crappy, wouldn’t it?
Because my birth wasn’t ‘straight-forward’ I generally got the sympathy I desired, but I do have one example of this. Shortly after giving birth I spoke to an old friend on the phone. She, like most people, asked about the birth. I said it hadn’t been very good and that I didn’t really want to talk about it as I found it all quite upsetting. Her response was to ask if had been, like, a bad bad birth, or whether I just felt it was bad? I replied it was probably ‘in the middle’, already feeling quite belittled. Then she launched into a description of a really bad birth. Dear reader, I must confess, I just held the phone away from my ear until it was over.
Now, I’m not saying that there’s no such thing as a ‘bad’ birth. Of course there is! We all know of people who have gone through hell and, in a way, any of us who haven’t are lucky. I feel very lucky to live in a country where I wasn’t presented a bill at the end of my hospital stay and didn’t have to think about whether I could afford it when the doctors started talking about theatre. Come to think of it I’m bloody lucky to have been born in a country where there are enough hospitals to accommodate all births and two of them are 15 minutes from my house! So gratitude for your relative fortune is fantastic, but being told you should be grateful by some stranger who rolls their eyes as if to say ‘you just don’t get how hard it can be’? Well that’s just bloody annoying!
And it’s not just births that are surrounded by this kind of language. Take weight loss, for example. I am the first person to admit that I react with a curious mixture of jealousy and admiration when I see a fellow mum with a flat tummy. But there’s a weird thing in our society where people commenting, slightly bitterly, on someone’s (lack of) weight is totally socially acceptable. Thinner new mums are always being told they’re ‘lucky’ that the baby weight ‘just dropped off them’. But I’m pretty sure my retention of the extra stone around my middle is less to do with bad luck than with the amount of biscuits I eat.
What’s more, just because a woman’s thin we can’t assume she feels good about herself. Any celebrity mag can tell you that! Slimming down doesn’t mean her boobs haven’t gone all weird and changed shape. Or that the skin on her belly hasn’t turned from being all nice and smooth to resembling a loaf of tiger bread. And maybe, just maybe, the weight has ‘dropped off’ of her because she’s stressed and not eating properly. That doesn’t sound very lucky to me. (Look out for my new book The Anxiety Diet out in all good bookstores, spring 2015). Whatever the case, the effect is the same. ‘You’re lucky’ is usually taken to mean ‘you’re luckier than me’. And that can be interpreted as ‘count your blessings and shut up’.
It’s the same with everything. The mother whose baby sleeps well at night feels she shouldn’t talk about being tired. Now, I’m not saying go on about it to your friends who has twins who take it in turns to wake up six times a night, but I am saying that you probably are tired. Very tired. As far as I can make out, all parents exist on a spectrum of tiredness. Allow me to illustrate:
In short, however ‘lucky’ a mum may seem, it’s still really really hard with a new born. So we all need to be able to express that.
Have you heard of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs? Well this dude Maslow was trying to explain why even when people live in safety and have all of their physical, and even intellectual, needs met they can still be unhappy. Basically, if you’re wondering whether your kids are going to be fed today you’re unlikely to have an existential crisis about the very meaning of your life. However, if you’re sitting with a hearty breakfast, having slept safely in your bed, about to go to your rewarding job, you’re more likely to think about people who have no food and wonder why you’re not content despite your riches. Huzzah, an existential crisis!
Well I’ve borrowed Maslow’s idea but adjusted it a little, for mums. What do you think?
Okay this isn’t going to make many ripples in the pond of postnatal psychology, but of the spirit of is true I think. Some of us will have it very physically rough. I know that my experience of postnatal depression was bad, but there are a lot worse things that could have happened. I am genuinely grateful for my lot. Even so, I also genuinely suffered. It is possible for any parent in any circumstance to find things unbelievably tough. This is sometimes hard to understand, even frustrating, especially when a mother is going on about how her baby sleeps so much she can barely leave the house (yes, that happened to me and no, I wasn’t totally understanding). But really, everyone needs a good moan. Especially a mum!
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