“You can eat whatever you want when you’re pregnant. It’s great!” “Labor is magical.” “It’s the miracle of life.” “I can’t imagine being anything but a mom.” “It’s all so worth it in the end.”
“Sometimes, when a person gives birth, the vagina rips down to the anus.”
See, this little fact doesn’t fit into the narrative that I’ve been fed about pregnancy and motherhood. When my 11th grade AP Biology teacher took a sheet of printer paper, formed it into a loose cylinder, and loudly ripped it in front of our class as a visual and audible metaphor for the vaginal canal during vaginal birth, I felt a quiver of fear from the everyday parenting stories that I’ve been told. They were suddenly facing an unanticipated challenger: truth. The foundation of my perception of being a parent was not as steady as it had been a mere 30 seconds ago.
That day, I went home, somewhat shaken-up, and told my mother about my day. She criticized him, harshly, and she was right; his demonstration was unnecessarily graphic and he’d just done it to get an entertaining reaction from his students. But that didn’t change anything.
Nobody had ever been so direct with me about the difficulties of pregnancy and, by extension, parenthood before. I’ve heard stories about women who can’t take care of their children, but it was always accompanied by the party line, “Not everyone’s ready to be a mother.” That quote, in my experience, is applied to parents who are addicts or who have other severe mental disabilities (which, by the way, further stigmatizes those who have a wide range of mental health issues). There is the expectation that, without dire external factors, everyone should be able to raise a happy, healthy kid.
Earlier this month, a friend sent me an article from The Guardian that breaks down the taboo of people admitting that they regret having children. Everyone interviewed in the article emphasized that they loved their children deeply and, simultaneously, wished that they had not decided to have them. None of the interviewees went into financial difficulties or other common problems that parents face, nor did any of them have accidental pregnancies, but rather, the article centers around people without intense burdens that chose to have children. And then realized they didn’t really want them.
Women that worry about “maintaining their figure” are mocked as vain and petty; however, there is little discussion of the real toll that carrying a child takes on the body. Postpartum depression, for instance, affects one in eight people that give birth. It is characterized by extreme self-doubt in parenting ability, other common depression symptoms, and, in some severe cases, thoughts of self-harm or harming the baby. In our historical and modern cultural perception of women, there is a clear expectation of cheerfulness, making everything even more difficult for those that face depression. Having any link between perceived “sadness” and motherhood serves to defeminize those that suffer from this mental illness.
It should be noted that, in cases of adoption, surrogacy, foster care, or any other imaginable forms of becoming responsible for a child, the duties and burdens of motherhood are the same. Pregnancy is only one component that has been idealized throughout my lifetime.
Here are some more simple facts that everyone seems to overlook: Children are selfish. Children cry a lot. Children wake you up while you’re sleeping to ask you stupid questions. Children pee in their beds. Children vomit on the floor. Children dictate your sleep schedule.
I like kids. They’re cute, they’re entertaining, and it’s fun to watch them grow up. Logically, you’d think, these factors would indicate: “You should be a mother.” But I now know a little bit more about the reality of motherhood, which is much more terrifying that most like to admit.
“I planned my pregnancy and thought I desperately wanted a baby,” said one of the women quoted in The Guardian article. “Desperate enough that I married the first man who was interested in having a child with me, knowing, in the back of my mind, that I was making a bad decision but thinking I was strong enough to do this.”
Her experience seems to, sadly, be shared by many other women, who accept the narrative that they have been given their entire life and then are shocked by the actuality of motherhood.
This is not to discount the experience of happy parents. I’m just personally sick of the story of the new parents who stumble through the sleep deprivation of their child’s first years of life, happily go through ten years of their kid’s pre-pubescence (presumably enjoying the playdates, playgrounds, and juice boxes that permeate that section of the timeline), tolerate the rebellious teenage years, and then shed a tear as their little bundle of joy heads off to college. Pregnancy is messy. Children are, in every sense of the word, messy. And yet, the challenges of parenthood are rarely brought into mainstream thought.
When I peer into my future and try to predict what I’ll be doing five, ten, twenty years down the road, I consistently imagine my profession. It changes every week. I am both aimless and ambitious, which creates an extremely bizarre cocktail of hunger and confusion. I have heard literally dozens of stories about a woman holding her baby for the first time, but few people want to talk about actually being a mother.
If I ever choose to become pregnant and have children, I will have morning sickness. I will have cramps. I will be fatigued. I will have mood swings, I will have back pain, and I will have to go through labor. And then the actual parenting will start.
I can’t wait to meet my new baby cousin who was born only three weeks ago. I can’t wait to see the kids that I babysat in high school. I can’t wait to spend time with the children in my extended family. But I also can’t tolerate the mis-portrayal of motherhood anymore.
Reale is a member of the Class of 2020.