Writing Childbirth and New Mothers: You’re doing it wrong

Last night my crit group reviewed a chapter I wrote where the MC gave birth and adjusted to new motherhood.

I’ve never ever had more polarized opinions of the accuracy of my work.

What was fascinating is that when I went home and read over notes they fell into two distinct groups. Parents and Not Parents.

The parents wrote : Great depiction of childbirth and motherhood.

The non-parents questioned the accuracy of EVERYTHING. Why are people coming in her room while she’s in labor? Why is she reading and stressing out over work while she’s in labor? She doesn’t seem very maternal while she’s taking care of the newborn. All she does is complain and cry!

Now, I am not going to come in here and give the “You’re not a parent so you don’t understand” lecture. Please, don’t ever let me get away with that giving that obnoxious lecture.

But I do want to point out that our preconception of childbirth and what happens in the weeks afterwards is basically wrong and it’s a nasty little secret that most people do not learn until they go through it.

The Hollywood childbirth looks like this:

Everything is good. Glowing pregnant woman is in the middle of something and then WOOSH. Her water breaks. Contractions start immediately. She is rushed to the hospital and immediately starts pushing. She hilariously screams like a maniac and says horrible things to her partner, while griping his hand so hard he cries. Then the baby is born and she immediately goes back to her size zero and blissfully cares for the baby in complete comfort and ease.

The reality is that maybe this beautiful myth can happen, but it’s not common and for alot of new mothers, the reality is a rude awakening they start to become aware of during pregnancy, but cannot fully grasp until they are home alone with a squalling infant and their lives are completely changed. Childbirth and new motherhood is beautiful. But like most things in real life, the most beautiful earn their place with a fair amount of pain.

What does this have to do with writing? Well, I guess that depends on how accurate you want to be? I, for one, am completely turned off by stories or shows that perpetuate the Hollywood delivery myth. It feels disrespectful, it undermines my experience and the experience of other mothers and parents.

On a larger scale it allows an unfair system to continue to thrive and a bent perception of what motherhood SHOULD be that puts an insane amount of pressure on new mothers.

So what are some key points that are usually wrong?

Labor takes For Ev Er!

As opposed to the “oh my water broke, lets go to the hospital and have the baby now” idea, the average labor is about 8 hours and the hospital will not admit you until the end of it. Contractions often start out painless and progressively hurt more as time goes on. That means most mothers spend a day or night or both sitting around the house, taking walks to get labor going stronger, hanging out with spouses, family, ect, eating while they still can (not allowed once you go into the hospital) and basically filling their time anyway they can. There is no standard for how this time is spent. It really is up to the mom.

Some women do have very quick labors. Some women have much longer labors. It is not unheard of for a woman to be in “passive labor” for a few days.

The pain is different for everyone

There are some gloriously gifted women who don’t feel more than some discomfort in labor and delivery. Its not even uncommon! There are some that don’t feel the pain until right before they are ready to push. There are some that hurt from the first contraction and it only gets worse. During transition, or the phase of labor right before pushing begins, typically the most intense pain is felt. Many women have opted for an epidural by this point. Many woman are able to get through it okay without one. For some women who haven’t gotten pain relief, the pain is so intense that they can black out or vomit or both.

Everyone manages pain differently

It is funny when the calm and collected character starts screaming obscenities during delivery, and it probably happens, but many women are too busy trying to manage their pain to scream at their partners. For some women it helps to shout. For some it helps to breath. For some it helps to hold their breath, pray, bite their hand, whatever. One size does not fit all and I would say MOST women do not turn into raving lunatics when the baby is coming.

The bond is instant, usually

Yes. The biological maternal instincts generally kick in right away, but so does fatigue, shock, confusion and baffled love. This beautiful little baby is here and he or she is yours and you just want to kiss them. And Sleep. And what are you supposed to do with them? And why won’t they stop crying?

Now a days, most healthcare providers do all they can to foster the bond between mother and child, but that was always the case and sometimes the bond isn’t so instant. The love, sure, but the bond that mothers thing is supposed to happen right away, sometimes it needs time to grow. Sometimes something interferes. Sometimes motherhood doesn’t come naturally. There is nothing wrong with that. It is common and shouldn’t be judged.

It is so very very hard

Labor is the equivalent of receiving major surgery while running a triatholon. Most women don’t come out unscathed. Aside from a body adjusting to pushing something that was inside of it outside of it, there is tearing, insicions, rapid hormonal fluctuations and giant sore achy boobs. If you ran a tratholon while getting surgery, you might anticipate a few days of sleep and rest to help you recover, but a new mother doesn’t get that. The baby needs attention now. And always. A new baby will cluster feed for the first few weeks, which means every hour to two hours. Sometimes with only half hour breaks in between. The result is that new parents, particularly nursing mothers, do not sleep. They don’t shower. They forget to eat.

Is there blissful gazing at the baby? Of course there is, but there is also rushing to the bathroom between nursings while the baby squalls to pee and clean spit off out of your hair. There is crying because the baby is crying and you are so very very tired. There is loneliness and isolation for women who were used to being social and independent.

In the United States there is a 30% chance of developing postpartum depression, which is frequently linked with our social standard of encouraging new mothers to suck it up and bask in the bliss of being a new mother. 30% is actually only the reported cased but most experts agree that the number is actually much higher.

New mothers are under an enormous amount of pressure and judgement at a time when they a literally more emotionally vulnerable than they have ever been in their lives.

The reward is still worth it, a hundred times over

A woman once told me that the old consensus was that veteran moms didn’t tell young women about what childbirth and new motherhood was REALLY like because it would scare them off having kids. She thought that the age of information was scaring the hell out young women. I thought that was the biggest load of crap I’d ever heard.

If its so awful that it puts women off having babies, why the hell would anyone have more than one baby? Knowledge is power and going into a situation with a solid understanding of its difficulty is not going to deter the biological and maternal drive to have and care for children.

Having children is wonderful. It is crazy hard. And still wonderful. But it isn’t for everyone. And that is okay. It is not what many new moms expected. And that is okay. It requires parents to give up things they didn’t anticipate and that is okay.

The key is information. Don’t lie to young woman about what to expect. Give them the fact and let them decide for themselves! Let them get themselves into a place where they can deal with the hard stuff.

So, how do you, as a writer want to approach this subject? Maybe as the wielders of mighty pens, we have a responsibility to present the world as it is and stop perpetuating happy myths that provoke judgments when the truth comes out?

The myth might be tidy and funny and make it easy to love your character, but the reality is so much more nuanced and, in my opinion, rewarding to the reader.

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