Put Down Your Birth Plan: How Idealizing Motherhood Is Causing Post-Partum Depression

“The rite of passage that is pregnancy and childbirth is set upon a pink and blue pedestal in our culture, making for a nasty fall back to reality.”

Something has gone terribly wrong with the popular ideas associated with motherhood. Whether it is in magazines, movies, Web sites, or even in the Church, society idealizes childbearing and rearing. This romanticism can be seen on the covers of gossip magazines lining check-out aisles across the nation, and it is heard from other women as supermom shares her secrets for getting ten hours of sleep while homeschooling and canning vegetables. Though there is much cause for celebration when a woman has a baby, an event that is full of joy and love, there is also cause for taking a step back and realizing it will most likely be one of the hardest, most emotionally taxing things she could ever experience. Even Jesus knew that having kids was no joke. When talking to his disciples, Jesus used the imagery of childbirth to describe the tribulation (Matt. 24:8, ESV). So, essentially, entering motherhood is like the apocalypse, or at least not too far off. Regrettably, the less than pleasant moments that come with motherhood get little press, and this romanticizing is hurting women, often pushing them into Post-Partum Depression.

One mother who is glorified by the media is Beyoncé. In a recent interview with People magazine, where she was named the “Most Beautiful Woman” of 2012, Beyoncé described her view of motherhood, one impossible for other women to attain. People quotes the pop-star on her radical life changes post-baby: “my toes and my feet are a lot rougher since I’ve become a mom” (Chiu 69). The interview continues to describe how, shockingly, Beyoncé now cuts her own hair, has taken to wearing flats, and eats little more than egg whites, turkey, and jalapenos (70-71). It becomes hard to tell if Beyoncé just had a baby, or if she’s at the spa. But it’s not just Beyoncé who is at fault for adding to the post-baby crash that most mothers experience once back at home. In her book The Mommy Myth, Susan Douglas argues that “celebrity mom profile” is actually its own media genre “that snowballed as the 1980’s progressed and became a dominant fixture of women’s and entertainment magazines by the 1990’s” and became a “crucial tool in the media construction of maternal guilt and insecurity, as well as the romanticizing of motherhood” (113). Stars and their impractical portrayals of motherhood set up incredibly unrealistic expectations and pressures for the women who read the cover stories.

It does not stop with magazines. Pinterest, a popular Web site for idea sharing, has a special way of making every mother feel as if she isn’t doing enough crafting or baking. Not meaning any harm, Evonne Lack wrote an article on Babycenter.com listing the different kinds of baby showers that are “Hot Trends” for women now; still, from the “Green Shower,” to the “Gender Reveal,” even a special party for Grandma, the expectations are there—and great expectations they are. Some baby showers end up rivaling fantasy weddings in scope and price.

Even the Church has gotten in on the baby-glamour action. Many religious circles over-correct the push for women in the workplace by putting too much emphasis on affirming ladies to have and rear children. The Church is supposed to be a place of community, vulnerability, and support. By idealizing motherhood, the Church can actually cause mothers to compete rather than support one another. It can also set up women who don’t want to, or can’t, have babies to become the object of inappropriate judgment. Life is always a good thing, and having children is a cause for celebration. But it is also hard, and it is not for everyone.

The pressure doesn’t stop with pushing women to have babies, and only increases once they do conceive. Though there is romanticizing that goes along with each stage, a particularly troubling time for mothers comes when they are encouraged to develop what is called a “birth plan” for their “ideal” labor and delivery. During my pregnancy, I can distinctly remember the moment when I was handed a paper from a nurse on the way out: “Don’t forget to come up with a birth plan. You’re six months!” I looked at the sheet like it was an advanced calculus test. I went back to work feeling troubled, teaching my students where to put commas, all the while thinking, “Birth plan! What! How do I do that?” After a bit of research, I felt my first twinge of guilt as I wrote down, “I will probably want drugs.”

Women need to realize that, despite their best efforts, labor and delivery can often be unpredictable. Birth plans soon get crumpled and tossed in the corner. In my case, an emergency C-section, the opposite happened for almost each point I wrote down. Though I did eventually get my epidural, I didn’t get to wear the comfy pajama top I bought from Target for my moment of glory. I did not get to try laboring naturally. My daughter was in distress, and my amniotic fluid was gone. My surgery went quickly, and my husband did not get to cut the umbilical cord. I did not get to hold my daughter for hours, as she was in the care of the NICU.  In “Grieving the Idealized Birth,” Michelle Brubaker brings up an important question for those who push this stringent planning: “So what happens when the birth plan goes awry? Often it leaves women grieving their idealized birth and dealing with feelings of their body ‘failing’ or even feeling ‘robbed’ of their envisioned labor.” Fulfilling, or failing to meet, the expectations in one’s birth plan are not, and should not be, the measure for a mother’s womanhood. Sadly, for many women, what happens during labor and delivery can be the catalyst for surmounting feelings of judgment, shame, and guilt.

Women also need to know that it is common for most mothers to experience the “baby blues.” However, when those blues last longer than a few weeks, and deepen with time, it is likely that the new mom is suffering from Post-Partum Depression (PPD). Brubaker cites that one in five mothers suffers from PPD. Symptoms of PPD can often include “anger, irritability, lack of interest in the baby, appetite and sleep disturbance, crying, sadness, feelings of guilt, shame, and hopelessness, loss of joy, and thoughts of harming the self or baby.” These feelings are in no way a measure of a mom’s ability, but too often women associate them as marks of failure. In some cases, Brubaker notes when there was an emergency involved in the birth, one in six new mothers can experience PPD Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. The symptoms for PPD PTSD are a “re-experiencing of the traumatic event, flashbacks and nightmares, avoidance of stimuli associated with the event, hyper-vigilance, anxiety, panic attacks, detachment, and a sense of unreality.” These are sobering realities that often come with one’s bundle of joy.

In many cases, guilt and shame often keep women from telling their doctors, or anyone for that matter, that they are struggling. In my case, I was clueless about PPD until those closest to me began to wonder out loud. Initially, I was in denial. I wasn’t sad, I didn’t feel depressed, and I had joy. However, I was behaving in other uncharacteristic ways. I was having panic attacks. I was unusually irritable when I could not figure out the enigma of baby cries. I dissolved into a pile of tears and apologies, an overwhelmed mess, when I failed miserably at breast-feeding. Still, I didn’t want to tell anyone about my anxieties. All I could hear were the voices of judgment. What would my doctor do? Would he call Social Services? What about all of those ladies at church? They all love having babies! If I confess, I thought, people will know I failed. Still, I began to talk.

Poet Adrienne Rich famously said, “When a woman tells the truth, she is creating the possibility for more truth around her.” Realizing that I had PPD, I began to tell everyone who asked what a difficult time I had with my daughter’s first few months. Sure, she was gorgeous and amazing, my pumpkin cheesecake, the best gift I’d ever received, but her first five months were beyond my capacity to handle alone. It was an all-out war for my sleep, sanity, and salvation from the crushing guilt and anxiety I felt. As I began to tell my story, mothers pulled me into corners to tell me of their own troubles. I would get e-mails from other women, relieved they were not alone. I have yet to meet one woman who has said that she, like Beyoncé, had her hair done and lip gloss ready to go for some glamorous laboring, and I have yet to meet one woman who has said that she did not struggle in her first months home with a newborn.

The rite of passage that is pregnancy and childbirth is set upon a pink and blue pedestal in our culture, making for a nasty fall back to reality. Unlike its portrayal in society, the reality of motherhood, from beginning to end, can and will entail trials and tribulations. However, having an apocalyptic meltdown can be avoided. Community can be an effective tool for preventing or helping PPD; women need to share their stories and break the stigma. We don’t have to be perfect mothers. We couldn’t be even if we had a medication-free birth and did every craft on Pinterest. Working together to be honest, women can relieve some of the pressure and the fairy tale in order to help new moms, and possibly even prevent some from getting lost in the confusing tunnel that is Post-Partum Depression.

Lauren Lund earned her MA in English from Liberty University, where she taught Grammar, Composition, and Literature classes. She now resides in Cleveland, Ohio, teaches for Liberty University Online, and is planning to pursue her PhD in Education.

Illustration courtesy of Seth T. Hahne. Check out his graphic novel and comic review site, Good Ok Bad.

  • http://brandonambrosino.blogspot.com/ Brandon

    This is a terrific post. As a gay man, it’s highly unlikely that I will either birth my own child, or be involved in the event. But as a Christian, specifically as a pro-life Christian, it is my duty to support mothers as best I can. To me, this means understanding that motherhood and labor aren’t as romantic as the Evangelical culture attempts to make them out to be. A great film about this topic is “Knocked Up.” In the infamous “shot” in the birthing scene, any and all Western Romantic notions of motherhood are completely deconstructed.

    Thanks for sharing this important piece, Lauren!

  • http://www.cindiferrini.com Cindi Ferrini

    Real. Raw. RIGHT.
    Lauren hits the nail on the head for the need for honesty, community, and compassion….which will happen when we become open, honest, and transparent – revealing some of what isn’t as “perfect” as some might try to make it in the “mommy” arena!
    GREAT JOB!

  • KSP

    This line made me laugh out loud (and I’m not even a mother!): interest, a popular Web site for idea sharing, has a special way of making every mother feel as if she isn’t doing enough crafting or baking.

    Wonderful, honest, and excellent piece that can apply to many areas of life even beyond mothering.

    Thank you!

  • Bethany

    Look, I hear you about PPD. I had that with both of my first two kids and had a hard time telling anyone. I was so ashamed. But I don’t think you’re being fair to the culture. Beyonce very well may have had an ideal birth. She probably had the family, medical, and financial support she needed and her body cooperated with labor and delivery. But there are also celebrities that have been very honest about how hard having a baby is…like Brooke Shields.
    I also think you’re completely judging the church. You give no actual examples of how the church “over-correct the push for women in the workplace by putting too much emphasis on affirming ladies to have and rear children.” Geez. If having a baby (and raising it right) is so rough, maybe the church should provide a TON of affirmation and encouragement.
    The strangest critique you level, however, is against Pinterest. It’s a website, a tool, not a person judging you! Blaming Pinterest for making some women feel bad is like blaming a bar for making drunks. How you respond to the medium is on you.
    With all that said, I do agree with your underlying thesis that children are not just bundles of joy. They are complex human beings in need of specific care at their various developmental points and it takes hands-on parents and a community about them to get the job done.
    Also, I wish OB/GYNS provided more information on post-partum care for women. Everyone focuses on the baby and forgets the mother. Diet and adequate support and the expectations the mother puts on herself play a HUGE role in her recovery. Only in the last 100 years, have we said that a woman can and should give birth and care for her baby with little outside support and that she should be back at the gym and office mere months after giving birth. That plan is bad for the spiritual, emotional and physical of baby and mother.

  • http://anyfruit.blogspot.com Lauren Lund

    Bethany, I appreciate your feedback. I’m glad you took the time to read this article. Just a note, I didn’t generalize the Church, saying that WHOLE Church is guilty for pressuring women to have children. I was careful to say “many.” Also, I’m not saying it is wrong for churches to affirm having children, I am saying it’s wrong to judge those who can’t have kids, or don’t want them. It’s less of a slam, as you took it, and more of a nudge towards a balanced view. Also, I don’t treat Pinterest as a person who is passing judgement. I note that it’s a social medium which adds to the pressure women feel that cause them to fear speaking out about the negative feelings that can often accompany having children.

  • http://brandonambrosino.blogspot.com/ Brandon

    Bethany,

    I’m not sure why you thought Lauren was critiquing Pinterest. I definitely didn’t get that. I just thought she was saying that it’s possible that websites like Pinterest put some pressure on mothers to be better (see: craftier, thriftier, healthier, thinner) than they are. I think the Pinterest line, aside from being funny (see: humor), really helps to make Lauren’s overall case, which is that at times, American culture (Evangelical, celebrity, whatever) can unknowingly set up a standard of Motherhood; and perhaps this standard might not be in the best interests of the mother who is already a candidate for PPD.

    Also, in the interests of full disclosure, it should be duly noted that I have maternal Pinteresting habits.

  • Different Bethany

    Such a great piece, Lauren! I know MANY women who have lamented similar feelings and I think you’ve summed up some great points very succinctly.

    Other Bethany–I just scratched my head when I read your comment. It makes me wonder if we read the same words. I guess it’s just one of those times when I think, “How did you get THERE from HERE?” Oh, well. :)

    All misinterpretations aside, I know a bunch of moms who feel a true sense of solidarity with you, Lauren. Thanks for being a real mom!

  • Amber

    I actually DO think this is a problem in a lot of churches (again, not all – many). There’s 5+ classes / programs at any given church on motherhood or parenting; but how many classes or support groups are there for mothers who suffer from PPD? Or single / divorced mothers? How many women’s classes or conferences do you go to where someone stands up and says, “Yes, motherhood is wonderful. But it’s also extremely, profoundly hard. Labor and deliver are like the tribulation. And some days, you probably won’t even like your kids. There, I said it.” Believers often have a hard time in general admitting when something is difficult (like .. being a Christian), perhaps because we’re afraid it will drive people away, when in reality our honesty (about motherhood, or any other aspect of real life) would probably attract people.

    Additionally, Christians too are creatures of our culture, so we do best not to pretend like we’re not influenced by elements of that culture (i.e., awesome celebrity birth plans, Pintrest, etc.). We ought to do exactly what this article (and this forum in general) does: examine how and why those culture elements have the influence they do and to examine them from a biblical perspective.

  • http://www.kellira.com Kelli Anderson

    Lauren, thank you so much for your article and for my laugh-out-loud moment wondering whether Biance was in the throws of motherhood or enjoying a spa. :0) I think I very much understood your points about the Church and media glamorizing the I-can-do-it-all perfectly image of motherhood even if they don’t mean to. The Proverbs 31 woman has been lifted up in churches I have attended as the perfect model and has put a damper on more than one Mother’s Day that I can remember. (Although I know the sermon was meant to congratulate we mothers, but unless your name is June Cleaver and you are great at wearing pearls while you make your organic strained baby food, it’s very hard to live up to the ideal!) But when each one of us takes the plunge and allows others around us to see the chinks in our armor, it really does give others permission to take a big sigh of relief to do the same. Thank you for being one of those kind-hearted, honest voices trying to to make life a little easier to navigate through the messiness of reality!–Kelli

  • http://anyfruit.blogspot.com Lauren Lund

    Thank you all for the great comments! Kelli, I am so glad this article made you laugh. One of my main goals in writing, and life, is to make others laugh in relief, knowing they are not alone. Author Anne Lamott says this: “Writing and reading decrease our sense of isolation [...] We are given a shot at dancing with, or at least clapping along with, the absurdity of life, instead of being squashed by it over and over again. It’s like singing on a boat during a terrible storm at sea. You can’t stop the raging storm, but singing can change the hearts and spirits of the people who are together on that ship.”

  • Lisa Roth

    Great article my fine speaking daughter. As I sit here and think about this…. the reason most of us “older” Moms don’t relay some of these things you mention to our daughters is because we ourselves were often clueless and naive to what all we would face in childbearing. We had the Dr. Spock book and that was about it. Somehow, as the years went on…. through all the joyous fun & insane crazy ups and downs; you forget all the PPD and anything else that has a name to it. When my last turned 21 I threw my hands up in the air and thanked my loving, merciful Father in Heaven that somehow, I made it through every phase of having children. When it’s all said and done you realize that from the get-go there is no one right blueprint and/or size fits all plan for birth, childhood and teen years. The only thing I am sure of is that I truly lucked off and got 4 amazing children.

  • Mary Burwell

    Prof. Lund,

    I loved your open and honest views of the reality of birth. I have four children and not one birth was like the others. I did not have PPD until my 4th child (last). It started with severe anxiety that escalated into full blown depression also triggering a genetically predisposition to BPD disorder. My children were my ONLY happiness but inside I was as dead as the Dead Sea! I have gotten saved since then and pray daily for God to deliver me from this horrible curse. I know He is working on me, I see it slowly. It has been 16.8 years and I still struggle and I am on medication. I am by far a perfect mom but I have spoiled my kids rotten, they know how much I love them and thank God they have given me a reason to keep living.
    Thanks again for being so candid and sharing your personal life with us.
    You are a wonderful teacher (I’m a student of hers currently) and an even better motivator! It feels great to know we aren’t alone.

  • Pingback: What causes PPD? « The Journey: Before and After Childbirth

  • Pingback: Birth plans, post partum depression and getting real about motherhood | A Quiet Simple Life

  • Margaret Plummer

    Lauren, your article made me well up. I, too, was in denial of PPD for months and almost ended up a single mom because of it, joylessly caring for the most amazing gift I’ve ever been given. I thought it was just that i needed to “chill out” and “enjoy”. Your honesty just makes it so ok for me to be and feel who and what i am. Thank you.


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