Why society ignores the pain of motherhood

From the physical effects of giving birth to the mental burden of unpaid care and workplace barriers, we are silenced.

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At 3:55am, I push her out, gelatinous, alive. On the toilet, I piss through gritted teeth, leaking urine from the gash she tore from. The sting is astonishing, robbing me of breath. Alone, I feel my strange new flesh, blood clotting between my legs in alien strands. 

My postnatal pain came shooting back recently, through an advertisement reportedly rejected by the Oscars. The commercial, by a company called Frida Mom – which sells postnatal recovery products – shows a woman waking to her newborn’s wails. We wince with her as she walks, slowly, jarringly to the bathroom. She struggles to urinate, her face pale with pain. So many of us know this scene: the sting of maternity pads on sore flesh, the screaming baby in the background.

It’s an advert which puts a woman’s most intimate needs on display. Her body, with its spilling secretions, is centre stage. According to the company, its first TV commercial violated the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ guidelines for being “too graphic with partial nudity and product demonstration”. (The New Statesman has contacted the Oscars, broadcaster ABC and Frida Mom to ask for more details about this decision, but none have responded.)

We expect mothers to contain the mess of birth and childcare within themselves, to keep it from encroaching on work and the public space. Broadcasting a new mum’s need for support on international TV – rather than sidelining it to the “feminine hygiene” aisle of Boots – threatens to make a woman’s invisible responsibility a mainstream concern.

But why are marketing companies and adverts the ones to resonate with mothers’ most intimate experiences? There’s something sickening about companies like Water Wipes and Frida Mom using such visceral and honest depictions of parenthood in their adverts, for the sake of selling baby wipes and witch-hazel pad liners. Mothers should be able to confide their agony, and feelings of overwhelming stress, to supportive communities – not corporations manipulating human experiences for profit.

It is overwhelmingly mothers who bridge the gap between professional work and the burden of caring for others. Women are two-and-a-half times more likely than men to perform the unpaid labour that prevents society from collapsing and contributes up to 39 per cent of the Gross Domestic Product. This includes childcare, elderly care, cooking and cleaning. Yet employers punish women for this extra labour, with 54,000 women a year being pushed out of work due to pregnancy or maternity leave.

If women refused to do unpaid caring (which currently saves the government £132bn a year), infants would be screaming and starving, vulnerable people dying in the streets. There’s a huge gap between a lack of state provision for care and a work culture that expects employees to work extra hours, as if they had no other responsibilities. It’s usually a woman’s overworking body that soaks this up and prevents these two worlds from colliding.

Although caring for children (and meeting other care needs) is a vital part of a functioning society, we don’t see it as a collective responsibility, but a private one. We’re not interested in capitalising on women’s talents in the workplace by improving maternity policies. We’d rather privatise the gap between a lack of institutional support for parents and carers, and the pressure to excel in the workplace, into the single body of a mother, and then pick on her if she shows any signs of cracking.

The contradictory advice we hurl at mothers: “Don’t mention your kids at work, it’s unprofessional” and “Don’t put your children in nursery while you work”, shows how much we scapegoat women for bigger social issues.

The internet is full of articles advising women on how to mention their children (if at all) at work. “Don’t joke about being a busy parent,” advises one. “You might give the impression that you’re not strong in prioritisation or time-management skills”.

Read that again. Taken in the sheer irony of it, that a woman pumping breast milk in a dirty bathroom on her lunch break or answering work emails at 5am, while mentally logging doctor’s appointments for her whole family, doesn’t have strong time-management skills. But this is the labour that doesn’t count to society, the invisible caring and mental load that so often falls to women and that we so often see as irrelevant – until someone stops doing it.

A Facebook group for student parents at the University of Oxford features a post by a PhD student, asking when she should declare her pregnancy. Comment after comment follows, women’s voices calling out everything from flagrant verbal abuse at disclosing their pregnancies, to the lack of institutional support for student mothers.

“I was lucky” is the phrase I read again and again, by those who happened to have helpful supervisors. It’s 2020, and mothers are still at the mercy of luck, and whatever our supervisors, tutors or employers decide to feel about our situation.

“My supervisor started screaming at me when I told him I was pregnant,” says Sophie*, a PhD student in the sciences at Oxford. “He yelled, ‘how could you fucking do this to me? Why wasn’t I the first to know? I can’t believe this!’ He thought he should have had a say in my reproductive decisions.”

Sophie was doing fieldwork at the time, having meticulously planned her pregnancy so that she could safely carry out research. Her supervisor refused to talk to her for the entire trip. Later, her head of department blamed her for being “irresponsible” enough to get pregnant.

Perhaps the ugliest thing about this story – aside from the unabashed discrimination against Sophie – is that it points to the destruction of women’s groundbreaking research. How many mothers’ valuable insights have we lost because of colleagues who made their lives hell and restricted their work opportunities?

Motherhood can be incredibly, physically painful: the stitches in torn flesh, the aching bellies and raw breasts. But sometimes, it’s easier to talk about the physical difficulties of motherhood than the other things you’ve lost. Like how your mind is no longer a private space and people barge through it like it’s a public expressway, dumping their desires and demands. It’s simpler to joke, cartoonishly, about the volume of your baby’s puke than to admit that when you’re breastfeeding her, you feel time stagnate, your days diminishing to her small, sucking mouth.

*Name has been changed.

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