Why We Can't Stop Talking About the Bad Parts of Having a Baby
Estimated read time: 7 minutes
An Oath member named Becca L. asked the following question in the Pregnancy community:
Subject: Dealing with negativity
How do you deal with the negativity that seems to be the ”norm” when talking about postpartum?
I totally get that it’s going to be rough with sleep deprivation, hormonal changes, breastfeeding/general feeding struggles, adjusting to new normals, dealing with a learning curve nonstop etc. etc. I feel like all I ever hear from people (or read online) is how exhausted and miserable and terrible postpartum is and it’s really affecting my anxiety.
I am one of those people who always prepares for the worst anyway, so these issues are already on my radar. I‘m due in two weeks and while I know postpartum isn‘t all sunshine and rainbows, I just want to have a more positive outlook on this major life event and learn how to tune out all of the fear mongering and negativity. Not sure if anyone can relate…
I have to confess that I’m guilty of exactly what Becca L. is talking about. I had a challenging birth and postpartum experience with my first son, and five years later, I still can’t shut up about it to anyone who will listen.*
I’m not alone in my desire to share the worst parts of parenting in explicit detail. As Becca points out, stories about postpartum misery are impossible to avoid. How does someone on the other side of the parenting divide deal with it? You can do things like ask people not to tell you their scary parenting stories and cull your social media feed. But bad stories will seep through—what then?
The thing that makes these stories so scary is the lack of context: if you base your opinion on what the internet says about parenting, you might think that parenting mostly sucks. It doesn’t!
Here are 5 reasons why you tend to hear mostly negative things about becoming a parent:
1. The first few months postpartum can be a shock.
Postpartum with my first child was so much harder than I expected it to be. My son was born with the umbilical cord wrapped around his neck and he needed to stay in the NICU for a week—during which time I developed severe postpartum preeclampsia and needed to be hospitalized myself.
It’s not always this hard. Some babies are much chiller than others. Your recovery experience matters, too: having a traumatic birth experience, postpartum depression, or postpartum anxiety obviously makes everything a lot worse.
But even when nothing in particular goes wrong, the postpartum phase can be extremely challenging. Shockingly so. And when you are shocked like this, there’s an impulse to warn others.
This impulse is probably misguided. If you haven’t spent much time around a newborn, it’s impossible to convey what it’s really like. Which brings us to a kind of conundrum: If you don’t say anything, people might be shocked by how bad it is, but if you do say something, your negative energy will stress them out without even showing them what it’s really like, since that’s impossible anyway.
The main conclusion to draw from all this? Some people have really rough postpartum experiences, but not everyone does, and a lot of this comes down to luck. If you end up as one of the unlucky ones, you can take comfort in the knowledge that this is a temporary situation: you are only postpartum for a few months, not forever.
2. It’s cathartic to share challenging experiences.
I thought I didn’t want an epidural, but labor taught me otherwise. When I meet another woman whom this happened to—and there are many of us—we like each other instantly. Why? Because labor hurt so much more than we ever imagined in our naive certainty that we would go without pain relief. To have been so wrong about something is a humbling experience, and two humbled people have their defenses down and can more easily connect.
The postpartum phase was even more humbling—it felt like a kind of hazing. And hazing is nothing if not a bonding ritual! That’s one way to think about the postpartum horror stories you encounter online: not a representation of what parenting usually feels like, but a bonding ritual.
3. It’s harder to talk about good parenting experiences than bad ones.
In the online spaces where I hang out, talking about the bad parts of parenting is rewarding: I get to feel like I’m breaking taboos, speaking hard truths, and being edgy and bold. It’s comparatively harder for me to talk about the good parts: I worry that I’ll come off as sappy or cliché.
It’s even deeper than that, actually. Sometimes I notice myself getting annoyed when friends want to share their proudest parenting moments: Does she think she’s the only mom who feels this way? But the truth is, she does! And so do I!
We all think our kid is the best one; that’s the spell of parenting. It’s uncomfortable when we see someone else revealing their delusion, because they’re also revealing our delusion. We know our belief in our baby’s superiority is just a spell, but we love its magic, so there’s an impulse to keep it close to our chests.
4. Parents feel invisible, and we want to force society to look at us
There are so many tiny infuriating experiences that makes it feel like the world doesn’t care about parents: like the fact that the contribution limit for dependent care FSAs is $5,000 per year (it was established in the 1970s and has never been adjusted for inflation). I spend that in one month of childcare for two kids! This should be an easy thing to fix! The only explanation I can think of is that nobody cares enough.
This is a small, annoying thing but my list contains many big, deeply troubling things. The way people expected working parents to continue doing their jobs while supervising Zoom kindergarten during the pandemic. The fact that many moms in the US go back to work days after giving birth, still bleeding.
Parents worry that if we don’t yell about all these bad things, people will think that we’re happy with the status quo. So we yell about the bad things a lot—in hopes of forming a strong coalition that can't be ignored.
5. Being a parent really is as hard as everyone says. But that’s okay.
In her article “Motherhood and Taboo”, Anastasia Berg argues that the experience of motherhood always involves ambivalence. This is true no matter how much social support mothers have:
"To give life to someone else is always to give away something of your own and to saddle yourself with a love that can be almost unbearable. A child’s life really does come at the cost of yours."
If this sounds bad, consider the alternative: if you don’t have children, the sense of finality when your life ends feels complete. No, this doesn't mean that everyone is obligated to have children. But it does highlight one of the benefits of doing so, which is that you get to pass on something material of your life:
“This possibility—of sharing our life, entrusting that which we will lose to someone else—may be one good reason not to try to escape, after all.”
Will you feel parenting ambivalence? You might. But ask any parent and they’ll tell you: it’s worth it.
Lindsay, Head of Content & Community @ Oath Care
*Briefly, if you’re curious: I was in labor for 48 hours, and then my son and I both had life-threatening complications that landed us in the hospital for a week postpartum. After we were discharged, I quickly realized that life with a normal, healthy newborn was the hardest part of all.
Do you feel equally comfortable talking about the good and bad parts of parenting? Reply to this email to share your story with me!
What we're reading this week
💗 WELCOME TO THE ERA OF VERY EARNEST PARENTING "The mom was trying to talk about the feelings, and one of the grandparents who was there was like, ‘How’s that gentle parenting thing going for you?'" (NYT)
🏠 "MOMMUNES": MOTHERS ARE LIVING SINGLE TOGETHER “You can do this anywhere. It’s not gendered and it’s not political. It’s literally taking the existing structure and using it to your advantage." (NYT)
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👩👦 LUXURY POSTPARTUM RETREAT WILL PAMPER NEW MOMS IN SF Nutritious meals, spa treatments and training classes help recover from giving birth — but it could cost $950 a night. (SF Chronicle)