Finding a Mother's Day card that honestly addresses the complexities of motherhood is unexpectedly difficult. This year's choices include a cheesy "Wind Beneath My Wings" tribute complete with Bette Midler audio track, a card with a "I wish for you a day without cleaning a dish or a toilet" sentiment, which could work if I was actually willing to fly home and clean either of those things, and another that superficially attempts to describe the many facets of mom-duties: "Thanks for your hugs, your advice, and your chicken pot pie." Too bad Swanson's is the closest my mom ever came to a homemade pie of any sort.
These greeting card clichés create a romanticized, unrealistic, over-simplified, and sometimes demeaning (What's with all the cards praising mom's unpaid housemaid services? Is this 1950? Don't dads or kids do some of the dirty work, too?) caricatures of a mother's efforts and love. And discovering any card that even attempts to acknowledge the many unheralded physical sacrifices that are required to carry, deliver, and raise children is simply impossible.
I ended my own search this year without finding a single card saying anything close to what I'd like to say to my mom now that I have had kids. I was looking for something along the lines of: "Dear Mom, thanks for rocking those gigantic varicose veins—which I caused—without complaint for all these years."
It's hard to completely blame the greeting card companies. Talking about the physical toll of being a mother is awkward. It requires using words like "saggy," "queef," "episiotomy," "cankles," and even "vagina," which is still surprisingly difficult for many people to say. Even for women who have tackled motherhood and come out the other side (albeit a little worse for the wear), it can be difficult to share personal experiences that could be perceived as gross or weird outside the confines of our closest friendships, if at all.
I will always be grateful to my one friend who gave me some warning of what was to come. Before the birth of my first child, she handed me a box of maxi-pads so big that they'd be more at home in the adult diaper section of the drug store than the feminine product aisle. When I asked her why, she said, "No one will tell you how much blood there will be. If it stops in two weeks, you will be lucky." She was right, on both counts.
It is sad but understandable that women may be reluctant to discuss the impact of childbirth with one another, but it's inexcusable that medical professionals often don't prepare women for what to expect from their bodies after birth.
Through two pregnancies, I saw multiple OB/GYNs and midwives. None of them discussed the changes motherhood would have on my body. At a recent post-natal visit, I asked the midwife why women are not better educated about the physiological demands of being a mom. As if numerous blind-sided women struggling to settle into their new physical reality had already asked her that question, she quickly replied, "If women knew that their vaginas would never be the same, no one would ever have a baby."
She was kidding, but there is definitely a patronizing undertone to keeping women in the dark about the impact of childbirth. Women know that their time and their hearts will no longer be their own, and yet they still have kids despite these sacrifices. Why are our bodies treated differently? Perhaps it's because the physical changes are more varied and abstract. It's difficult to envision living in a body with changes that can often be so extreme or absurd that they are practically unrelatable.
For example, there's a rumor in my family about my great grandmother's breasts. They were supposedly so saggy ("They hung down to her knees!" my aunt always interjects) from birthing and nursing 13 babies that she kept them rolled them up in her bra. Before having kids, I assumed this was a joke. But after seeing how my own boobs, which were once proudly perky 32 Ds, have changed, there's a real possibility that someday I may also be innovatively storing my boobs Fruit-Rollup style.
Until recently, my life was mostly (and thankfully) free of body image angst. But after childbirth, I found myself for the first time having a body that could, in its appearance or unintentional actions, make me embarrassed. I challenge even the most self confident individual to avoid this feeling when comical noises emerge from places they're not supposed to during sex or the inversion portion of a yoga class.