The Demystification of the Postpartum Female Body

As women open up about the realities of recovering from giving birth, the resources available to new moms are expanding.

A new mother and her baby's foot.
Estersinhache fotografía / Getty

New-mom underwear had been a well-known initiation rite for years. Soft, stretchy, made of disposable mesh, and mysteriously available only in maternity wards, it was an unlikely hot-ticket item—but sure enough, mothers quietly advised the soon-to-be mothers in their lives to steal as many pairs of it as possible from the hospital before bringing their new babies home.

And then, suddenly, it was no longer a trade secret, but a meme. In 2016, The Cut published an ode to the underwear. In “The Secret, Magical Underwear That Only Moms Know About,” Edan Lepucki wrote that not only was it supremely soft and comfy to wear over a still-swollen belly, but that “because postpartum bleeding required me to straddle huge, mortifying maxi pads like I was in seventh grade again, [it was] practical: The underwear held the pads secure, and if something did leak, the whole mess could be tossed into the trash, forgotten forever.”

In 2018, the comedian Ali Wong devoted 27 consecutive minutes of her Netflix stand-up special Hard Knock Wife to the surprising amount of gore and physical agony that awaited her after she gave birth to her first child. “Nobody told me,” she practically shouts, about how much “crazy shit” would come out of her in the days after the birth. When she describes how her friends advised her to steal diapers from the hospital, not for the baby but for herself, her eyes widen into a thousand-yard stare as she imitates them: You’ll see soon enough why you need them, she says in a traumatized voice. “Winter is coming.”

Days after the special was released, the supermodel Chrissy Teigen, just a week postpartum after the birth of her second child, tweeted, “I can confirm postpartum life is 90% better when you don’t rip to your butthole. Baby boy: 1 point. Luna: 0,” and posted a picture of herself to Instagram wearing the mesh underwear. In the Instagram caption, she quoted Wong’s Netflix special. And earlier this summer, the comedian Amy Schumer Instagrammed a photo of herself, standing outside on a sunny day with her newborn, wearing just a bra and the mesh underpants. “Five weeks. Hospital underwear for life!” the caption read. The post has been one of Schumer’s most popular of the summer.

For generations, the grisly bodily details of new motherhood—the messy postpartum bleeding, the frustrating and sometimes painful process of figuring out breastfeeding, the wound care necessary for the vagina and cervix or the C-section incision, not to mention the waddling around the house wearing whatever undergarment can contain both an absorbent maxi pad and an ice pack—have been something of a secret kept among women. Like menstruation and menopause, the topic is often considered impolite fodder for mixed company, and many women, as a result, find themselves underinformed or misinformed about it (or only informed by a mother or another trusted older woman when the occasion arrives). But today, the realities of the human body immediately after giving birth are less mysterious than ever, a development some attribute to a changing climate around motherhood. Consequently, the care available to women has improved in some ways, too.

Jennifer Mayer, a doula and the founder of the New York–based birth- and postpartum-care team Baby Caravan, believes that some of the mystery can be traced to the fact that many U.S. doctors gloss over or fail to address what exactly women should expect from their own bodies and how to manage it.

“When you’re pregnant, you go for checkups once a month, and then twice a month, and then in the last four weeks you go weekly. And then you have your baby, they send you home, and then you don’t come back until six weeks later,” Mayer says. “Which is a huge chunk of time, and such an intense period.” Indeed, many parenting books and blogs reference the “six-week checkup” as the first visit a mother and newborn will have with a doctor after birth. That gap in medical care during the time when mothers’ bodies undergo major hormone fluctuations and injury healing, Mayer adds, can create the sense that whatever the mother’s body is doing in those six weeks is her problem to deal with.

Harvey Karp, a pediatrician and the author of 2003’s newborn-parenting manual The Happiest Baby on the Block, believes part of why so many new parents seem caught off guard by the messy and painful aspects of the postpartum stage is the degree to which modern society isolates nuclear families. In the past, when multiple generations of family members lived together and community members were more likely to help raise kids, Karp notes, “it used to be that young women would be with other young women, helping take care of their babies, and there was this automatic transfer of knowledge.” Today, he says, what gets shared between new mothers and mothers-to-be is more like an automatic transfer of fantasy.

“You have Instagram, you have Facebook, you have this idealized version [of new motherhood]” getting publicized and shared on social media, Karp says. “I bet if you searched a million images of new babies and new mothers, you’d get only one image that focuses on swollen ankles.” Which can lead, he says, to unrealistic expectations and discomfort with sharing the less adorable realities of new parenthood.

Mayer, however, credits social media with having the opposite effect. In her 14 years working as a doula, she’s seen a shift in cultural attitudes toward motherhood, and in particular, she believes that mothers’ voices are heard more often and taken more seriously today than they once were. “I think in the past, mothers have been dismissed, or it was just acknowledged that ‘this is what you signed up for when you became a mom,’” she says. But as the Millennial generation, known for its propensity to post status updates and frequent broadcasts to social media, has grown up, all facets and stages of people’s lives have become fodder for sharing, including new motherhood.

“I started being a doula before Facebook existed, so I’ve seen the rise of ‘mommy blogs’ and social media, women being in charge of their own narratives,” Mayer says. “They can share anything they want to share, and that’s really powerful.” And perhaps, she adds, the same culture of radical public honesty about the unglamorous, unpleasant aspects of new motherhood has given rise to the graphic, unfiltered mothering humor that Wong, Teigen, and Schumer have helped popularize.

New motherhood and its medical challenges have come into the public spotlight in other ways, too, Mayer notes. Democratic candidates for the 2020 presidential election are talking about maternal and postpartum mortality rates as a political issue, for example. And a few notable books aimed at enlightening new mothers on how to care for their own bodies after birth have been released in the past couple of years—such as 2016’s The First Forty Days and 2017’s The Fourth Trimester.

Mayer says much of the gear women and doulas have used to care for post-birth bodies has traditionally been hard to find or cobbled together at home: “I’m pretty crunchy, and in crunchy circles you can find, like, the sitz baths and the perineal sprays,” she laughs. But at the mainstream department stores and baby stores where many parents register for gifts, she says, “you’re not going to see those there.”

That gap, however, is beginning to be filled. Fridababy, a company that makes baby-care products, this week launched Frida Mom, a line of products specifically designed for women’s bodies post-childbirth. Chelsea Hirschhorn, the CEO, says the idea grew directly out of her experience as a mother. After the birth of her first child, she was told that the perineal area, or the area between the legs that encompasses both the vagina and anus, could experience swelling, soreness, and hemorrhoids, especially as a result of stitches after an episiotomy.

“That area is obviously the most sensitive for the first four weeks following birth, and I was told [icing that area] is the most important component of your recovery,” she says. When the nurses in Hirschhorn’s postpartum-recovery ward were arming her with what she would need to take care of herself at home, “they ripped open a Pampers newborn diaper, took a pitcher of ice from the hallway ice machine, and they stuffed the ice into the middle of the diaper,” she says. “They taped the diaper back up and told me to put it in the mesh underwear, put it on top of a doggy wee-wee pad, and sit there for 20 minutes.” Hirschhorn couldn’t believe there wasn’t an easier-to-use, more efficient solution to such a common problem—and long story short, Frida Mom’s postpartum-care kits are now available for purchase at places like Target, Walmart, and CVS. They contain products such as combination maxi pad/ice packs; a “healing foam” to cleanse the perineal area; cooling pad liners; a gentle, bidet-like, upside-down squirt bottle known as a “MomWasher” to keep the area clean; and of course, stretchy disposable postpartum underwear, just like the coveted hospital garments.

Hirschhorn believes that FridaMom will make life easier for new moms. But she also recognizes that new moms’ candor—and especially high-profile moms’ candor—helped make FridaMom possible in the first place. She, too, has seen a shift toward transparency in the realm of postpartum care, and “I think in a lot of ways that’s why we got the support from retailers,” she says. “I think two to five years ago, we would never have gotten four feet of shelf space at a place like Target, or marketing support from a retailer like Amazon.”

Ultimately, Hirschhorn hopes the trend toward honesty, toward publicly acknowledging the full picture of the birth experience rather than just the heartwarming parts, will continue, especially for the sake of women who have yet to experience birth and motherhood. “Women will tell you that they pushed for 19 hours, but at the end it was great. They won’t tell you that you bleed for four weeks afterward and you pass a clot the size of a jellyfish,” she adds, a line she also uses in a commercial for the brand. She goes on: “That can really help make the difference between knowing what to expect and being totally caught off guard. Women like Amy [Schumer], who will go out and say, ‘Hi, I’m five weeks postpartum, and I’m still rocking my disposable underwear,’ are really leveraging their platform for the greater good of women who are about to go through this for the first time.”