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.
Doubting that I was alone, I began asking my friends about their bodies. Turns out, every mom I talked to lives with physical challenges or changes as a result of motherhood. Some of them are relatively minor like darker nipples, tired-looking eyes, cesarean scars, a belly button piercing that now looks like "exploding volcano," or a butt that seemed to mysteriously and permanently drop two inches after the baby was born.
But others are more serious. On the first stride of her first run after delivering her third baby (a sweet girl who arrived sunny side up), Rebecca peed on herself. The cause: a prolapsed bladder. According to WebMd, this means that her bladder now "droops" down into her vagina. Until she has a bladder-holding sling surgically implanted, Rebecca will continue to have incontinence problems. "I'd take stretch marks over this any day," she said.
Other women had more painful tales, which could easily be described as horror stories. My best friend tore from "hole to hole" (an incident so common that there is a medical term to describe it) during the 42 hours it took to deliver her 11-pound son. The reconstruction was so intense that the doctor wouldn't, or couldn't, tell her how many stitches she needed. And one of my family members needed a catheter for weeks after delivering her first baby, who had the largest head of any infant born in that hospital.
Most maternal wounds fade with time, but others will require life-long care. Michelle got gestational diabetes that didn't go away. Two other friends contracted Hashimoto's—an autoimmune disease that requires daily hormone treatment and/or extreme diet restrictions for life. These three women all had daughters, and they may someday face similar problems of their own.
None of these are extreme tales. We are not pioneer women. None of us had 15-pound babies, and not one of us delivered our children in India, where 56,000 women die during childbirth every year. Instead, these are just a few of the stories that the women I care about shared with me over coffee or play dates.
Perhaps not-so-surprisingly, every friend said her body was different after becoming a mom. And even those who didn't give birth to their babies had stories to tell. One with a bad back insightfully noted, "There's nothing ergonomic about being a parent."
After these conversations, I believe that nearly every mother lives with some condition that those who aren't mothers never contemplate or celebrate. Turns out, we are all mama soldiers returning from the battlefields of life-creation. And like most stories from the frontlines, the physical scars inevitably stir genuine emotions and sentimentality that those greeting cards fall far short of replicating.
For example, Shireen started sobbing when she told me that seeing her stretch marks in the mirror keeps her feeling connected to her mom, who tragically died of cancer before the birth of her two grandsons. "I remember asking [my mom] about the marks on her belly when I was a kid," she said. "She told me that she loved them because they reminded her of me and of what a miracle it is that someone as special as me could come from her. Before, I thought she was just saying that, but now I really understand. I used to have a six-pack, but now my belly is round. I am okay with what I look like. My belly makes me think of my boys, my scars make me think of my mom, and they both make me feel connected to all mothers in a small way. I love that."
Forget Hallmark, I should hire Shireen to write my mom's card this year. And since my kids are still too young to buy one for me, I'll pen my own cards and have them fingerpaint something cute on the front. The inside will say this:
I know that running is one of the things that makes you feel most alive, and that since having me, you've never made it a block without feeling kind of funny down there. I realize how depressing that is, and I'm grateful. I know you love me so much that you'd put up with a dozen funny-feeling vaginas if I needed you to. That kind of love is real, and it's big. Someday, I hope that I'm lucky enough to love that much.