Rebirth Is Awesome, But Having to Die In the First Place is Messed Up

I originally wrote this post back in February 2013 when I was still pregnant.

This blog post went viral this week, and I wanted to respond to it publicly, at length, and I felt a simple comment on the blog wouldn’t do. Reading this story felt like a glimpse into a potential future for me. The idea of losing my identity as I become a mother has been haunting me for the past few months.

In this essay, which is raw and honest and fun to read, Janelle Hanchett of Renegade Mothering discusses how women who become mothers must mourn the loss of their previous life, their freedom and youth. She explores the emotional and physical costs of having a child, the isolation, the responsibility, the primacy of the bond between a mother and child. She says that a mother’s previous self is “just dead,” but somehow, she’s still there, and her new job is to discover who she is as a mother, because she has been reborn. Since reading this post, I’ve read more of Hanchett’s work and liked most of it. But this one struck a chord with me and rubbed me a tiny bit wrong.

I think the most valuable contribution of a blog like this is in starting a conversation and breaking a taboo. It’s important to say that these are normal reactions to giving birth and dealing with a newborn, and if we label every woman who has these feelings as PPD, then we’re watering down the meaning of that diagnosis and medicalizing perfectly typical emotions. We should be able to talk about the dark side of this harrowing transition, even if it seems shocking to think that all new mothers are not bursting with joy every second. In this way, Hanchett’s post did a great public service.

The vast majority of responses to the post were overwhelmingly positive. Many, many women felt that Hanchett had articulated their own experience perfectly. However, there were some critical comments on the blog from fathers, adoptive mothers, and others who felt that Hanchett had implicitly belittled their experience of parenthood. She says explicitly, “I’m not trying to speak for everybody.” She set out to tell her own story, and she should be allowed to do that without the expectation that her story will be universal. However, I think the reactions of these readers are understandable given the rhetorical choices Hanchett made. When she decided to use the second person for most of her post, she put herself in a position of telling her readers what they’re feeling. For the majority of her readers, this made the piece even more effective, because it hit so close to home. But readers whose experiences were quite different understandably felt alienated by this rhetoric, which often comes off as presumptuous. I don’t think they should have responded by saying that the post was bad or wrong because it didn’t address their particular stories. They should have reflected and realized that wasn’t the intention. But the fact is that Hanchett opened herself up to criticism with her bold word choice. She took a risk, and since it endeared her to more readers than it pissed off, I’d say the risk paid off.

Beyond the effects of the choice to use second person, though, I do think that those critics have a point when they say that Hanchett diminished, dismissed, or disregarded their experiences. She used all caps to talk about how no one, “NOT EVEN THE DAD” has the same relationship with a baby as his mother. In the comments, she defended this passage by saying that she was just trying to point out differences and speak from the mother’s viewpoint. However, different is inherently unequal. To me, when Hanchett emphasizes the primacy of her own experience, she implies that other experiences are less than. She would disagree with that idea, though, and said as much in the comments. I feel sure that if Hanchett and I were to debate this issue, we’d just end up yelling, “No, it doesn’t!” “Yes, it does!” Super productive.

This is why we have mommy wars. It’s so hard to communicate about these issues without judging each other. It’s hard to discuss why a choice was right for us individually without denigrating the things we didn’t choose. Hard to listen to another’s experience with an open heart instead of a defensive one. We need to acknowlege that. I’m not perfect either and I hope I learn from my mistakes here too.

The essay ends with a hopeful note, the idea that while Hanchett’s previous self is dead and gone beyond hope of return, she has been reborn as a new mother-self, better, kinder, gentler, and wiser. However, the idea of rebirth, of the sacrifice being worth it, could be seen to diminish the present pain. Pointing out the benefits of such a tremendous loss seems insensitive, like saying to a young widow at a funeral, “It’s all part of God’s plan.” To someone in the midst of that grief and transition, it’s inadequate and even insulting. A much more trivial example: when I was shopping for acne products recently, bemoaning the fact that pregnancy and my consequent inability to take an antibiotic has caused my skin to break out worse than it has in years, the saleslady said, “It’ll all be worth it!” brightly, and I felt totally invalidated, like the fact that I can barely stand to look in a mirror doesn’t even matter since I must be so overcome with excitement about my impending motherhood. “It’ll be worth it in a few months,” I replied diplomatically. “In the meantime I need to be able to show my face in public without dying of shame.” The idea of something painful–pregnancy, relationship difficulties, hard work in school or career–being “worth it” reduces that pain to the payment half of a transaction. And since you wouldn’t take it back, since the “return” on those “investments” is priceless, you have to acknowledge that you got a good deal, even while you’re in the midst of that pain. Meg Keene of A Practical Wedding says of her difficult pregnancy, “People told me that having a baby would “make it all worth it,” like somehow the slate could be wiped clean, and that wasn’t true. If your journey is particularly painful, the joy does not erase the pain. Joy and pain are different things, and they can each exist without diminishing the other.”

Sure, it’s great to celebrate the way these sacrifices and trials make us better people, the “beautiful catastrophe” of a woman’s death and rebirth, but this attitude could lead to accepting a status quo that is abusively harmful to women’s psyches. Hanchett points out differences between the way men and women experience parenting, without saying that these differences are unfair and sexist. Personally, I think the fact that women have to endure this little death, this loss of self, this phoenix rebirth, is bullshit. It’s one of many things that’s not fair about parenting and sex differences in our society, and it’s something we could change if we tried. If we raised children in communities (it takes a village) instead of in isolated pairs or totally alone, if we provided more supports for young parents as a society, if we had more equal notions of what it means for men and women to be parents, then maybe women wouldn’t have to grieve their previous lives because those lives wouldn’t have to change so much. We can’t give a man breasts or a uterus, but once a child is born a father is equally capable of nurturing, and should be given the chance to sacrifice and grow the way his female partner does.

Hanchett didn’t take that next step of questioning why things have to be this way, and maybe her post wasn’t the place to do that. I know she didn’t set out in this blog to make policy recommendations or to call for change. Maybe that’s a discussion she wants to have in the future. Or maybe not. Maybe she just wants to share her experiences with others who can relate. It’s not her job to change the world. But for me, asking those questions is a necessary next step, because without it, the picture of motherhood that’s presented is pretty bleak.


3 thoughts on “Rebirth Is Awesome, But Having to Die In the First Place is Messed Up

  1. I agree with you. I also think modern women dramatize mothering to such a degree because many of them want to be reborn, to be remade into “better people,” by their choice to have children. They long for a stronger identity than the one they had before. Kind of like how soldiers go to war for glory and honor? That’s how I think women have “remade” nonstop mothering. Personally, I love this essay by Ayelet Waldman — — because children will grow up, and (God willing) live their own lives one day. Without their moms hovering over them every second.

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