The Inconvenience of Being a Woman: Navigating the Postpartum Period
Q: Have you had a great experience with a health care professional who made you feel seen and heard? Have you taken a moment to thank that person, give a referral to a friend, or write a positive review for their practice?
A: Lately I've been navigating some frustrating postpartum health issues - nothing life-threatening, but life-interrupting nevertheless. I’m grateful to have decent health insurance which has enabled me to see a doctor, a couple PA's, and one very helpful PT. Save for that last practitioner, the overwhelming response from the medical profession has been a sort of metaphorical pat on the head and a wink and a "well, this is what life with lots of children feels like.” And that maybe I should drink more coffee if I’m feeling really tired, and have I thought about going to the gym to help with the weight loss? (facepalm)
Oh, and my personal favorite: an “official” suggestion to schedule more date nights. By a PA who winked and me and offered to write me a prescription to that end.
Now I don't know anyone who doesn't hanker for a prescription to get thee to a wine bar, but for a 35-year-old college educated woman with 5 kids and a busy life, it's a little frustrating to be patronized thusly.
Yes, it is a lot of work to have five kids. So is it, I imagine, a lot of work to command an aircraft carrier or lead a medical research team or litigate a corporate fraud case. I wonder if those professionals find themselves similarly dismissed in the exam room for being just a little too impatient with their suboptimal bodily performance and perhaps being chided for having too-high expectations for their quality of life.
Somehow I doubt it.
I was thinking of this and other things related to being female, namely, fertility, and I got to thinking that a significant piece of the problem is perhaps that we - all of us, culturally speaking - have reframed female fertility from a wonderous and naturally occurring aspect of human life to a disease to be managed with the utmost care and pregnancy a condition to be indulged in sparingly and only with the greatest trepidation.
And I don't just mean the American College of Gynecology who, in their welcome admission of the existence of a "fourth trimester" to cover the immediate postpartum period (duh) are all-too eager to impart their wisdom on sexuality and contraception to a woman who pushed or had cut out of her 21 days earlier an 8 pound human being. But yes, best to get her nice and sterile again ASAP lest we get ourselves into this situation again.
I have a theory that part of the reason maternal healthcare is so bad in our culture has to do with the expectation that a woman will maybe undergo pregnancy two or three times in, say, a decade-long period and then be done with the whole thing, so why put many resources into supporting and researching best practices and good postpartum care?
Why put time into studying the natural effects of hormones if a woman is just expected to go back to repressing them?
Why encourage women to have healthy, fit, functional pregnancies if it doesn't matter if they blow it since it's "only" nine months, maybe eighteen if they go for a second kid? (I’m pretty sure whoever coined the term “eating for two” was not planning on a woman doing so four or five or nine times, thereby annihilating her metabolism). On the other side of the coin, why strive to help women to recover their fitness and ideal physical and emotional health if we’re conditioned to think that being overweight, overtired, and overwhelmed is simply par for the course of motherhood?
"We don't know, that's just what happens after you have a baby!" is not an acceptable answer from a civilization that has produced cochlear implants and iPhones and the internal combustion engine.
But I think until we start demanding better care and refusing to accept "schedule more date nights" or "just take this pill" as appropriate answers for real medical issues, this is what we're going to get.
Women should be able to find competent postpartum and maternal healthcare that sees their endocrine and reproductive systems not as dangerous threats to be chemically suppressed and neutralized, but as essential components of the delicate whole of their entire bodies. And they should be treated with the respect and dignity that is proper to the human person. There has to be a solid middle ground between "suppress it and forget it" and "we don’t know what causes that."
New mothers should be leaving the hospital or birthing center with a prescription for physical therapy, instructions to schedule an insurance-covered, comprehensive physical at 2 weeks and 6 weeks and 12 weeks postpartum, recommendations for supplements, plans to check hormone and vitamin levels with lab work, and a general reassurance that her body has just accomplished something demanding and incredible and also utterly and completely normal.
Maybe it’s too much to hope for from a culture that spends much of its emotional and political energy on so-called "women’s issues" ensuring that female healthcare remains strictly limited to accessing free chemical contraception and the inalienable right to end your pregnancy if you don't want your baby.
But maybe it's something we can work towards, one mother at a time, expecting more for ourselves so that we can one day hand over a greater collective wisdom and a higher standard of care to our own daughters.
Because I am a woman, not an inconvenience. My body is strong and capable, not weak and declining. And my fertility is an intricate and intelligently designed gift, not a disease. Help me to honor these truths and you'll be practicing real medicine.
Have you had a great experience with a doctor who made you feel seen and heard? Have you taken a moment to thank that person, send a referral their way, or write a positive review for their practice? Maybe we can’t close the “health gap” that exists between the sexes on our own, but we can recognize and affirm doctors and other medical professionals who rise above the status quo to provide competent and compassionate care.
Jenny Uebbing is the author of the popular blog Mama Needs Coffee covering topics of sex, life, marriage, culture, and the Catholic Church. She is a revert to Catholicism with a deep love for the Faith and a desire to grow in knowledge and understanding of what we believe, and why.