Serena Williams and postpartum oppression

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Serena Williams appears to be suffering from postpartum oppression.

No, that’s not a typo. It’s a wake up call.

We’ve all heard of postpartum depression, a form of clinical depression that occurs after childbirth. It is a serious medical issue and is probably precipitated by wide fluctations in hormones after childbirth, compounded by lack of sleep and other features of new motherhood. Postpartum depression is a medical condition that requires medical attention.

It’s not totally normal to feel like you’re not doing enough for your baby; it’s totally American.

There’s another phenomenon, far more widespread, causing misery to many more women. Unlike postpartum depression, which is internal, postpartum oppression is caused by external pressures. Its cardinal symptom is a suffocating sense of guilt for failing to meet the arbitrary guidelines of the dominant mothering ideology of attachment parenting. Serena Williams appears to be suffering from a classic case.

Despite a year of tremendous achievements — a new baby, recovery from an emergency C-section, recovery from a pulmonary embolus, return to professional tennis, and a tournament win — Williams was brought low by fear that she is not a good mother.

Writing on her Instragram account in the wake of a defeat in the Wimbledon finals, Williams reported that she is dealing with “postpartum emotions.”

Last week was not easy for me. Not only was I accepting some tough personal stuff, but I just was in a funk. Mostly, I felt like I was not a good mom. I read several articles that said postpartum emotions can last up to 3 years …

What kind of emotions? Guilt appears to be chief among them.

It’s totally normal to feel like I’m not doing enough for my baby. We have all been there. I work a lot, I train, and I’m trying to be the best athlete I can be. However, that means although I have been with her every day of her life, I’m not around as much as I would like to be. Most of you moms deal with the same thing…

Actually, it’s not totally normal to feel like you’re not doing enough for your baby. It’s totally American. Indeed, women from English speaking countries promote an approach, attachment parenting, that can best be described as hyper-maternalism.

Attachment parenting is really a marketing term designed to romanticize maternal suffering and hide the true purpose: manipulating women. Although often presented as a recapitulation of mothering in nature, it bears little resemblance to the way our foremothers cared for children. It is meant to evoke attachment theory, but actually has nothing to do with it. It problematizes mothering by presenting the mother-infant bond not as spontaneous, as has been understood throughout history, but as fragile and contingent on specific maternal behaviors.

For most of human history, mothering was an interstitial task, taking place in the gaps while performing other tasks that required attention and energy. Hyper-maternalism, in contrast, imagines mothering as something you do to the exclusion of everything else. Women must erase themselves and embrace their own pain, exhaustion and battered mental health. Women must have an unmedicated vaginal birth, breastfeed for two years (at least!) and spend every waking moment with the baby (and every sleeping moment, too, by bedsharing). Women must submerge their identities in mothering, ignoring their own intellect, talents, needs and ambitions. The alternative is children profoundly damaged by their mothers’ selfishness.

Not surprisingly then, Williams felt tremendous guilt when she stopped breastfeeding in order to return her competitive best.

Williams said she made the decision to stop breastfeeding once she was emotionally ready.

I literally sat Olympia in my arms, I talked to her, we prayed about it,” she said. “I told her, ‘Look, I’m going to stop. Mommy has to do this.’ I cried a little bit, not as much as I thought I was. She was fine.

French women view mothering very differently as exemplified by their philosophy of breastfeeding.

According to Pamela Drukerman in Bringing Up Bebe:

French mothers know that breast is best. But they don’t view breastfeeding as a measure of the mom, or keep nursing through Dantesque trials of pain and inconvenience. Many pragmatically point out that they themselves are healthy, despite having drunk a lot of powdered formula—the old, worse formula … Frenchwomen still tend to think it’s unhealthy and unpleasant to breastfeed under moral duress. They believe that whether and how long to nurse should be your private decision, not your play group’s…

In contrast to English speaking mothers who are encouraged to feel guilty about any time spent apart from their children, French mothers believe that time apart is good for both mothers AND babies.

It’s not enough for French mothers to have pleasures and interests apart from their children. They also want their kids to know about these things. They believe it’s burdensome for a child to feel that she’s the sole source of her mother’s happiness and satisfaction. (A Parisian mother I know told me she was going back to work partly for her daughter’s sake.)

That need for separation applies to sleep as well. Instead of promoting the “family bed” on the theory that children in nature slept with their parents so that must be best:

Your Bedroom Is Your Castle

Guard it carefully. Your child doesn’t have the right to barge in whenever he wants…

It’s also important for him to understand—through tender gestures and closed doors—that there’s a part of his parents’ lives that doesn’t involve him…

French mothers are not oppressed by guilt the way that American mothers are because they haven’t been socialized to believe that children’s physical, emotional and intellectual health are dependent on a mother who ignores her own. They don’t feel bad for stopping breastfeeding, spending time away from their children, or insisting on private time and space with their partners. Contrary to the dire predictions of attachment parenting experts, French children are every bit as smart and healthy, physically and emotionally, as American children.

Serena Williams has accomplished more in the past year than most of us will accomplish in a lifetime. Yet she still feels oppressed by the fear that in trying to meet her own needs, she is short changing her child. If Serena Williams can be brought low by postpartum oppression, what chance to the rest of us have against it?

  • Lisa Hayes

    Attachment parenting = getting to stay home and not work. Mommying [as opposed to motherhood] as a pseudo profession–now with Essential Oils!

  • “Attachment” parenting seems to me like a recipe for failed separation-individuation. They should call it Enmeshment Parenting.

  • Who?

    I feel like Serena can’t win on this one. If she posts that life’s great, work’s great, baby’s great, she’ll have the usual suspects on her back telling her no one’s got a perfect life and she’s kidding herself and trying to kid everyone else, and another lot telling her she is making people feel bad because she’s portraying something that can’t be real.

    My mini-gripe is I would have liked to hear what dad is doing to chip in.

    Having a baby does change your life, and individual and couple reflection on that is good.

    If one woman read this and went-wow, I need help, even Serena finds it hard, it’s okay if I’m finding it hard-then that’s incredibly positive.

    In the meantime good on her for saying something lots of people don’t want to talk about in public, or at all.

  • PeggySue

    Serena Williams is amazing. I wish she could have more peace of mind about her beautiful little girl, who appears to me to be 100% appropriately bonded to her and to her husband, and who has the benefit of aunts, a grandmother, all kinds of people who love her. Baby looks healthy and happy and secure. Mad props to parents for that. Serena Williams is my hero totally, after almost dying a couple surgeries, then such a strong return as only one of the greatest athletes ever to live. Plus she is gorgeous. So there. And I am completely unbiased when I say that Olympia is one of the cutest babies on record.

  • demodocus

    One thing I’m a little French about. I felt not one whit of guilt leaving girlbard in the church nursery, even the first time last year, even when she was crying for me. I could sympathize with her a little but I felt no regret.

  • Gene
    • MovingOn

      I hate to minimize OP’s experience- I had a very different one, but still involved a traumatic emergency c-section. For a long time, I also felt violated, and it certainly did feel a bit like a rape, because I had no idea what had happened or why.

      Then it turned out that, like OP, I’d been completely brainwashed about natural childbirth and knew absolutely nothing about C-sections. After learning what exactly went on in the OR, and what a C-section is normally like, and that my experience was because of the epidural not working properly, the feeling of violation went away, and so did the guilt about having a c-section.

      But as someone who’s experienced an invasive, traumatic medical procedure during birth, AND sexual assault, fuck the term “birth rape” and absolutely everyone who came up with it. Doctors and nurses touching your vag in a medical emergency during birth is NOT rape. They are not rapists.

    • EC

      I mostly agree with you, but I don’t understand why the doctor insist on the catheter being inserted before the patient was unconscious.

      • MWguest

        In an emergency situation – where a stat c-section is called – it is appropriate to place a urinary catheter prior to induction of anesthesia.

      • Azuran

        My guess is that the situation was a lot more serious than the OP is pretending.
        After all, if everything was as fine as she’s saying, why would the OB decide that there was no time for a spinal and that she needed an immediate C-section under general anaesthesia?
        My guess is he wanted the bladder emptied asap so he could cut and get the baby out as soon as she was out and not waste precious time delaying her catheter insertion.

      • Marie

        If a general anesthetic is required, the medications start circulating in the baby’s system very soon after they are administered to the mother. By doing every step possible (including emptying the bladder to make access to the uterus as safe as possible) they minimize the amount to anesthetic drug exposure for the baby. It’s all about doing what’s safest for both mother and baby.

      • Who?

        I had to have my bladder emptied in the second stage of unmedicated labour. The midwives (in hospital, where they have machines and also a button on the wall you push and people come out) said they would suggest the catheter be inserted during a contraction because it was going to really hurt, and they didn’t want to deprive me of the short, pain free time between contractions. So yes, it hurts. But someone’s life was at stake. I wonder what the baby was going through at the same time, and it didn’t ask for any of it.

      • Merrie

        She seems to have bought into the idea that doctors do things for dumb illogical reasons and/or to be mean. I think the logical thought process to have in this situation would be “Huh, well first they said that I could be cathed after I got the anesthetic, but then they changed their minds, must have been a good reason”, but this person does not seem to be strong on logical thought processes.

        • Who?

          She may also have the birth hobbyist who got her into that situation in her ear. If she’s cranky with the doctors she will be less likely to reflect on her journey to the emergency operating table.

    • MWguest

      Oh FFS.

      I blame the ***MIDWIFE*** who managed that train wreck.

      If the midwife had had reasonable practice guidelines, her patient would have been transferred to the hospital after 2 or 3 hours of pushing – NOT 6.

      Also, if the midwife had any sort of professional relationship with the providers at the receiving hospital, it wouldn’t have been such a clusterf*** when they showed up.

      The hospital team made the right call – they were not going to fart around with a dysfunctional 2nd stage for any longer, they immediately moved to a cesarean birth, the kiddos head was probably malpositioned deep in the pelvis. Had they not done those things – she could have baby with hypoxic injury (or worse).

      Yes – it’s unpleasant to have a catheter placed. Yes, it’s unnerving to learn about things that happens to one’s body during surgery. It let’s back up and focus on the provider who facilitated this mess: the midwife.

      • Merrie

        I get the wanting to know about the vaginal penetration and how that might have impacted her approach to her own recovery. I agree with her that she should have been told.

        When I was 28 weeks pregnant with my oldest kid, I had a lot of abdominal pain and ended up in L&D to get checked out. Various procedures were done including a pelvic exam with a speculum that was one of the most uncomfortable pelvic exams I’d ever had. I mentioned that to the provider because I thought it might be relevant. She just blew me off. Anyway, I turned out not to be in pre-term labor and carried to 40 weeks. Fast forward 6 years to my pregnancy with my youngest, I underwent a test for an amniotic fluid leak involving a pelvic exam with speculum and the nurse-midwife explained that for the test to work properly, she couldn’t use lubricant, so it would probably be more uncomfortable than it would be otherwise. Bingo! That was probably why the exam was so uncomfortable in that incident in my first pregnancy. I don’t see why they couldn’t have said something about it at the time.

        • Sarah

          Yes they should have told her that. I would’ve wanted to be informed, and I think as a patient it’s reasonable to expect one would receive that information.

        • MWguest

          You’re right. Some information and explanation of what happened and why would go a long way to help her understand and maybe feel less violated.

      • Who?

        Exactly.

    • ItsJustaName
    • Merrie

      I saw a story somewhere of someone suing for a ton of money over having a c-section with inadequate anesthesia. It sounds like it was a crash c-section where they didn’t have time to wait for the anesthetic. I wonder if they’d rather have an anesthetic and a dead baby. I also wonder if any of this was explained to them afterwards. Things got kind of hairy during my second birth, but I was able to have a debriefing conversation with the midwife the next day to get a better sense of what had happened.

  • Gene

    I loved Bringing Up Bebe.

    • June Osbourne

      I thought it was just awful. Being well versed in early childhood development and a professional in the field, I found “Brining Up BeBe” to be ill informed drivel. I believe in the science of
      child brain development and psychology, not some snotty privileged woman’s uneducated opinions and observations of a culture she was not raised within.