Serena Williams and postpartum oppression


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.

[pullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]It’s not totally normal to feel like you’re not doing enough for your baby; it’s totally American.[/pullquote]

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?