Shame and shaming appear to be accepted components of motherhood in the west. There is very little a mother can do, or not do, that doesn’t make her susceptible to being shamed into wearing the ‘bad mother’ badge.
If you formula-feed, you are denying your child a healthy start. If you go back to work, you are abandoning your offspring. If you stay home, you are a drain on society. If you attachment parent, you are a helicopter parent and harming your child at every turn.
Personally, despite many years of empowering women to break-free from the shame of sexual assault and domestic violence, I spent the first two years of motherhood under a cloud of shame, experiencing what Dr. Brene Brown refers to as “an intensely painful feeling of believing [I was] flawed and therefore unworthy of acceptance or belonging.” My being was so overwhelmed by shame that I couldn’t even talk about the experience of birthing my son.
You see, in the face of Belgium’s 3% homebirthing statistic, I was going to have a homebirth. I mean, I had the pool, the sitz baths, the midwifery team and the saved corner of my freezer for my placenta. And I was vocal. I told everyone. I advocated. I arranged. I fought with the doctors. I was going to do this.
Apparently, no amount of hypnobirthing, prenatal yoga or meditation would have ended in a homebirth. Not for us. After a day of ineffective and fully-dilated labouring, I found myself experiencing what had been for me, the worst-case scenario: a cesarean section.
To quote the surgeon: “no baby would ever fit through that vagina.”
For all the rushing oxytocin of newborn and mama bonding, the shame was thick and effecting my reality. Instead of making memories of his first smile and photographing his tiny new toes, I was focused on shaming myself for failing as a ‘natural’ parent. I blamed my child’s reflux on my failing to birth him vaginally. I worried about how much the c-section was impacting our breastfeeding relationship. Perhaps most grievously, my shame convinced me that our child-mother bond was compromised by my body’s failures. No matter how many times I repeated the mantra “at least he was healthy,” I was aching deeply with the shame of the surgical delivery.
All I could see was that I hadn’t been good enough, that I hadn’t tried enough, that my body wasn’t competent enough. I mean, no like-minded parents were coming out and pointing out my shame, but I was focused on seeing cesarean-sections as a failure, a nuance in the natural-parenting community one need not look hard to see in the literature, the advertising and even some of the innocuous conversations. For many of the right reasons, surgical birth has a negative connotation to it and that was all I could see.
I found myself avoiding mom and baby groups because I might be asked where Aodhan was born. I went so far as to convince my partner to remove the mirror from my bedroom, because accidentally catching a glimpse of my tiny scar was just too heart-wrenching.
As my newborn son grew plump and confident, transitioning into a toddler, I found myself writing copiously about natural parenting, leading me to become an author for multiple natural parenting online communities. Despite the welcoming nature of these new colleagues and fellow natural parents, I felt like a fake in their midst and was constantly dodging social gatherings for fear of my secret being discovered. Surely, these women didn’t want an imposter like me hanging around their natural parenting groups.
Luckily, with time, I slowly started to see that I wasn’t in fact alone. Many natural, ‘crunchy’ and hippie parents had brought their babes into the world via c-section. I started reading more blogs about mamas who had c-sections after planned homebirths. I began, quietly at first, adding my voice to discussion about birth experiences. I began to see through the fog of my own shame to see what is obvious to me now: natural parenting doesn’t have to conform to a check list. We do the best that we can with the resources that we have. And the only person who can shame me is myself.
My surgical birth experience does not make me any less of a natural parent. Through my acceptance of this I began to transfer my shame into something more akin to disappointment. Instead of feeling shame about the loss of a home-birth, I celebrate the many hours I spent labouring in the comfort of my own home. When I see my scar in the mirror, I cast my mind back to the moments of contracting in my hallway, holding myself up with the plaster walls and feeling my baby prepare for his entrance into the world. Instead of seeing c-sections as wrong, and natural birth as good, I concentrate on the way my partner and I ‘naturalized’ our surgical experience. I think back to seeing my baby laid naked on his father’s chest while my surgery was completed. I grabbed my shame and wrenched it from my life as a mother.
The irony of shame is that only by talking through what most pains us, can we be free of that pain. Whether online or in person find a non-threatening environment to express your shame and so quickly you will find yourself breathing deeply through the release of the pain.
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