Why Don’t We Care About Mothers? The Failed Protocols Surrounding Abortion, Childbirth, Aftercare & Working Moms
By Lauren Hutton
As mothers protest the double burden of trying to work from home and provide childcare and education during an ongoing pandemic, the media has been reporting on women’s lack of support both inside the home and governmentally. With New York Times headlines repeatedly calling attention to this issue — “Pandemic Could Scar Generation of Working Moms,” “‘I Feel Like I Am Going To Physically Explode’: Mom Rage In A Pandemic,” “I Feel Like I Have Five Jobs - Moms Navigate The Pandemic” etc. — it made me think about the policies that impact mothers and why, as a society, we continue to demand so much of them without providing necessary support.
One of my favorite stories of all time is Carmen Maria Macho’s “The Husband Stitch.” It is about inhabiting a woman’s body, betrayal, love, and desire, but it also partially revolves around storytelling itself: who we believe, the tropes we fall into, what gets passed down and engrained. More gravely, it touches on which stories we cannot un-tell and which plotlines we cannot escape.
Throughout the piece we follow a narrator as she falls in love and navigates her marriage. The prose is frequently interspersed with grotesque and gripping folklore surrounding women, but the moment that transcends entirely into the realm of horror takes place after the narrator gives birth to her and her husband’s first child:
The sense of horror in this moment is so acute. I feel violated and furious and scared alongside the narrator, as devastated by the husband’s lack of care as by the doctor’s lack of professionalism and empathy. The worst part? The extra stitch described is a very real phenomenon.
While not documented in med school textbooks, anecdotal evidence speaks to women’s experience with the husband stitch, a procedure which involves adding an extra stitch when repairing the torn or cut area below a woman’s vagina after childbirth, typically making the vaginal entrance narrower than necessary and done without a woman’s consent. The extra stitch allegedly makes the vagina tighter than it was and thus heightens the husband’s pleasure during sex. Both medically unnecessary and often extremely painful, the extra stitching leads to months of discomfort and lasting pain during sex. The stories of this procedure do not only exist in childbirth forums and old wives tales, but are documented by OBGYNs who receive the request dozens of times over the course of their careers and doctors who subsequently inform patients with lasting pain of the improper stitching that has led to their unsuccessful healing.
There is bountiful evidence of the practice documented by Healthline and Vice among others, and these stories collectively speak to a larger, more universal tale: one of women’s bodies being seen as vehicles for male pleasure, women lacking agency over their own bodies, and inherent misogyny in medicine.
Perhaps it is unsurprising that medicine cares little for women’s bodies, particularly surrounding pregnancy. Historically, we have set a precedent for this kind of attitude. For instance, the debate around abortion similarly values unborn fetuses over a mother’s well-being and right to decide what happens to her body. But limiting access to abortions is more political than some folks may know, and the pro-life side isn’t solely rooted in well-intentioned religious or moral ground. Instead, misogyny and racism tell a different story behind this belief.
Prior to the 1860s, abortion and contraceptives were legal in the U.S. and reproductive healthcare was dominated by Black midwives. However, after the Civil War, Black women could feasibly enter the gynecological field and thus posed a threat to white male doctors. In response, white medical professionals refused to hire Black staff and lobbied state legislature to ban midwifery and abortions. Furthermore, they developed smear campaigns that created a narrative about midwives that depicted them as dangerous, unprofessional, unhygienic, and even barbarous. Medical professionals sought to destroy their competition, female dominated midwifery, to maintain their white, male-dominated industry. At the same time, immigration of large Catholic families throughout the mid-1800s and early 1900s led to propaganda against abortion from the Anglo-Saxon community, who feared being overtaken demographically and wanted to increase white, protestant birth rates. They believed Anglo-Saxon women were having the majority of the abortions, and felt that by making the procedure illegal they could maintain their population numbers and racial and ethnic dominance. As such, nonprofit ALCU claims that today’s antiabortion efforts have “nothing to do with saving women’s lives or protecting the interests of children.” The legacy of these politically motivated anti-abortion and midwifery stances is that women are no longer in the rooms with us and men get to make the call, claiming expertise as they leave us in the dark and overstitch us, winking at our husbands all the while.
See what I’m getting at? Abortion has never been about the life of a fetus; it’s about politically controlling women’s bodies for racist, classist, and xenophobic gain. Women aren’t given the respect to decide whether they want to carry a baby to term for nine months, whether they want to birth a baby and watch their bodies change permanently, whether they want to devote their lives to caring for a child they may not be financially or emotionally prepared to look after, or whether they have to suffer the emotional and moral implications of giving a child up for adoption. They are told what can or cannot happen to their bodies, often forcing them to resort to dangerous and desperate measures in the form of do-it-yourself abortions, instead of having a safe and legal abortion and not bringing an unwanted child into the world. And if they are forced to carry a child to term against their will, they then get to exist in a society that refuses to help them. That expects them to give up their job in a pandemic and provide childcare, whether or not they have a partner who can financially support them, whether or not the government provides aid and other solutions, whether or not this exhausting, gendered labor goes acknowledged.
I remember watching a video from famous Youtuber Louise Pentland and my heart breaking as she recounted how uncared for she felt in the hospital after birthing her first daughter and her resulting years of PTSD. Louise had an extremely traumatic labor that deviated from her planned water birth to an induced 36 hours of labor, involving an episiotomy (the cut that doctors sometimes sew up with one too many stitches), internal examinations by staff who never introduced themselves, drugs that left her feeling out of it, and isolation as she recovered from extreme blood loss after the birth. But what she struggled with the most was everyone proceeding to coo over the baby and ask how the baby was doing, leaving this mother who had undergone serious trauma feeling entirely uncared for, an afterthought. If the baby is alright, that’s all the matters, right?
Whether it is the birth experience itself, the decision to have a baby or have access to a safe and legal abortion, or the agency women have to make medical decisions about their bodies, we are currently failing mothers. According to The Guardian, between 50 and 90 percent of mothers experience “baby blues” in the first few weeks after giving birth, and 10 percent suffer from full-blown postnatal depression. The article went on to describe how 60 percent of mothers said their six-week check-in focused mainly on the baby, and half of those with an emotional or mental health problem that they wanted to talk about but “didn’t feel able to,” as the health professional “didn’t seem interested.”
There seems to be a narrative about motherhood women cannot escape. It starts before a baby is born where policy decides the risks and transitions a woman’s body will endure, extends into the birth itself whereby medical professionals view mothers as a problem to solve rather than a human going through a complicated and vulnerable experience, and ends with a society that looks past mothers — their unpaid labor, their mental health, their well-being.
All of this is to say, there is work to be done. As home births under the caring eyes of doulas and midwives regain popularity and husbands endure the full extent of childcare responsibilities while working from home, we must further advocate for regulation that supports the rights of mothers and promotes true gender equality.