Mother consoling and comforting her infant son.
Mamahood, Mamazine Moment, Self-Care, Uncategorized, Wellness

Improving the Postpartum Experience: Unpacking Notions of Maternal Exceptionalism

Bintou Diarra, A.B Candidate | Medical Anthropology, Brown University | May 28, 2022

There’s nothing like a mother’s love.

A mother knows best for her child.

We cannot deny the ubiquity of these phrases and their variants. Equally as undeniable are the deeply engrained cultural attitudes the phrases reflect. There is nothing inherently wrong with celebrating the world’s birth givers. However, the fight to ease the postpartum experience for birth givers may call for an evaluation of these beliefs.

Postpartum depression (PPD) is a form of major depression that occurs after childbirth. It involves physical, emotional, and behavioral changes that may make bonding difficult for the birth giver. PPD affects 10-15% of new birth givers yearly, and this figure is higher amongst birthing people of color. Not only are Black birth givers more likely to suffer from postpartum depression, but they are also less likely to get treatment.

A multitude of structural, institutional, and interpersonal factors sit at the root of the lack of postpartum care access, and expectations regarding the treatment Black women must endure is certainly among them. These widespread beliefs come with bleak implications for Black women’s care. Unfortunately, Black birth givers are left to handle PPD in the ways society expects them to handle everything else—with no complaints, and little assistance.

In addition to the projection of the image of unparalleled strength onto Black women, general societal expectations regarding maternal care set the foundation for faulty postpartum care, especially at early stages. More specifically, notions of what I call maternal exceptionalism—beliefs regarding the rare quality of birthing people’s care—may exacerbate pressures during the postpartum period.

These ideologies are not inherently harmful—at least not in intent. They emerge from our attempts at uplifting birthing people. In keeping that head goal in mind, we must consider their contribution to the detrimental patterns that heighten childcare stress during a time period where rest and relaxation are crucial.

There is no catch-all solution for PPD. However, the significance of rest and relaxation exposes gaps in widely accepted thought patterns. We cannot promote solutions that call for the relief of responsibilities while upholding the idea that other forms of care cannot stand in place of a birthing person’s care. We cannot simultaneously acknowledge the significance of the proverbial village and hold one specific manifestation of care so far above others.

Improving the postpartum experience is no easy feat. We must start by liberating birth givers of our expectations instead of celebrating them for exceeding unrealistic standards. We must grapple with the widespread cultural ideals that we so readily accept. It is through the fulfillment of these personal duties that we can promote change on a communal level.

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