When we think about the often overlooked period of postpartum, we think about the baby and newborn care. Everything in our culture turns us towards the new baby. Very seldomly do we really consider the postpartum mom. Fears come up with adjusting to new motherhood, along with fears, come anger and disappointment. There is a sensitive period where society drops the ball, we miss the cues for help and we leave moms to fend for themselves when they are most vulnerable. Why do we do this?
If there was ever a person who could express through her tender use of language, the pain, upset and rage that so many new mothers feel in the dark, it’s Molly Caro-May. In her book, Body Full of Stars: Female Rage And My Passage Into Motherhood, May explores the edges of her anxiety and meets the depths of her anger after giving birth.
We connected with Molly in an interview to discuss the book, nature, anger, community and the problems with the postpartum period in American culture.
Body Full of Stars is a deeply spiritual and reflective memoir on motherhood. It also highlights your vulnerability, which is commendable in a culture that suppresses it. What was your intention in sharing your experience with women everywhere, and mothers in particular?
I wrote the book to heal myself—it’s my processing modality and I set off to a remote part of Montana for a twelve-day residency to put the first draft on paper. Immediately, my writing became for all the women beyond me. I could hear their voices. I wept with the awareness of it. Every morning, my intention was “I write this book to release myself from tired narratives, heal myself and heal others.” My job as a memoirist will always be to take my personal experience and tap into a global and shared story. I knew my postpartum story was not unique. I wanted to normalize postpartum challenge and bring the dark into the light so it can shift for mothers everywhere. One of the most stunning parts of motherhood is how it usually brings us closer to our mothers (or an understanding and forgiveness of our mothers) and how we feel deeply aligned with our sister-friends.
But so much remains quiet. We don’t want to admit we are struggling. It hasn’t been safe to so until recently. It’s still only safe for some of us. As a white, heterosexual, cis-gendered, middle class American of this modern era, I have the privilege to share my story. My grandmother and, most likely, your grandmother, couldn’t have shared this story. Our society pigeonholes and assumes women of color are angry any time they share an opinion. Women in other countries are being stoned for using their voice. I can afford to be vulnerable because there isn’t much for me to risk, other than a little embarrassment. This isn’t the case for so many women. Once I absorbed that truth, I became a fire-breathing woman on a mission. It is, therefore, my responsibility, with the position I’ve been afforded, to plow through the muck as best I can in order to attempt to open the conversation. Once those conversations become infectious (in a good way), they spread everywhere and make space for all women so they are given the safety to reach out for support and help. It’s all about igniting that conversation and continuing it. My words are my art. That’s my access point. It’s my work in the world.
It seems that the postpartum period is neglected in American culture. In so many parts of the world, women are encouraged and supported in recovery, bonding and transitioning into new motherhood. Why do you think there appears to be such little support for women during the postpartum period?
We, as an American culture, have lost our value for motherhood. Both men and women have contributed to this situation. It’s part of our growing pains, as we move towards a more equitable world. We haven’t been able to hold “strong independent woman” and “mother” in the same sentence. They are NOT mutually exclusive, but we believe they are. The problem is systemic misogyny. In our patriarchy, a woman is a vessel—for sex, for men, for birthing baby and taking care of baby. She is “for” something; not enough to exist simply for herself. If we focus on any part of motherhood, it’s the beautiful belly, the image of it, the baby, the future—the part that signals hope. But a postpartum period is messy: blood, breastmilk, healing a vagina or C-section scar, hormones fluctuating and joy and overwhelm and adjustment. We are scared of the mess and the transition. Our society also fears images of a woman’s breast while nursing but promotes sexualizing children and teenagers in advertisements, everywhere. Enough said. Those cultures that support women postpartum have a much healthier relationship to the female body. They giggle about it less. There are fewer taboos. There is more celebration. That translates directly to government support.
On a practical level, we have lost our lineage of support. Because we tend not to live near family or elders, we aren’t shown how to care for a woman postpartum—the soup we make, the number of days she rests, how she knits her belly back together. We stopped passing down that knowledge a few generations ago. We have no idea what to do.. But we are waking up to this void. We are creating chosen postpartum support teams. It’s happening. I do trust that.
Your book so eloquently taps into your experience of rage. Unpack the power of this period and what you have learned from it?
I learned, first and foremost, that it’s okay to be angry. It seems obvious but so few of us learn this as children—we are told, or we witness the general cultural impulse, to stop or quiet down and definitely don’t get ugly on any level. As I parent my four-year-old, I continue to learn that it isokay to experience the normal human emotion of anger: “It’s okay to be angry but it’s not okay to hit or yell at people, let’s find another way to move it through your body.” I’ve created a relationship with anger/rage and come to know it as an energy that gives me information and then it’s my job to move it through my body and use it in a healthy way. I now do this through dancing, stomping, venturing into the woods, blowing out big breaths and learning the art (it’s hard for me) of grace and timing. When I start to feel irritated, I ask whether I have fed, watered and moved my body well that day or week? If the answer is no then I know what to do; if the answer is yes, I then start to look at whether I need to communicate healthy anger to someone. Then, I try and fail and try again, to work with my menstrual cycle and it’s exquisite engineered system. Right before I bleed, my frustrations are best worked through privately. Mid-cycle, I can bring them to my loved ones and it works better that way: better outcome, better communication, better reception. In my 20’s and early 30’s, I was so committed to being a truth-teller and undoing the historical injustice on women—to me that looked like saying whatever the hell I wanted to say to whomever whenever. The gift of my postpartum period was being invited into a new relationship with my anger.
I was a functional tornado in postpartum.
I value the tornado in me. She is wise. But she is far wiser (and more effective) if she knows how and when to use her energy. That has been my learning.
Why are we so uncomfortable with women being angry, or upset and what are the consequences of suppressing that anger?
We just don’t do “angry woman” in our society because a woman in touch with her entire emotional range is in her power. And we fear her. She’s been hidden by patriarchy and therefore we’ve had few examples of her. We don’t know her well. If we grew up witnessing fully expressed women at home, school, work and in social spheres, then we would be comfortable with it. That is starting to change—thank goodness. The consequences of suppressing anger are HUGE: health issues, resentment, an ailing and explosive planet (and I really mean that), lukewarm emotions all around. Here’s the kicker. If we aren’t in touch with our anger, we can’t be fully in touch with our joy. All emotions live in a net. If one emotion isn’t supple and stretched, then the others can’t be either. The anger also gets passed down the generations. It builds and builds. I was raging for myself and also my mother, grandmother and all the women before me, related by blood or not. If we start to make friends with our anger, if we can sculpt and transmute it, then the next generation is freed from that burden. They then work on other parts—and so goes the healing through the ages.
You shared a lot about your connection with the outdoors and seemed to find solace in Mother Nature and the ambient environment. What self-care practices helped you throughout your journey?
Nature calms me. It calms most people. Step outside with a screaming baby, and boom—your chances for settling her are better. My self-care is ever evolving but always involves the natural world. I walk through the woods. I lie face down on the earth and breathe. I go into nature without an agenda and watch. The watching is the way for me. I watch a leaf fall from a tree or dark clouds race across the sky and become rooted in the greater picture. I become smaller, part of the globe. This perspective brings me back into the mystery of life. When our second daughter was born, we drove home a few hours later and saw a huge herd of elk perched in a snowfield. I took it as a stunning omen and that image alone supported me for months. It still does. But nature doesn’t have to be fancy or involve wild animals. It could be watching insects weave their way through a tiny patch of grass. It could be noticing the weather. Every place has weather.
What role does support play in the postpartum experience and how can the community surrounding a woman rise to meet her needs?
Huge. This question makes my chest pound. Our world becomes micro-tiny when a newborn enters the scene. I spent so much time staring at my babies that my husband’s face looked enormous to me up close. That sort of focus is beautiful and can be isolating. Support is everything. It is the fabric that holds us. I like to break it down by kinds of support.
First of all, what are basic needs? Food. Every woman (and family) would ideally have a meal train or someone bringing nourishing meals for the beginning weeks. This is easy and gives people something useful to do. Given that, a woman should have the space to request whether she wants a lot of company or little—for example, maybe people leave the dishes on the stoop and don’t stop in. This is boundary setting and our world is uncomfortable with women who set boundaries. We are still on the astral plane after birth, not quite back to this world and our senses are heightened. Some women want to see people. The point is, we should get to choose our own adventure.
Second, emotional support can be presence and also checking in. Ask the mother about the mother, not the baby. How are you? Tell me about your transition and, next, we can talk about who your baby looks like and whether s/he is pooping. Before my second postpartum period (I didn’t know to ask for it during my first), I asked a few friends if they would be my on-call people. I made sure these were women who would not be in their own postpartum period when I was in mine because it’s important to give everyone the space they need. I could call them and vent or rant or cry if I needed to, without feeling obligated to small talk or have an equal exchange of “Well, how are you?” It helped me to know that they were there if I needed. And I became their on-all person when they needed it.
Third is non-judgment. Always. New moms have all sorts of ideas about how they are going to care for their baby. They are entitled to these. They don’t need condescending or know-it-all attitudes. They don’t need to be “educated” by seasoned moms or their own mother or mother-in-law or told by anyway, “Oh, well, you’ll do it differently when you learn that x, y, and z” or “by your second baby, you’ll cry it out or feed them sugar, or co-sleep or whatever.” Let a mom grow into a mother in her own way. Close friends of the mom would also be alert to be transitions, like going back to work, or 3-months postpartum, or any sort of life change. These are the hardest moments. They are often overlooked.
Communities often don’t have the muscle memory of how to care for a postpartum woman. It will be trial and error and, unfortunately, a lot falls on the woman to ask clearly for what she needs even when she doesn’t know what she needs.
Many times our partners feel paralyzed in their position, not matter how prepared they are. How do we empower our partners to be supportive and hold us in our vulnerability in new motherhood?
My midwife told my husband that I would be busy taking care of baby and it was his job to care for me. That set up a precedent and purpose. It helps to give partners a role. In the early weeks, my husband took our daughter out on long walks so I could sleep. This energized him. He wrapped her to his chest and bonded with her while I rested. Win-win for all. It is incredibly disempowering to tell a partner they can’t contribute or don’t know how. My particular anxiety and challenge was trusting my husband to feed her the “right” foods and be sure she didn’t choke. I controlled it and eventually had to find that co-parenting flow. I also craved—desperately—for my husband to “get” what I was experiencing. I tried every angle to make him understand and validate and acknowledge. He eventually did but the turning point was when I accepted that he will never experience the vulnerability of motherhood himself. There’s a difference between our experiences. That’s okay. Part of this is acknowledging the partner’s vulnerability in watching the mother’s vulnerability. Everyone is at max vulnerability (!) during that time and there is potentiality and beauty in this if we can recognize it.
There are many faces of the postpartum period, what does postpartum rage look like? How do we identify whether or not we are experiencing it?
For me, postpartum rage hit when the last straw landed on my back. It looked like consistent sleep deprivation, hormonal imbalance, having to keep it together for clients, the humiliation of peeing on myself, all of which I could “handle” until one small misunderstanding with my husband would then send me off the edge. Then it would become physical for me: an intense need to break something or pound the ground or scream into my pillow or enumerate in detail every grievance out loud. I asked myself often: “Am I just normal angry or is this a scary level of angry?” It was hard to identify it, in part because when you are severely sleep deprived the world loses its sheen and life just feelscomplicated at every turn. It helps to know your constitution and tendency. I knew that my “out of balance” always, since childhood, led to irritation. In an opposite example, my husband goes to sleep when he’s out of balance. Not me. I get riled up and grumpy.
I discovered, by charting and then getting neurotransmitters tested with my naturopath, that my rage was linked to my menstrual cycle; it amplified right before I bled. When I started to care for myself properly (which took almost 2 years), the rage lessened dramatically. As simple as that sounds, it wasn’t simple.
How do we identify postpartum rage? I would say when the sensation overtakes the body, when you get so angry you want to fling something or grab someone or hurt yourself or hurl the glass across the room. Our body is wise and gives us signs. It’s important to know that this is more common than we think. It’s important to reach out to trusted health providers, both medical and psychological. No one should have to go this alone.
What are your top resources for postpartum support?
Books: Wild Feminineby Tami Lyn Kent, Natural Health After Birth by Aviva Romm, and I wish I had had the just-out The Fourth Trimesterby Kimberly Ann Johnson. Brandi Sellers-Jackson’s blog Not So Private Parts is uplifting and real and robust. I was scared to buy any how-to-deal-with-postpartum-depression books because I worried that surrounding myself with them would make it true. It was part of my own denial at the time.
Postpartum Support International is an excellent resource for the entire spectrum.
There are many local organizations (like Roots Family Collaborative in my town) that offer groups and ways to connect with other moms around the real stuff. Face-to-face support is the most effective and healing.
The body is its own topic. For pelvic health, I value the work of Lindsey Vestal of The Functional Pelvis, Katy Bowman and her book Diastis Recti, and Deborah Bowes’ video series. In an ideal world, every postpartum woman (or human for that matter) would have access to a naturopath or holistic doctor.
Storytelling brings us together. Melissa Bang’s one-woman show Playing Monopoly with God explores postpartum psychosis and has broken down stigma and walls. Finding a way to tell your own story, in a support group or in a workshop, is paramount.