Realistic depictions of postpartum women — like the photo comedian Amy Schumer shared this week on social media of herself just after giving birth — could improve the way our society views childbirth and women’s health, experts say, which is especially important at a time when maternal health lags in the U.S.
“This seems to be one small and not revolutionary, but not insignificant step for women to say, ‘This is real life for women,’ ” said Barbara Risman, sociology professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago. “It’s important when high-visibility women make it obvious that (pregnancy and childbirth) is actually hard labor.”
Schumer gave birth to her first child, Gene Attell Fischer, just hours after Meghan Markle and Prince Harry welcomed son Archie Harrison Mountbatten-Windsor. Schumer posted a photo on Instagram, showing herself red-faced without makeup in her hospital bed, holding her baby as her husband kissed her cheek. And the royal couple scaled back the usual fanfare surrounding a birth in their family, waiting two days after Archie’s birth to introduce him and allow for photos with a small group of reporters at Windsor Castle. Kate Middleton and Prince William, however, revealed their three children sooner after birth, emerging from the hospital in front of large crowds.
This generation of mothers is more likely to depict a real picture of pregnancy and the postpartum period, Risman said, bucking a longtime trend of society glossing over the imperfections and complications of birth.
“What we’ve done is … protected young people from understanding the realities of the trials and tribulations of pregnancy and childbirth,” she said. “That is beginning to crack, as women who are birthing are more empowered to say, ‘I’m not going to pretend that this was easy.’ ”
The significance of false imagery like donning full makeup and looking perfect after birth has broader implications, Risman said. “It leads to this mythology that having children isn’t dangerous work.”
And that’s serious at a time when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports maternal deaths are increasing in the U.S., and most can be prevented, according to a report recently released.
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Women’s health and related policies for new mothers in the workplace have not been taken seriously in the U.S., Risman said. If society has a clear picture of pregnancy and childbirth and starts to value women’s health, things could improve, she said.
A DePaul University project aims to shed light on true depictions of childbirth and postpartum experiences around Chicago in hopes of improving them.
The website, called Chi Birth Stories, allows women (or others present during a birth) to share details of a birth in the greater Chicago area. Enid Montague, associate professor in the DePaul School of Computing and adjunct professor at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine, said the site will eventually present a map of all the stories, which are told anonymously, and highlight any disparities. This week’s CDC report showed African American women are about three times more likely to die a pregnancy-related death.
“If people start sharing their stories, we can better start to understand the complexities (of childbirth),” said Montague, an industrial engineer who has studied and worked on patient safety solutions in health care settings.
Pregnancy and the postpartum period — defined as one year after giving birth — often are misunderstood and not talked about, Montague added. And prenatal care and childbirth are often someone’s first real experience in a hospital, so they don’t know what to expect or how to advocate for themselves as a patient, she said. The website will serve as a form of awareness, and solutions could follow.
“It’s really supposed to be a resource for everyone,” she said. “Transparency can be really helpful to new moms and give new moms a voice.”