With my second child due at the end of the summer, I’ve been reading and rereading a lot of material in preparation for labor, delivery, recovery and life with a newborn. This literature includes recently published works on the new science of motherhood, as well as some scholarship on the sociological phenomenon of “matrescence.”
This term, denoting the physical, psychological and social transition to motherhood, was first coined by medical anthropologist Dana Raphael in 1973. The idea is that like adolescence, a period marked by intense physical, hormonal and psychological transition from youth to adulthood, a woman who becomes a mother experiences a very intense type of transition.
Beginning in pregnancy, intensifying in childbirth and lasting for years, a newly minted mother’s body and brain change in countless ways.
Her identity and social status are altered, as people now consider her contributions to the home and to the economy, with different valuations placed on each arena depending upon who is considering her.
And a just-delivered mother’s entire orientation in the world — now completely conscious of and attuned to another being’s well-being — irrevocably changes.
Even if a woman desires to go back to life before a baby (and there are many sleep-deprived nights that warrant such a longing), she really never can.
This literature has me thinking a lot about the first few hours after I gave birth to my firstborn, and how they clued me in to a real need for a change in how our society, starting with medicine but moving out to other fields, could do a better job of encouraging and supporting women in one of their most privileged — but also perplexing — roles.
After laboring for 23 hours, I was exhausted and depleted, and a roller coaster of hormonal highs and lows made me feel simultaneously in love with my baby and completely anxious about caring for him.
About an hour or so after being wheeled into the recovery room, an obstetrician I had never met, just one of the many visitors who stopped by, came to ask me what method of birth control I would like to be sent home with.
Perhaps I was naive or perhaps I was coming off strong medication, but either way, I was stunned. I couldn’t think of a less opportune or appropriate time to talk to a woman about preventing another pregnancy than after she had just delivered a baby.
There are, of course, sound and valid reasons to delay subsequent pregnancies, not the least urgent of which include the mother’s physical recovery and the care of the new baby. But the 180-degree turn in medical care — from medicine aimed at welcoming life to artificial means of suppressing it — happened all too quickly for my taste.
In our society, there is a push to make “reproductive health care” as widely available as possible.
I’d be all for it, if that meant providing better prenatal and postpartum care to mothers, educating women of childbearing age about their fertility and pregnancy, helping local communities support mothers throughout all stages of child development, and increasing social and psychological support networks for women who struggle through the very intense process of matrescence.
Unfortunately, we know that this is not what access to reproductive health care means. And with the birth rate falling fast, it doesn’t look promising for women who do bring children into the world to receive the support and services they need. But that doesn’t have to be the end of the story.
The church has historically and repeatedly set the standard of excellence in many fields and areas in our society. This is a space in which the church — especially its lay members — can do the same.
Parishes, schools, universities, health care systems and social services under the church’s leadership and care could pull together and create a comprehensive “motherhood movement” that sustains and strengthens mothers and encourages women who are contemplating it but fearful of it.
“To be a mother is a great treasure,” said Pope Francis. “Mothers, in their unconditional and sacrificial love for their children, are the antidote to individualism; they are the greatest enemies against war.” Maybe this month in which we contemplate the Immaculate Heart of Mary would be a good time to get started.
Elise Italiano Ureneck is a communications consultant and a columnist for Catholic News Service.
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