Super Mom, Super Stressed
With more services, more gadgets and more information available to pregnant women than ever before, is too much of a good thing just too much?
By Heather Irwin
"I'll be back from yoga at 9 tonight," my very pregnant sister-in-law tells me with a tired sigh as we part ways for the afternoon. "It's for baby," she says, rubbing her belly, looking every bit the glowing, conscientious new mommy that she is. She eats, sleeps, reads and lives for the baby, as any good momma would, but I can't help but worry that all her earnestness may end up in baby burnout.
I'm loathe to criticize her enthusiasm, though. I did exactly the same thing seven years ago, and then again just three years ago with my own pregnancies. I've seen it repeatedly with friends and family as they race to be millennial Super Parents. From the moment of conception, they each think they're stronger, smarter, more able to consume information, take advantage of new advances in technology and medicine, and fill their nurseries with more genius-inducing, European-crafted gadgets than we poor saps who came before.
But too much information, too many impossible expectations and too little attention to the natural rhythm of life (if I can play the sage crone for a moment) is the kryptonite of a generation of parents who are close to burnout before they've even gotten to the real horrors of parenting: toddlerhood.
"There's just so much information out there. I'm not always sure it's a good thing," says Stacey Denney, owner of Barefoot and Pregnant, a Marin-based spa geared exclusively toward expectant moms. "You can just see the fear in their eyes sometimes," she says of overwhelmed clients who are bombarded with information and expectations from the moment of conception and sometimes earlier. Some conscientious moms-to-be—like my sister-in-law—take months or even years to prepare their bodies for pregnancy by undertaking specialized regimens of diet, exercise and sleep, and reading copious amounts of material on everything from pregnancy to child rearing.
So why has pregnancy become such a stinking big deal? I mean, in 2005, infant mortality, in the First World at least, continues to decline significantly, and kids overall are smarter, healthier and better off medically than they have ever been. Parents are generally starting later, with the average age of new mothers going from 22 to 25, owing in large part to an increase in moms over 30. We're the best educated generation in history and have access to more services and information than humankind has ever been able to access.
And, yes, we're crazier than ever, too.
Ignorance = Bliss
"You just need to chill out," my mom says, shaking her head over the latest drama with my children. She's watched me, my sister-in-law, my cousin and many of our friends go through our own brands of obsession, guilt, paranoia and, ultimately, acceptance in becoming mothers. I asked her if things were quite as hectic when she was pregnant, some 35 years ago. Not hardly.
Flashback to 1970. My mom was 22, had a couple years of college under her belt and, aside from babysitting gigs, had painfully little experience with kids other than having once been one. She took a Lamaze class to learn how to breathe during childbirth (a fairly radical step in those days), cobbled together a nursery with family hand-me-downs, and that was it.
"We were terrified when we brought you home. I had absolutely no idea what to do. I really didn't want to leave the hospital," she says with a laugh. But she wasn't particularly worried about it. She figured her maternal instincts would kick in, and if they didn't, well, there was grandma to help out.
There were no months of detoxifying before conception. No car seats, doulas, midwives, water births, $600 strollers or prenatal yoga. It was pretty much the same deal for generations before that. You got married, got pregnant, had a kid and called mom for help. End of story.
"You guys just get yourselves all worked up," mom says, shaking her head. "You turned out all right, didn't you?" All right, maybe. But certainly not as well as I would have, had Baby Einstein existed in 1970.
Four Million Baby Einsteins
According to the National Center for Health Statistics, about 4 million babies are born each year in the United States. If corporate America had anything to do with it, they'd all have Baby Einstein books, Barney tapes and brain-stimulating videos before they left the hospital, creating the next generation of super-intelligent, highly artistic genius consumers. Dr. Spock, save us all.
Standing in the baby aisles of Target or Toys "R" Us, faced with a dizzying array of toys, gadgets, creatures and electronic development-learning toys, it's easy to feel overwhelmed. Now imagine doing it with hormones raging, 10 pounds of baby squirming inside you and a raging case of hemorrhoids. Frankly, it's a recipe for disaster.
Convinced by savvy marketing ploys that our children will be drooling morons if we don't buy them every beeping, chiming, whistling, interactive toy and game on the market from before birth until, well, forever, pregnant moms now spend a lot of time shopping. In fact, it was the first thing I felt compelled to do, once I found out I was pregnant. "Must buy products," I found myself saying over and over.
But books and tapes aren't the end of it. There are nurseries to be outfitted with the latest Pottery Barn styles, cashmere Gap sweaters to be purchased and BabyBjörn carriers to be strapped on. That is, if you're a good parent. And you do want to be a good parent, right?
After turning to retail therapy, it's time to get down to the business of planning the birth. Yep, planning it right down to the type of music in the room, whether or not you'll take drugs, who'll be there, where it will be, whether there will be a whirlpool, a midwife, parents, children, a circus act or heralding trumpets.
"I'm like a wedding coordinator for births," quips doula Debbie Merritt. Though the practice of attending and aiding other women in birth is as old as time, moms are finding salvation in the relatively new trend of hiring contract doulas to guide them through the sometimes confusing landscape of pregnancy and childbirth.
"Birth in our culture is kind of hidden . . . well, birth and death," Merritt says. "Most of us don't know anything about it until we're right in the middle of it. And then you just do what your girlfriend tells you about. Or what your insurance company says to do. It's sad, but people spend more time buying a truck than they do planning their birth."
But isn't giving birth something that doesn't really need a plan? Merritt claims that many women today don't even have the opportunity to get to know their doctors, who are overbooked with hundreds of patients, and sometimes get whoever is on call to deliver their babies. That can be scary, and doulas—and midwives, who are trained on the medical aspects of birth but often have a more holistic approach to the process than traditional physicians—provide a sense of consistency and comfort.
In fact, having a doula can reduce the rate of getting a cesarean section by up to 50 percent and can reduce the time of labor by 25 percent, according to the book Mothering the Mother by Marshall and Phyllis Klaus and John Kennell. Plus, they keep your husband from wigging out and crying in the corner as a small head emerges from your vagina. Now that's worth every penny.
Merritt says another problem can be the overwhelming amount of information new parents are faced with during pregnancy and the task of sorting through all of it rationally. A search for pregnancy books on Amazon.com results in over 4,000 books. That's a lot of reading.
"There's so much medical information out there, it's almost too much," says Denney, who often consoles distraught moms at her spa who call or drop in just to talk about a cramp or symptom they're convinced is serious. "They look online and just lose it," she says.
Though the Internet can be a source of incredible solace in reaching out to other expectant moms to be—comparing stories and expectations, and learning about your baby's development—it can also be a source of unreliable and even false information that makes already nervous mommies nearly crazed.
Heee Ahhh Ohhh
Honestly, the only thing I really remember about my own childbirth class was that some woman let out a huge fart during one of our pelvic exercises. OK, I also remember we had to make these ridiculous middle-of-sex breathing sounds like "Heee. Ahhh. Ohhh." But mostly, I remember the gas. We were all sitting on the floor with our "birth partners" (read: annoyed husbands and boyfriends) trying to relax our pelvic floors and imagine our life energy flowing into our babies. Breathing. Silence. Centering. And then a huge, reverberating fart. After much childish giggling, concentration loss and an angry teacher's slowly composing face, we spent the next 15 minutes talking about gas as a "natural part of life and the pregnancy process." Yeah, that's what I remember.
Of course, many people take childbirth preparation quite seriously. I'll shorthand the types of classes: Lamaze focuses on breathing, relaxation and education about the process. The Bradley Method builds on Lamaze with a focus on bringing your partner into the process, a strict emphasis on prenatal nutrition and a general avoidance of anesthetics at birth. The Birthworks method of natural childbirth asks the mother to examine belief systems in an effort to integrate body, mind and soul for successful drug-free birth.
Hypno-birthing is a process in which the mother self-hypnotizes during the baby's progress, minimizing pain and allowing her to more deeply experience the event. Birthing from Within uses art therapy and journaling to help pregnant women sort out any messy emotions that might "prevent" them from "succeeding" in natural birth.
Unless you're a yogi, you won't use any of this stuff. That's not true; your partner will try really hard to get you to breathe, to use your relaxation techniques and center your spirit. You'll look him straight in the eye, smile sweetly and with more hostility than you ever imagined inhabiting your body, tell him to shut the hell up. Eye-scratching or spitting may also occur, but as a laboring mother you will be exempt from assault charges.
One of the best developments in pregnancy and childbirth has been the focus on pregnant women and their mental and physical well-being. Spa owner Denney says that when she started her maternity-focused business two years ago, there was almost nothing that catered exclusively to the needs of pregnant women.
"At regular spas, they would barely touch you. Most of the time, the staff just weren't trained to work on pregnant women," Denney says. Her own staff are trained to understand expecting mothers' mental and physiological needs—and their host of unique maladies, from sore shoulders and backs to cramping legs and tender, swollen feet.
Sitting under a towel, her tummy poking out, my sister-in-law got a treatment at Barefoot and Pregnant that she says took away weeks of accumulated pain. As she talked to her masseuse, the table was lifted in certain ways, her legs elevated and her tummy kept comfortable so that she could enjoy getting a massage in ways she hadn't been able to since getting pregnant. "This is just sooo nice," she sighed.
Denney's spa offers massages, exercise classes, prenatal yoga and childbirth classes, in addition to special "babymoon packages" for parents-to-be who want a last relaxing weekend away.
Boobies and Daddies
Two of the biggest changes in childbirth since the 1970s have been the inclusion of breasts and fathers in the picture. Both were all but taboo, until folks got the idea that maybe, just maybe the two things that got you here in the first place were an important part of the birthing process.
Chances are that dad will still slightly freak out when he sees you screaming and panting in pain, with your legs pressed to your ears. It's a scary thing. Give him a task to keep his mind focused on the prize, whether that's cutting the umbilical cord, organizing family in the room, or merely playing DJ, putting on your favorite tunes as each contraction comes over you.
Boobs, as well, can be tricky when used for something other than stuffing into a Miracle Bra. For most of us, however, they do serve a very useful purpose, giving babies not only sustenance but antibodies and a connection as well. It takes some getting used to, though, learning to get the baby latched on correctly, how to sooth sore nipples and express milk for later use. Hire a lactation consultant as a required part of your birth plan. Don't, however, stress out if things don't go according to plan.
I've encountered many a breast-fanatic who made nonlactating mothers feel less than whole if they decided against breastfeeding. It is a personal choice. My son dehydrated severely when I refused to give him any supplemental feedings other than my breast milk in the hospital. I didn't know what I was doing, he wasn't getting fed and he almost died because of my staunch stand on breastfeeding. Don't make my mistake. Get help, and get a bottle if you need to. There's no shame in doing what's best for your child.
It's Just a Baby
With two kids under my ever-loosening belt, I've done everything from childbirth classes to yoga and massages, have spent money on ridiculously overpriced baby toys, had a birth with drugs and one without. In the end, the one thing I know for sure is that the only thing that really makes a difference is your own sanity. Do what feels right, do it in moderation and don't let anyone pressure you otherwise. Your baby will thank you later, right after he spits up on you and poops all over your new dress.
From the October 5-11, 2005, 2005 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.
© 2005 Metro Publishing Inc.