In mid-August, days before I gave birth to my first child, I was spending hours staring longingly into my closet. During the course of my pregnancy, I’d gained 50 pounds, fifteen more than the medically recommended amount, and for weeks, I had been wearing the same white dress and white Birkenstocks nearly every day. Pregnancy, but make it fashion! The three pricey maternity outfits I’d purchased from a chic shop downtown that promised their clothes could be “worn for every stage” of pregnancy had stopped fitting by the beginning of my seventh month. I couldn’t wait to be out of this prison: my home, my body, my bed, this one outfit.
My rational mind told me the weight wouldn’t just evaporate immediately upon giving birth, but still, my fingers reached out for the sexy summer dresses in my wardrobe. I fantasized about posting dreamy candids on Instagram of me breastfeeding on my couch wearing stylish 70s high-waisted jeans and a burnt orange bralette, wisps of my curly hair falling onto my calm, ethereal face.
Collier Meyerson is an Ideas contributor at WIRED. She was awarded an Emmy for her work on MSNBC’s All In with Chris Hayes and two awards for her reporting from the National Association of Black Journalists. She is a contributing editor at New York Magazine, and maintains the Nobler Fellowship at The Nation Institute.
My Instagram fantasy seemed a natural extension of my recent relationship with the platform. Throughout my pregnancy, I’d been scrolling through my feed, inundated with advertisements featuring thin women with bowling ball bellies wearing flowy caftans. More thin women with bowling ball bellies in flowy caftans populated my Explore page, images accompanied by long captions about the wonders of pregnancy, using hackneyed phrases like “the tides of change.” None seemed to have acid reflux. All seemed to use Instagram’s aspiration filter.
Paradoxically, Instagram had also helped me understand birth as a political act. Friends sent me posts of women having unmedicated births in their homes, their faces beautifully exhausted from the contractions. Or explicit scenes of women actively giving birth, pushing their babies out and catching them while standing up.
But after I gave birth, when I couldn’t sleep at 3 am, because of the pain, insomnia, or knowing that I was going to have to get up in an hour to feed, I opened Instagram. The app’s algorithm somehow knew I was a new mom and populated my Explore page with light and airy photos of new moms in beautiful, giant homes, holding their babies swathed in organic blankets. The hashtags morphed from pregnancy-related ones to #newmom #mommylife #mamalife #mommylifestyle #breastfeeding #breastfeedingmom #sleepingbaby #parenthoodunplugged. The pregnant women I once saw disappeared into motherhood, no longer agents of self; they now lived to deliver images of their Instagram-worthy babies to the world.
I longed to be one of these Instagram moms, a woman unphased by the unpleasantries of new motherhood: the incessant dripping milk, the stretch marks, the uncertainty about how to navigate parenthood. There were the ones who acknowledged their leaking tits and distended bellies, but only to express radical body acceptance or a determination to get their “old body” back. There were a fair share of the “my tub needs cleaning and the floors are dirty,” but it was followed quickly by messages of “I don’t care, I love my baby.” Rarely did I find posts of women in the thick of it, trying to find their way in a new, sometimes broken-down body with hormones on full blast. I wondered where their nice fitting clothes and constant bliss came from. How their hair didn’t look like a rats nest, how their feet shrunk back to size so quickly.
Nothing, not on Instagram, or in my million Google searches, really focused on what it means to deal with a postpartum body. There was nothing out there for me except the serene Instagram moms.
Thanks to an unhealthy dose of anxiety I lost 30 pounds in two weeks, but I was still (and still am!) 20 pounds heavier than when I started this parenting endeavor. And I still had few suitable postpartum clothes. Two of the three chic maternity outfits that promised to be postpartum-friendly had high necks, requiring that I remove the whole dress just to breastfeed—and only a serious masochist would do that 15 times a day.
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When no one but my partner was around, I spent those first few post-birth weeks nearly naked. It wasn’t my preference, but since I was uncontrollably bleeding out of one hole and squirting milk out of another, it was all I could do. Milk was everywhere. Literal trails from the bedroom to the bathroom, from the living room to the kitchen, from my fleshy stomach to my chubby toes. Blood stained our cream colored couch more than once.
I Googled “postpartum clothes,” but there were none. I texted friends who were new moms. “What the hell are we supposed to wear right now?” They didn’t know either. They were Googling too, and texting women who’d come before us. I consulted Twitter. Links to maternity clothes came in. No. I couldn’t go back there—for anyone who has had a baby, the last thing you want to do is buy expensive clothes that are meant for pregnant women when you’re no longer pregnant. I bought 3 pairs of bicycle shorts from Old Navy, but those felt too restrictive, too tender to the touch for the stitches in my vagina; they took too much energy to pull up and down.
Pregnancy has become revered, but the part that comes after, the part where your body is broken, your clothes still don’t fit, but your maternity clothes don’t work either, your baby is hungry more than he’s not, you haven’t slept more than 2 hours in weeks, doesn’t exist on Instagram. Perhaps this is because the platform is a visual medium, and the effects on the body are visceral. For some, the images are graphic or unsettling. Postpartum is not the aesthetically “beautiful” or aspirational scene we’ve become accustomed to on Instagram. Until recently, the platform didn’t even allow pictures of giving birth or breastfeeding.
I am a middle class person with enough love and support around me to last the ages and yet I couldn’t find in the resources—clothes I needed, books to read, or social media to consume—to help me in my most tender time. Others have pointed out similar “fear of a mother” in the mainstream: writing and reporting on motherhood still isn’t considered a serious job, no one wants to help women find a place to breastfeed. There are dozens of apps for tracking periods and pregnancy but nothing notable to guide women through the postpartum period.
But perhaps the platform is just in a painful birthing phase, and we are now slowly emerging from the postpartum shame shadows. Two weeks ago a photo of Rachel McAdams pumping was thrown up on the Instagram page of Girls Girls Girls Magazine and went viral. Hillary Duff followed with another photo of herself pumping, with the caption, “am I doing this right?”
I guess what I’m trying to say is: Rachel, where’d you get that hot pumping bra?