"Are you just loving being a mommy?" a friend asked, cradling my 4-week-old baby in her arms. I knew she meant well, but the question made me angry. I paused a little bit longer than I usually would. I wasn't sure just how honest to be. I wanted to scream, "No! Not at all." But instead, I just snapped, "Ask me on a day when I've had more than three hours of sleep." I felt shame creep up in my gut and my ears burn in embarrassment, because that is not the response I was “supposed” to have. “Oh right, of course,” she said and handed my son back to me. I didn’t know it then, but I was suffering from postpartum depression. In the months since, I’ve received a lot of help and support, and I feel much more like myself now. If I were asked the same question today, I would reply with “yes,” although probably not too enthusiastically. I am a much happier mom today, and I very much adore my son, but this question still bothers me. While I know my friend didn’t mean anything by it, the implication is that there's nothing else to motherhood but to love it — that any other experience isn’t valid. But the reality is that parenting is not for everyone, sometimes not even for those of us who thought we always wanted it. And it was my experience walking this line that solidified my support for abortion rights. The language surrounding abortion usually deals with extremes — the women whose lives are at risk if they carry their pregnancy to term, the heartbreaking stories of desired pregnancies that didn’t work out, or the inhumanity of forcing a woman to carry a pregnancy that resulted from sexual assault. All of these are important entry points to the topic, and we must continue to lift up these women’s stories, but we must also talk about the women who don’t fall in these extremes — the women who simply weren’t ready or who have no desire to parent, as well as the 59% of women who get abortions and are already mothers. I’ve always identified as pro-choice, and prior to my son’s birth, I worked in abortion rights advocacy. My experiences with pregnancy and childbirth affirmed my beliefs, but it was specifically my experience with postpartum depression that made me an even more staunch supporter of abortion rights. Through my experience with PPD, I saw firsthand how my child suffered when I wasn’t well, how he responded negatively to my stress, and how he began to flourish once I sought help. In fact, it was my son’s pediatrician who first identified my depression and insisted I seek help, because the doctor understood that my health was critical if my son was going to thrive. I’m not saying I wish I’d had an abortion. I knowingly and mindfully chose parenting, and I accept both its challenges and its joys. I planned for my pregnancy and welcomed it enthusiastically. My partner and I are stable and have the means to support a family. Despite all of this, I have still struggled far more than I ever imagined. It is only because of my privilege — my education level, my socio-economic status, my access to health insurance, and the support of my loved ones — that I was able to treat my depression and thrive as a mother. Not all women have these resources. Society puts motherhood on a pedestal, considering it the greatest blessing of a woman’s life, regardless of whether it is something she wants. It is a pervasive part of our culture displayed across all forms of media — the expectation that women become mothers. Conservative lawmakers even legislate this expectation, making it harder for women to access abortion and birth control, and they justify all of this by proclaiming the sanctity of life and the precious gift of children.
If we truly care about children, we should care about their quality of life.
Children are indeed precious, as are all people. But if we truly care about children, we should care about their quality of life. Not only that they have access to education and health care, but also that they have an opportunity to flourish. There is a difference between a mother who chooses to become one and a mother who is forced to become one. There is a difference between a mother who is happy and a mother who isn’t. If we are to force women to bear children simply because they had sex, then we need to understand the lifelong consequences for both the parent and the child. The health, well-being, and happiness of the mother are essential to the quality of life for her children. When we ask a new mom just how much she is “loving it,” we are negating the very real physical and emotional toll of parenting — and perpetuating the illusion that it is “all worth it,” when for some people, it isn’t. Sex isn’t a contract, and parenting isn’t a punishment. Parenting is a lifetime commitment that has the best outcome when it is desired and not forced. Our families and communities are stronger when women are supported and empowered to make the best decisions they can for themselves and their families. After I sought help for my depression, my world slowly changed, and I began embracing motherhood. My son, who was a fussy and discontent newborn, also changed. Slowly, as I improved, so did he. Today, he is a happy and curious 10-month-old, and I love being his mama. Not only does he deserve a mom who is healthy and happy, but that is what he needs. My experience with PPD taught me many things, but perhaps most importantly the difference between simply being alive, going through the motions, and actually living. Everyone deserves a chance to truly thrive and live their best life. The freedom to choose how, when, and whether to parent is essential to that vision for both women and children.