They call it “The Goddess Myth.” In its October cover story, TIME highlighted the growing cultural pressure to mother well — to mother to Instagram-worthy perfection— and the resulting emotional detriment of not living up to those standards. Failing to meet society’s expectations during pregnancy, birth, and delivery can lead to debilitating shame and disappointment, undermining the accomplishment of having a baby and exacerbating the emotional whirlwind postpartum.
Establishing that motherhood is hard seems like a no-brainer. So why, instead of celebrating what we do right as moms (like, keeping our kids alive, for example), do we compromise our emotions by building our expectations on a rickety framework that can’t support the pains and surprises of real-life motherhood? Maybe it’s not our fault.
This pressure on moms begins to build at conception and continues to balloon through birth and postpartum. “I think first-time moms put a lot of pressure on themselves to do everything perfectly—we obsess over these little details because the world is a scary place. Birth is the first big step in the whole parenting world and we put all kinds of expectations on it,” Minneapolis mom Stina Kielsmeier-Cook tells Brit + Co.
Determined to give birth “nature’s way” (sans epidural, with a midwife) after watching a natural birth documentary and reading Ina May Gaskin’s Guide to Childbirth, Kielsmeier-Cook ended up with an unexpected prolonged labor, an epidural, and vacuum extraction — and ultimately, a healthy baby. But somehow, sadness about her birth experience overshadowed what she had accomplished: successfully delivering her child.
“I felt like my body had failed me. If I couldn’t have a ‘natural’ birth, there must be something ‘unnatural’ or bad about me,” she said. “I would compare myself to others who did have these unmedicated births and think, why couldn’t I do that?”
Not surprisingly, Kielsmeier-Cook is not alone: TIME commissioned a survey of 913 mothers, which found that half of all new moms experienced regret, shame, guilt, or anger because of unexpected complications or lack of support. This undue stress and emotional load can, in many instances, be traced back to the frequently toxic cultural pressures surrounding motherhood. But experts are careful to differentiate between traumatic birth (where a baby dies or gets taken away, or where a mother nearly loses her own life) and a birth that includes traumatic elements (including unmet expectations like Kielsmeier-Cook’s), which are often more isolated. While a traumatic birth experience…