You’ve just given birth. Maybe things went great, maybe they didn’t, but this phrase is often said to women at their most vulnerable — and it needs to stop.
You’ve just gone through a difficult labor and had an emergency C-section. Or maybe you experienced a perfect birth.
Maybe your baby is the picture of health, or perhaps they’re in the NICU for monitoring.
No matter what, nurses (and what seems like everyone on the planet) will bounce in with a smile and say, “Healthy mom, healthy baby is all that matters!”
But what if you don’t feel healthy? What if your baby isn’t healthy after all? What if you feel terrified? Or sad? Or in significant pain, physical or otherwise — but something other than “healthy”?
This adage has been said to moms as long as they’ve been having babies, but to many women the phrase has a clear and deep message: If you and your baby are deemed healthy by the medical community, then shut the heck up and be happy.
Although likely intended to be positive, many women find that the phrase silences them and can be dismissive of what’s really happening.
My first children were twins born at 34 weeks. I had preeclampsia and twin-to-twin transfusion syndrome. One twin was born legally blind and hearing impaired and almost didn’t make it. The other twin had breathing issues.
And yet this phrase was said to me.
Yes, I was alive and so were they — barely — but they weren’t “healthy.”
My son was facing a lifetime with disabilities and I was profoundly depressed about all that had transpired.
I went on to have two more sons and had severe postpartum depression after my third. On paper, my son and I were perfectly healthy — but I clearly was not.
Linda Cuckovich, a mom of three from California recounts a long and excruciating labor with her daughter. Her doctors and midwife deemed her vaginal birth and baby “perfect in every way.”
Linda says, “The staff indicated, ‘Healthy mom, healthy baby’ except I didn’t feel like a healthy mom. I was in constant pain that made walking and sitting miserable for weeks. I couldn’t use the bathroom without sobbing.”
Linda broke down in her midwife’s office at her postpartum follow-up appointment several weeks later. “My midwife’s mouth became a thin line. She folded her arms across her chest and brusquely told me that I had a fissure. It was normal. I needed to stay on top of my ibuprofen. The subtext was clear: Pain is normal, and if I had no obvious ‘complication’ in my chart, she could keep stuffing me back into the ‘healthy mom’ box.”
It wasn’t until years later when Linda was diagnosed with a prolapse and chronic pelvic pain did she learn she indeed wasn’t a “healthy mom.”
“In retrospect,” Linda shares, “I really think the doctor and the midwife both felt that I must be a ‘healthy mom’ because there was a healthy baby and my problems were indefinite and subject to words like ‘subclinical.’ This adage suggests a tidiness and proof that clinicians have done their job.”
Linda goes on to say, “The best way to assure women’s health is to acknowledge that it is more complex than a mantra, that things can go wrong even when everyone has done everything ‘right.’”
Carrie Murphy is a writer, an experienced doula, and mom of one from New Orleans who gave birth to her son at home with a full care team, all of whom understood that birth is about much more than just, “healthy mom, healthy baby.”
Carrie shares: “Part of the issue is that our society perceives birth merely as a medical event — not as the deeply transformative, emotional, mental, physical, sociocultural experience that it is. It feels like ‘OK, well we kept them alive, and that’s all they can TRULY ask for, so, any other desire or expectation is selfish, extra, over the top, demanding, high-maintenance, wrong’… the list goes on.”
Every pregnancy and birth involves risk. And yes, everyone wants mom and child to come through in good form.
This is likely why the “healthy mom, healthy baby” adage persists. But, in the medical framework, physical health is still the primary focus.
Taking it further, Carrie shares that the phrase is indicative of the medical system’s way of justifying anything that may have happened during labor, “absolving themselves of the true repercussions of their care and the responsibility for any outcome that feels less than ‘healthy.’”
As a professional in the birth community, Carrie says that the maternity care system in our country can be, “deeply dysfunctional, racist, and misogynistic and the outcomes are getting worse, especially for black women.”
“Those of us of reproductive age today are more likely to die in the perinatal period then our mothers were. In the light of that information, ‘healthy mom, healthy baby’ to me, feels like a Band-Aid on a postpartum hemorrhage,” she says.
“Health is more than physical health — it’s emotional, mental, it’s your ability to be a parent to your child, it’s your state of mind, your sense of resilience, your ability to process and integrate as you embark on the adventure of getting to know an entirely new person,” says Carrie.
It’s important to think twice before saying the “healthy mom, healthy baby” phrase to any new mom.
Instead, congratulate them — but also ask how mom is doing and maybe, “What can I do to support you?”
Offer support and a listening ear.
I know when I was sitting in the NICU with my babies it would have been so helpful to have someone ask how I was feeling about things. Was I struggling? How was I really feeling?
The mother’s health isn’t typically the focus once the baby arrives, but it’s just as important because we directly impact our babies, so using language that doesn’t dismiss that is incredibly important.
Carrie puts it well when she says, “I hope one day there will less of a ‘pain hierarchy’ and more of an open space to speak our truths about what birth is and can be beyond a medical event.”
Laura Richards is a mother of four sons including a set of identical twins. She has written for numerous outlets including The New York Times, The Washington Post, U.S. News & World Report, The Boston Globe Magazine, Redbook, Martha Stewart Living, Woman’s Day, House Beautiful, Parents Magazine, Brain, Child Magazine, Scary Mommy, and Reader’s Digest on the topics of parenting, health, wellness, and lifestyle. Her full portfolio of work can be found at LauraRichardsWriter.com, and you can connect with her on Facebook and Twitter.