The day after my two-week postpartum check-up I went back to work. This was an especially difficult thing to accept because I’m an advocate for health. For maternal health, to be precise. And yet there I was in a sleep-deprived daze, still bleeding from the birth while I sat on a conference call focused on achieving better health outcomes for moms.
Colleagues would email me weeks or even months later to ask when my maternity leave was up, and I’d confess hesitantly, I never went on it.
In part because my work is grant-funded I’m a consultant, not an employee. There are a lot of
benefits, er—upsides to contract work, like being based at home and having some flexibility around working hours. When it came to my own personal maternal health,
there were no policies in place to protect or support me.
Now that my daughter is six months old I look back on that time with a lot of regret. If I couldn’t advocate for myself, what kind of advocate was I anyway? If I couldn’t advocate for my kid, what kind of mother did that make me? At times I feel deeply disappointed that I couldn’t manage to fight harder for what every mother, including me, deserves: time and space to heal and to bond with her new baby. And she shouldn’t have to sacrifice her livelihood to do so.
When I look at pictures of myself from those early postpartum weeks, what I notice most are my eyes. They tell the story of who I was in that moment—an overwhelmed, exhausted young mom doing the best she could. I’m moved to compassion for her.
As an advocate for global maternal health, I recognize my privilege as a white, educated, and financially secure woman who has a supportive partner and family. When I told my mom I was pregnant, she made plans to move to our area, so that she could care for our daughter while my husband and I work. It would be easy dismiss the hardships I’ve faced in new motherhood as trivial compared to what so many other women encounter.
What I am realizing, though, is that despite all of my access, motherhood stretches me to—and sometimes past—my limits. If it’s hard for me to feel like a good mom, how much harder is it for women without health care? Or childcare? Or access to basic necessities? Being a mom has made me a more compassionate person and a stronger advocate for moms.
I’ve still got a ways to go in channeling some of that compassion toward myself. When those feelings of guilt arise, I just picture my bleary-eyed, new mom self and tell her,
“You’re enough. You’re a good mom.”
Katey Zeh, M.Div is an advocate, speaker, and writer for global maternal health. She has contributed to Response magazine, Huffington Post, Religion Dispatches, Mothering Matters, and Feminist Studies in Religion, among other outlets. She lives in Cary, NC with her husband Matt and their daughter Samantha. Find her at kateyzeh.com.
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