This piece is published in collaboration with Echoing Ida, a Forward Together project.
The comic-style cover of former Destiny’s Child singer Kelly Rowland’s new book on motherhood, Whoa, Baby!: A Guide for New Moms Who Feel Overwhelmed and Freaked Out (and Wonder What the #*$& Just Happened), looks both cute and odd to me. Before reading the book, I wondered if the illustration—with comic book captions, alongside an image of Rowland—was an indicator that the book’s content would tell a story of all parents and moms being superheroes. However, just a few paragraphs into the book, I realized that wasn’t the case. This is a youthful but much less empowering read than I’d hoped for or expected.
While first scrolling through the book, which Rowland co-wrote with her OB-GYN, Dr. Tristan Emily Bickman (and Laura Moser), I noticed that it mentions important topics including body changes, breastfeeding, and postpartum depression but uses juvenile language like “No. 2” for bowel movements and “lady parts” for vaginas. While I found several aspects of Rowland’s book and tone problematic, I acknowledge that it takes a lot of courage to write a book about being freaked out by becoming a mother and the life changes that come with it. And that is what Rowland has done.
Right away I don’t relate to the first few pages because, unlike Rowland, I’m not someone who needs to have “total control of my schedule.” After being a parent for 15 years, I have completely surrendered to the day-to-day absence of that. Being an older and a more experienced parent does tend to make many of us more mellow. However, in the absence of “mellow” and confidence, Rowland still offers readers a number of gems.
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I loved that there are moments in the book where Rowland decides to surrender to the unknown and allow the process of parenting to teach her to go with the flow and expect the unexpected. Having sages like her lactation consultant Linda and Dr. Bickman, who offered her consistent encouragement during hard times made the difference for her, as it has for so many. Rowland also mentions mother-baby skin to skin contact, a really important practice that midwives have used for centuries (even through the medicalization of birth) to aid bonding and breastfeeding success. She goes on to highlight challenges like diastasis recti, a condition where the abdominal muscles separate. The condition frequently goes undiagnosed, and she describes it in a way that may help women self-diagnose well enough to ask their health-care provider for a full evaluation.
Rowland stretches into often uncharted territory by writing about perineal tearing, which often only becomes a topic for discussion for many women after the tear. When I was pregnant with my firstborn, a friend told me that rubbing olive oil on my perineum area would stop me from tearing. I didn’t bother, and I tore. Whether we believe in the perineum massage method or not, Rowland’s effort to help child-bearing people understand how our bodies and vaginas stretch to accommodate birth and pregnancy is important.
Another powerful part of Rowland’s book is when she mentions being chastised by her pediatric provider about her baby not eating enough while breastfeeding. Lactation and breastfeeding classes are not required courses in medical school and because of this lack of training, pediatricians are not always the best source for breastfeeding support. As Rowland demonstrates, lactation consultants and professionals trained in supporting breastfeeding moms are the experts best equipped to support a new mom, especially if she doesn’t have supportive friends and family members who have breastfed themselves and can help her figure things out.
Beyond the hot topics to which she does justice, there also several things in Rowland’s book that I’m just not sure about. For example, why Rowland “checked in to the hospital the day before” giving birth to her son—she did not have a scheduled cesarean section—is mysterious to me. Most women enter their birth facility (be it hospital, birth center, or home) once they go into active labor. Rowland’s experience sounds less common, and I’d hate to think that any newly pregnant women would expect to check into her birthing facility before she’s in labor.
Rowland’s assertion that “doctors have your best interest at heart” is extremely problematic given that Black women in the United States have the highest rates of infant and maternal mortality in this country. We also are very likely to experience “pregnant while black,” a term coined by sociologist Dr. Nancy Lopez and that describes the acts of racism and medical apartheid that we often experience while pregnant. Until medical training curricula address racism, historical trauma, and implicit and unconscious bias, no one can possibly guarantee that doctors have Black women’s best interests at heart. And our health outcomes show that.
There are a number of negative “consequences”—including back pain and the facial skin discoloration called melanoma—correlated to breastfeeding in Rowland’s book that are worth questioning. I encourage every reader to learn more about breastfeeding benefits for moms and babies. Breastfeeding is actually one important way that Black people can work to reduce our health disparity rates. The data shows that breastfeeding benefits for moms include decreased risks of breast and ovarian cancer and benefits for babies include lower risk of sudden infant death syndrome, lower rates of childhood obesity, and fewer allergies, just to name a few. Rowland and her medical advisers missed an opportunity to share these benefits with her audience, and I don’t understand why.
The postpartum problems—including hair loss, postpartum bleeding, and skin discoloration—described in Rowland’s book are not inevitable and vary in intensity from person to person. Though she sporadically qualifies some of them by using the term “might,” she more frequently sets a tone that implies that postpartum problems are to be expected. The postpartum bleeding chapter was so scary that even I, who have given birth twice, shudder to think what a first-time mom or not-yet-pregnant woman (or girl) could worry about after reading it.
Another challenge I had with Rowland’s book were the recurrent references to vaginas as “that,” “down there” and “nether parts.” I was raised to believe that we have as much of a right to love our vaginas as our partners who enjoy sex with us do and how we talk about them is part of that equation. The references to postbirth vaginas looking “disgusting,” “gross,” or like a “nasty scene” seemed immature and disempowering.
Language does matter. And Rowland’s tone and related language in her book assumes new moms are partnered and in heterosexual relationships. Mothers are diverse; many don’t have support; and some are single and gay. I was disappointed in the heteronormative assumptions in Rowland’s book and the classist notion that women would be partnered with bread-winning men.
Overall, my sense is that Rowland’s book is missing an equally important part of the birth and postpartum experience: the joy. Giving birth does come with hardships and the unexpected shitstorms that pass through our lives. But the postpartum experience doesn’t have to be riddled with problems. Some women do enjoy their postpartum experience. Many women don’t bleed excessively, pee on themselves, develop hemorrhoids, or hate how their skin and hair changes. It’s important for women who are pregnant to know that.
Rowland’s book may be a good one for postpartum women in crisis, but by no means is it a bible for pregnant and postpartum women in general. And whoa, baby, is that an important caveat that needs to be made.