Moms share their struggles with parenting in a society that encourages women to ‘have it all’

Donna Chen, an assistant engineering professor at UVA, says being a working mom to children Audrey, 4, and Cora, 1, with husband Mike Frink sometimes requires creative child care solutions, like sharing a nanny with another family. Photo by Eze Amos Donna Chen, an assistant engineering professor at UVA, says being a working mom to children Audrey, 4, and Cora, 1, with husband Mike Frink sometimes requires creative child care solutions, like sharing a nanny with another family. Photo by Eze Amos

A few days after the photos circulated—on news stations, in print stories and Facebook feeds—the comments turned from what HRH the Duchess of Cambridge Kate Middleton was wearing (a long-sleeved red dress with a lacy white Peter Pan collar reminiscent of what Princess Diana wore after son Harry’s birth) to how she was wearing a dress and heels with perfectly coiffed hair just a few hours after giving birth to her third child.

“That’s insane,” says Robin Truxel, owner of truPilates and an advocate for helping moms become stronger before and after pregnancy, about the Instagram-obsessed culture in which we live. Truxel herself has two children, ages 3 and 16 months.

Society has certainly played into the notion of the superhero mom. Not only is she the center of a family, she’s often returning to work soon after a baby’s birth—sometimes out of necessity, because the United States is the only industrialized nation without federally mandated paid maternity leave—and still learning to navigate a new world. Once a child is born, his mom has to shed her former self and start to navigate under a new identity, one that can feel false and is filled with anxieties: finding affordable child care and leaving her baby for the first time, what her rights are in asking her employer for a private room to pump breast milk three times a day and—no biggie—how to keep a tiny human alive.

In this constant ticker tape of thoughts, a mom’s attention is generally turned outward. But local health care professionals say it’s imperative that moms learn to take a deep breath and focus on their own thoughts, feelings and needs, because a healthy mom means a healthy baby—and a healthy family.

“Being a mom is your greatest happiness and your greatest stress,” says Elizabeth Irvin, executive director of the Women’s Initiative, which provides mental health counseling, social support and education offerings to women regardless of their ability to pay. Irvin, a mom herself to two boys ages 5 and 10, says, “You’re a mom until the day you die. It doesn’t matter how old your children are. The need for support just changes and grows as your child’s development changes and grows.”

Systemic issues in our societal structure that isolate the family unit into taking care of itself are huge, says Irvin, who claims that doing it alone in a low-income household is an “impossibility. There have to be other people involved to just get through a day.”

Scary stats

The federal Family and Medical Leave Act allows full-time employees in companies with 50 or more employees up to 12 weeks of medical leave, but few families can afford to take up to three months off (with no federal paid leave, compensation varies by company). According to a 2012 study by the Department of Labor, 42 percent of all FMLA leave in the United States is 10 days or fewer.

Donna Chen says the push on a national level for federal standards for paid maternity leave should center on parental leave. Because moms generally become the primary caregiver for children during the first few months of their lives, this sets up a system where moms remain the primary caregiver even after returning to work. Chen says she and her husband each take a half day when one of their children is sick. She says no one questions her reason for being absent, but her husband has had to explain that his wife was teaching during that time and he needed to be at home with his sick child.

UVA’s Abby Palko says the lack of paid maternity leave in the U.S. is “horrific.” She points to Sweden that has a “use it or lose” policy for paid paternity leave for both moms and dads, with single parents getting both blocks of time. Palko also points to systemic issues such as lack of affordable child care, unequal access to health care and an increase in maternal mortality rates in the U.S. NPR and ProPublica released results of a study last year that revealed the United States has the worst rate of maternal deaths in the developed world: 26.4 per 100,000 births compared with 9.2 in the U.K. and 3.8 in Finland.

A lack of affordable child care—especially during nontraditional work hours of second and third shifts—is a common concern for the women Irvin’s staff helps. They must rely on their outside network for help, which could include family members or neighbors.

“We’re expecting women to do it all, and there’s similar but different pressures on guys, but still there’s this pressure to do it all, have it all, instead of pressure on society to be structured in a way that provides the support so people can do bits and pieces of it all in a sustainable and enjoyable way,” says Abby Palko, director of the Maxine Platzer Women’s Center at UVA.

Donna Chen, an assistant engineering professor at UVA, found out she was pregnant with her second child shortly after moving to Charlottesville from Austin, Texas, in 2015. Being in a male-dominated industry, Chen didn’t have a peer network to ask for recommendations about  OB/GYNs, preschools and other family necessities, so she turned to Facebook. She became a member of several local mom groups, because she knew, after starting her own moms neighborhood group in Texas, that having a pipeline to area resources is key in a family’s success. And the Facebook groups double as support systems, much like Sister Circle, aimed at African-American women at the Women’s Initiative, or the yoga class for moms and babies at Bend Yoga. And other programs exist throughout our community, like the Becoming a Working Mom class held a few weeks ago through the UVA Health System and ReadyKids. They provide a safe space to ask questions and get honest answers, and to know you’re not alone.

“So much is by word of mouth, and there’s a lot of pressure to keep motherhood hidden,” Chen says. “In the beginning it’s graphic, it’s not real pretty. People don’t want to talk about that phase in their life when they’re wearing diapers because they’re basically healing down there. There’s a lack of open information out there, which is why these Facebook groups exist. It’s shocking to me why we can’t talk about this beyond the moms groups.”

Kelly Cox, who opened Bend Yoga seven years ago and previously worked as a mental health counselor for women, says our society doesn’t address issues moms face, especially mental health issues like postpartum depression. In her pre- and post-delivery classes, the women talk about how hormones can affect a person, and the struggles around breastfeeding—from the difficulties of teaching a baby to latch on to finding an hour and a half during the work day to pump.

“I think empowering women, especially in the time we’re in, is the most important thing we can do,” Cox says.

Shaking things up

After Amanda Ames had her first child in April 2015, she started Googling topics about going back to work. She was shocked that she came up with almost nothing. There were plenty of books about pregnancy and raising a child, but few resources for working moms and the issues they might face when returning from maternity leave. About a year later, Ames saw a comment thread in a local Facebook group for moms. Someone asked about resources for working moms, and everyone had the same answer: Nobody is talking about this.

Of course, Ames, an associate attorney with Womble Bond Dickinson, says she realized why no one was writing about this: Working moms were just too busy. So, she developed an idea for a website called Project Work Mom, similar to Humans of New York. Ames asked friends to share their stories—a paragraph about their day—along with a photo.

When her first daughter was born, Chen was a Ph.D. student at the University of Texas, Austin. She shared an office with a male colleague, and brought in a screen so she could pump at her desk. But the biggest hurdle was keeping her pumped milk cold until she got home. If the bus was late, it “would get pretty dicey with how long my ice pack was going to last.” Chen also remembers having to travel to a conference when her first baby was 6 months old. She was going to be gone for five days and had to pump enough milk to last for the duration. She was worried if she would have enough milk, and knew they’d be down to the last 8 ounces by the time she returned.

“I’ve known friends who pumped in equipment closets or a specific stall in a bathroom,” Chen says. “It takes time and you’re supposed to make up that time—that’s why moms get discouraged with pumping. I know a lot of women don’t have that luxury, especially hourly workers.”

When MIT student Catherine D’ignazio found herself pumping on the floor of a bathroom stall after her third child was born, she told herself there had to be a better way. That led to D’ignazio, now a professor at Emerson College, to co-found the Make the Breast Pump Not Suck hackathon in 2014, a conference dedicated to improving the breast pump device and breast pumping conditions for women. When Ames was preparing to return to work this February after the birth of her son, she came across the second iteration of the breast pump hackathon, which this year included a family leave policy summit. She submitted an application and was one of 100 participants from all over the world who was invited to the MIT Media Lab the last weekend in April to create products and apps to improve quality of life for moms. App developers, moms and product designers all partnered on ideas that ranged from a mindfulness-based app to identify postpartum depression (Ames’ group), a baby-feeding kit for people in disaster areas and a fabric shelf that can hang around a mom’s neck or on the back of a bathroom door so she doesn’t have to set her breast pump on a toilet.

Ames says this conference differed from the first in that it sought to include women of all backgrounds, so that “we’re not just designing for the 1 percent.”

“We talked a lot about equity in design,” she says. “That was something eye-opening and something that once I thought about it seemed so obvious: Women need to be designing products and apps and processes for women. And we need to bring in more women of color, LGBTQ families, single moms, low-wage workers.”

Although Ames’ group’s app that tracks a mom’s mood over time and gives them mindfulness tools to lessen the effects of postpartum depression didn’t win the hackathon, she says she’d still like to see it developed. And her goal with Project Work Mom, which has morphed largely into a Facebook page, is to connect people with resources, as well as connect people to each other so they can see there are lots of ways to approach motherhood. It’s not one-size-fits-all.

“I wanted to convey there’s no right way to do this, which is important when you’re feeling overwhelmed,” Ames says.

Bellamy Shoffner, mom to Cade, 6, and Cyrus, 3, with husband, Charles, publishes an online quarterly magazine for parents that discusses topics such as social justice and race. Photo by Eze Amos

After the events of August 12, Bellamy Shoffner, mom to two boys ages 6 and 3, wrote an essay on titled, “What Really Happened in Charlottesville.” In the months following the Unite the Right rally, she couldn’t shake the feeling that she could–and should–be doing more. She wanted to effect change.

“It’s very important for me to do everything I can to make my children’s future better,” she says. “They’re just on the wrong side of statistics: They’re boys and they’re black. And there’s not a lot of hope for them. I almost feel like I don’t have an option, you know?”

Shoffner, who created her first eight-page newspaper when she was 16, did what came naturally: She wrote, and she read other authors’ work. She kept feeling the pull of wanting to offer something tangible, thus she created the online quarterly magazine Hold the Line. The first issue, published in December, is geared to parents and focuses on racial and social justice issues. And its articles offer solutions: How to talk to your children about race, why self-care is important for the family unit.

Shoffner, who served as the editor, art director and page designer, says she didn’t know what the end product would be until it was finished—much like you wonder if your baby will look like you: Does it have Shoffner’s eyes? Her nose? What it does have is Shoffner’s voice. She not only wrote a piece titled “When Color is Clear” about growing up African-American in a predominantly white suburbs in Delaware, but she edited and designed every page of the 110-page issue, no small feat for a mom of two young boys who also works part-time for Virginia Humanities. She spent many 14-hour stretches in front of a computer, while her husband took care of the kids. The result of her efforts, she hopes, is that she releases something out into the world that flourishes. That she has birthed something that will continue to grow as lessons are learned, as life becomes hard and puts pressure on.

“The idea of the reach (readers in 50 states and 10 countries) is why I thought it was important,” Shoffner says. “To share these personal stories and impact as many people as we can is really valuable.”

Shoffner’s essay on being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis when her second son was 4 months old won second place in the 2017 Women’s Initiative Challenge Into Change writing contest. While she was playing on the floor with him one day, one of her arms was weak. She attributed it to carrying him around all the time. But, a few days later, she couldn’t see well out of one eye. Today she says her health comes in waves: There are good days and bad days. But she says that’s why it’s even more important for her to continue working, to continue producing a magazine—to show her sons that they can overcome struggles.

“I don’t feel successful because I don’t feel done,” she says. “There’s so much left to do.”

Creating communities

Getting in the door is one hurdle for moms, especially working moms, who come to the Women’s Initiative to discuss parenthood stresses. But beyond that, it’s hard for women to discuss their own struggles: They frame their concerns around their children. Elizabeth Irvin, a licensed clinical social worker, says part of the nonprofit’s work is to help moms realize it’s okay to direct some of their care and worry toward themselves because in the end they’re serving their children.

Cultural systems also come into play, says Ingrid Ramos, a therapist and coordinator of the Latina program at the organization. She says that in Latino culture, being a mom is largely seen as central to women’s lives. Another factor in seeking help is a lack of a support system, especially for immigrants from other countries who moved here with their husband and children but no other family members.

“It creates an imbalance where they are focused on what they have to do, not what they need,” Ramos says. “But once they’ve found us they tend to enjoy it. ‘Oh, I’ve found some relief. I can take this hour for myself.’”

When the Women’s Initiative launched the Sister Circle in October 2015, program coordinator Shelly Wood says they had no idea how many people would show up. She was excited they had a huge showing of 25 people (the eight- to 10-week sessions that occur on an ongoing basis are now capped at 10 to 12 people), which validated their feeling that there was a need for this in the community. Some of the issues discussed in the group include a wish for more physicians and OB/GYNs of color, the stigma of mental health and reaching out for help, more affordable child care along with nontraditional hours, more leave from work and more activities for families of color in Charlottesville.

Wood has an 11-year-old daughter and says she wishes there had been a support group like the one she runs when her daughter was young, so she could have connected with other mothers her age and more resources.

“I wanted to stay home but there was that guilt of going back to work,” she says. “Thank god grandma was our baby-sitter, but a lot of people don’t have that as an option.”

Another main topic of discussion is stereotypes black mothers feel they have to combat, that when someone seems them walking down the street with their child, it’s assumed she’s a single mother or on welfare.

“We just wanted to be thought of as mothers like everybody else.”

The new moms group at the Women’s Initiative is in its second year. Irvin says all working moms face some of the same challenges, and can benefit from finding others going through similar struggles.

“Mothering is an experience shared by most women at some point in their lives,” she says. “Can we be authentic about the joys and struggles of this journey? Because that’s where women tend to get the most support—natural support circles.”

Kelly Cox, co-owner of Bend Yoga, not only offers classes for pregnant and new moms (and their babies!), but connects clients with other parenting resources in town. Cramer photo

The first thing Bend Yoga’s Cox tells a mom is that she’s not going to help her get her pre-baby body back, but she is going to make her stronger to help care for the baby.

“I understand wanting to feel powerful in your body again or feel stronger,” she says.

Cox, also a doula who helps moms with the birthing process, says the current trend toward having a natural birth—with no epidural—causes anxiety for some mothers.

“I think anyone who leaves the hospital after giving birth, whether it’s abdominally or vaginally, and doesn’t feel like a total badass…it’s the coolest thing you’re ever going to do,” she says.

TruPilates’ Truxel echoes that sentiment and says she works with moms from the first trimester to several weeks postpartum when moms want to start working out again. Truxel uses a three-prong approach to get the body in proper alignment, with focus on correct breathing and strengthening the pelvic floor to prevent injuries when moms resume their normal activities.

“I look at moms like you’re an elite athlete and need to rehab,” she says. “You wouldn’t hike Mount Everest if you’ve only been walking around the block.”

Truxel says she struggled with postpartum depression after the birth of both of her children, as well as anxiety attacks with her second child. She says although doctors often screen for postpartum depression at a mom’s first checkup, she says the moms she works with say they often start struggling four or five months after giving birth, when they’ve gone back to work and have to juggle getting dinner on the table, picking up kids from daycare, etc.

“That’s something that’s not talked about,” Truxel says. “Is there shame associated with that, or women don’t realize it when they’re in it? …I don’t know what the answer is, [but what’s important is] support and just normalizing that this is really hard, as opposed to everything having to be perfect and amazing.”

Kelly Rossi remembers the moment she felt sure about becoming a mom: When her son smiled for the first time at 8 weeks old. Growing up, Rossi, associate director of sports nutrition for 10 athletic teams at UVA, went back and forth on whether she wanted to have children, and says that feeling persisted even after her son’s birth—up until that smile.

“I love when I come home at night and see him crawling over to hug me, feeling the love,” she says.

Rossi says her pregnancy was fairly easy—she felt great and kept to her workouts until Braxton Hicks contractions at 23 weeks turned her normal six-days-a-week routine into walks with the dog and yoga. After her son was born, Rossi noticed some pressure in her pelvic area but attributed it to having just pushed out a 7-pound baby. This being her first baby, she didn’t know what to expect, what was normal.

At her six-week post-delivery checkup—standard for new moms—Rossi was diagnosed with a rectocele—which is basically a hernia in the pelvic area. That diagnosis means Rossi can no longer lift anything heavier than 10 pounds, and Kayden hit that mark two months after his birth. This means Rossi’s husband, Reed Dibler, has to wake up every time the baby cries in order to place him in his mother’s arms. And at work, Rossi has to ask for help during the more physically demanding parts of her job. Not only was Rossi adjusting to new motherhood, she was adjusting to the realization that she may not be able to pick up her son when he’s 2. Surgery is an option, though it could complicate future pregnancies, and Rossi’s doctors say the birth injury could go away on its own—though it could come and go.

“I would say it’s more of an emotional trauma than a physical one,” Rossi says. “You want to be able to hold your baby and feel like a strong mom. I’m not able to exercise, do my job fully and not able to be the mom I want to be, honestly.”

Although not diagnosed with postpartum depression, Rossi says she experienced a four-week period in January, about six months after the birth, when she struggled emotionally. She had been going to weekly physical therapy sessions to treat her injury, in conjunction with a weekly pilates session with Truxel to work on strengthening her pelvic floor. When Rossi had to miss a few sessions, she realized how much she had been relying on Truxel not just for physical but emotional support.

After Rossi gave birth, she says moms she didn’t know well, women she knew from working in the same industry, reached out to check on her. They offered daily support and shared stories of their own struggles. Rossi says she was surprised to hear that people she had previously thought of as strong and with no issues were going through some of the same things. Today she pays that forward within her own circle, and makes sure to check in with new moms so they know they’re not alone.

Growing topic

Each year, Palko’s staff at the Women’s Center welcomes 30 interns from all areas of study: law, public policy, nonprofits, marketing, to help with a variety of tasks, ranging from a legal clinic to an online journal. The students take a class in both the fall and spring semester that discusses mothering and parenting topics. Palko leads the spring session, which this year looked at topics such as doula services, reproductive justice and the women’s place in the work world and challenges women face when building a career. She says she’s excited to see a lot of “really smart, dedicated and super thoughtful students” teaming up with Women’s Center staff to discuss the big picture of parenting issues and how a number of problems are interrelated: the climate, economy, access to resources and services. “There’s an understanding that there’s a constellation of things that need to be addressed,” she says.

The mom of an 11-year-old daughter, she says she sees a shift moving in the right direction.

“There’s a couple of different conversations going on that will hopefully lead to better understanding of what effective parenting looks like and better support for people doing it,” she says.

Shelly Wood says she she’s also seeing a shift—“a tiny, slow shift but definitely a shift”—in her clients at the Women’s Initiative. She says as more spaces such as the yoga for women of color class are offered, it’s opening up places to “help ourselves.”

“More spaces mean more available opportunities that can only help destigmatize that it’s okay to reach out for help, it’s okay to have these feeling of feeling stressed as a mother.”

At Bend Yoga there’s a “family tree” on one wall that features a tree with a green leaf with the name of each mother and baby that are part of the community.

“I think we’re so individualized until this process of pregnancy happens,” Cox says. “It takes a village to raise the village.”

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