Maternal health — which issues matter?

Last week, Jessica Valenti, feminist blogger and author, expressed her frustration that a major news organization proposed she dish about her experience with “shedding the baby weight.”  After she pitched a serious story examining the rhetoric of motherhood paraded at this month’s political conventions, the editors responded:

 We’re doing a lot of coverage around Jessica Simpson’s efforts to lose the baby pounds, and we’d love to hear from  Jessica  Valenti about what it was like for her to shed the weight.

It’s a suggestion that is clearly an  insult to a professional writer who analyzes issues of reproduction, motherhood and sexuality. But from a public health perspective, it’s an opportunity to reflect on the mainstream discourse about maternal child health.

Proposing that Valenti write about losing weight becomes even more insulting considering  that she had preeclampsia which led to an emergency C-section and meant she  gave birth three months early to a child who weighed only two pounds.

I was hospitalized after a routine exam showed I had dangerously high blood pressure Andrew and I assumed it was all an overreaction because I didn’t feel sick.   Even though the doctors were telling us I wouldn’t leave the hospital until I gave birth and that I might need to deliver in days, we didn’t really buy it.   We even pooh-poohed the neonatologist who spoke with us about what we should expect having such a premature baby.   We planned as if I would carry Layla to term, bringing DVDs and books to the hospital and starting to create a schedule of visits from family and friends.

I can relate.

Like Valenti, I gave birth three months early.  My water broke at 26 weeks due to preterm premature rupture of membranes (PPROM). I too was told I wouldn’t leave the hospital until I gave birth, but my partner and I  didn’t really buy it  either. We’d planned to give birth at home.


My son in the hospital, born at 28 weeks.


I hadn’t read much in the news about prematurity, and to be honest, I tended to avoid reading health stories pertaining to pregnancy. Reporting about pregnancy and health can be frustrating. Is dieting during pregnancy safe?  Does having a fever during pregnancyincrease your risk of giving birth to a child with autism? How can you work with your pregnancy cravings for nachos and ice cream instead of against them?

On the other hand, maternal health issues concerns like preeclampsia, or even debilitating morning sickness are real, serious and important but often lie outside the public discourse about pregnancy. Even during routine prenatal care, discussions about prematurity or even postpartum depression and anxiety  are often lacking.

We have much to be thankful for in this country, of course. Few women in the US die in labor. Major issues like vesico-vaginal fistula have largely been eradicated, and availability of blood transfusions, sterile conditions, and trained providers mean that giving birth in the US is safer than it is in many parts of the world. And despite our flawed medical system, most pregnant women are even eligible for state-subsidized health insurance.

Still, the US does have an unforgivably  high infant mortality rate, and a 2010 Amnesty International Report claims that two women a die die giving birth in the country. One in every eight babies born in the US will be born before term, which costs the health system millions of dollars. Worldwide, 13 million babies are born too soon.

Yes, shedding the baby weight is a concern for many women after giving birth. But there are so many other important health concerns for pregnant women that barely even get a mention.

Wouldn’t you like to see more quality  reporting about prematurity, preeclampsia, and other issues related to pregnancy? What do you think about reporting on pregnancy and birth in the US? Have you seen reporting about maternal health in other countries that is better (or worse!) than it is in the United States? Is there anything maternal health organizations could do to encourage more reporting on important health issues pertaining to pregnancy and birth?

Let me know your thoughts and insights!




  1. Jennifer

    Great essay Jill! I find the discourse in pregnancy and post partum issues seriously lacking. In today’s world you’d think that empowering women by telling them the truth about pregnancy and about having a newborn would be the norm. Alas, we continue to wrap these issues in rose coloured glasses (no spelling error, I’m Canadian and we have a U in the word colour). I always tell people about how difficult I found it when I brought baby number 2 home and was not coping well with him and an active 2 year old. I look back on that time and want to cry from the guilt of not being the best I could, about not seeking help. The few times I did reach out I usually got the “There, there, this will pass, we did it and so can you” response. When I tell Moms about how hard I found that time, about the anxiety and the exhaustion and the deep sadness and guilt, a whole world opens up as they confess their feelings and worries. Women need to support, encourage and be truthful with one another. A mother such as yourself knows what truly matters in life, a sick baby or child brings that truth to the forefront as violently as a tornado. It puts “post-baby weight” as a concern to the bottom of a mother’s priority list and I completely agree with you that we need better articles, resources and support when it comes to pregnancy and post partum issues.

    • womenswellnesswatch

      Hey Jen! I totally agree. So often in the media pregnancy and motherhood is portrayed as something to accessorize, or something that is easily incorporate into your pre-baby life. More honest portrayals of the complexities of pregnancy and birth would do women a great service.

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