Mothers’ Day: The struggles of societal perception on women’s bodies

When Linah Batamuriza delivered her first child, it became a whole new world for her. Happy and at the same time scared for what was to come, she chose to ignore herself to concentrate on raising a healthy baby. She worked round the clock to do just about anything for her.

“I lay awake just to make sure she was alright. Motherhood is the sweetest feeling and the most overwhelming task,” she says.

What she did not realise was that as days went by, her body too began changing, with too much weight piling up and her hairline receding. This, she discovered when she eventually met with a group of friends, over tea who started teasing her about her body which made her lose self confidence.

“When I got home, I stood before the mirror and I could barely recognise myself. I wondered if I would ever go back to my size and I eventually fell into a state of depression. I lost confidence but somehow after I stopped breastfeeding, everything went back to normal especially my size,” she says.

Such and many other body changes are what mothers struggle with after birth. From stretch marks to pumping breast milk every few hours, there’s so much more to post-childbirth than just having a shiny new baby to play with and snuggle.

The second Sunday in May has historically been set aside to encourage those women who wear the badge of “Motherhood.”

As daughters, sons and husbands rush to buy flowers, jewelry, or make breakfast to honor these courageous women and make them feel special, there’s difference between the ritual and the reality.

Alice Mugwaneza, a 30-year-old mother reveals that in the age of social media, where everyone looks perfect all the time and celebrities flaunting their ‘snap-back’ game, women find themselves facing so much pressure to look a certain way.

“We are told to appreciate our bodies as strong and amazing vessels for creating and sustaining human life, but accepting our new bodies isn’t exactly easy. It is far from a ‘glam mum’ and the reality we face in the society we live in.

I still don’t like my stretch marks, and I don’t like what pregnancy did to my body. But I’ve learned that it’s normal, and it’s the lies I’ve believed my whole life that have made me think it’s anything other than that.

As a mother to a girl, it’s my job to instill confidence in my daughter even as a one-year-old. If she hears me make the slightest complaint about my body, she’ll think that’s okay, and some day make complaints about her own body,” she says.

Olive Uwamariya, a mother and feminist also reveals how society tends to define a woman’s body shape, which brings too much tension.

“Society pressures women to look a certain way, even mothers who have just given birth. We are told to gain weight but not too much. We are told to be skinny but not too skinny, to have curves in the right places and so on.

Women are expected to somehow ‘bounce back’ and look their best when they have just undergone a major life-changing experience that significantly alters one’s body. We see the pressure all around us, particularly what is portrayed and praised in the media.

Many women feel they have to measure up and maintain these looks. This is damaging both physically and mentally. It can also be exacerbated by postpartum depression.”

Mugwaneza believes that the combination of a lack of societal culture that bullies mothers for everything from breastfeeding in public to prenatal exercise,  the generosity on Mother’s Day holiday cannot reflect reality.

Body shaming

While society tends to celebrate a woman’s body when she is pregnant, and talk about how cute the bump is, Batamuriza say, the work her body has done after the baby is born is far from being celebrated.

“We don’t allow her the time she needs for her body to heal, or acknowledge and accept that most women’s bodies can permanently change as a result of the pregnancy.

Mothers should not feel ashamed of how their bodies turn out after they’ve had children. They should be comfortable in their skin and embrace the new world that motherhood comes with,” she advises.

Uwamariya also warns that in a culture where people sometimes comment on mothers’ weight innocently, words have power and can make or break a person, such as causing women to have low self-esteem and poor body image.

“These words can also create unrealistic expectations that women want to pursue to achieve a certain look. I consider body shaming as a form of bullying and it is about judging someone’s look.

People need to be conscious of what they say to others and how that can be detrimental. We also need to cultivate a culture and a society that accepts women in all forms, shapes and sizes, she says.  

Support system

Christine Ashimwe a mother of three, experienced health complications of thrombosis after giving birth to her last born. She says that thanks to her relatives, who stood by her as she successfully underwent treatment and recovered to see her baby grow.

“I would advise them to have a positive support system and not negative people to break their spirit and energy. Support saw me through my thrombosis journey,” she says.

Through her Rwanda Clot Awareness Network, she organises prenatal classes to help expectant mothers and Rwandans to better take care of their bodies as well as their unborn children.

“It’s important that expectant mothers, new mothers and everyone attends prenatal classes. Women spend a few minutes with their obstetrician-gynecologist, and do not find time to tell them all they need to know. With prenatal classes every topic including breastfeeding, body weight, exercises and nutrition are discussed and myths demystified, with every kind of specialist around to answer questions,” she says.

She further advises women to listen to their bodies during and after pregnancy because their bodies will always send signals whenever something is wrong.

Janet Masozera a mother and grandmother resonates with Ashimwe, and adds that open conversations in our society about the fact that motherhood and parenting is hard, even for the most prepared and supported parents, should be embraced.

“No matter how much we all know we ought to admit that the perfection we strive for is all fantasy, and that although we are far from perfect we are worthy of being loved. These conversations will also help our daughters to not fall victim to this biased thinking as well, that they are exposed to at birth, she says.

Eva Gara, a mother and grandmother, has occasionally organised meetups to celebrate and share the struggles of motherhood and womanhood. Her belief is that mothers from time immemorial have found strength and wisdom in working as a team, with young mothers learning from the older ones and knowledge passed down from generation to generation.

“Someone to help with the baby’s needs until they were old enough to manage on their own. Even then the village was there to mold and panel beat a child into an acceptable young person. 

Fast forward to the 21st century, besides your mother and hopefully a few close aunties, a woman has to rely on books and google to guide her through mothering and all that goes with. Modernity is creating a gap that has seen young moms get serious postnatal depression because they don’t have anybody to walk them through early motherhood, she says.

She adds that today,  it is difficult to convince mothers to come together for a common cause, yet when they do come it is amazing how they enjoy themselves, that most times they will ask for a redo of the same function. 

“The problem I find is that not many are willing to pay for the cost that goes in organising these functions yet the benefits are huge,” she says.