New parenthood. It’s one of the most transformative human experiences — and one of the least understood. After a few days in a hospital, you’re sent home with a tiny, new life and a few pieces of paperwork. The trial-by-fire begins. You’ll get some sleep in 12 weeks! Enjoy every minute because it goes so fast! Good luck going back to work!
A newborn baby is due back at the doctor for checkup after checkup. Mothers, however, fade into the background. What happens next is private, behind closed doors, invisible.
Today, WBEZ is launching a series called “The First 12 Weeks” that takes readers into those private spaces to see the joys, the frustrations and the needs of three Chicago-area mothers in their babies’ first weeks of life. Contributor Elly Fishman and WBEZ photographer Manuel Martinez spent months with the families at home and in their neighborhoods, meeting both in person and over Zoom, to witness the intimate and sometimes overwhelming moments of new parenthood.
There are, of course, the first smiles, the endless routines and sleepless nights that will feel familiar to anyone who has been a parent. But this series pays particular attention to the parts of the parenting experience not often represented in popular culture: cross-cultural headwinds in a mixed-race household; the legal and day-to-day struggles facing a queer couple; and the acute loneliness of a young immigrant who is navigating parenthood far from home and mostly alone.
Why do this now? In the United States, we’ve been wrestling for decades with how to support new families — but by every measure our efforts have fallen dramatically short. Among industrialized nations, we tend to be last or near last on every quality metric of family policy you can find — from paid leave to maternal health to the availability of child care. The COVID-19 pandemic, in many ways, exposed these shortcomings and at the same time exacerbated them: In Illinois, 1 in 6 children is now living in poverty and the percentage of families experiencing food and housing insecurity has ticked up after a decade of pre-COVID declines. Nationwide, maternal mortality, notably among Black women, hit a high.Policymakers at all levels of government are pledging to do better. In that regard, Illinois is a state to watch. Gov. JB Pritzker has made a push for universal preschool and support for families with the youngest children a cornerstone of his second-term agenda, on top of extending full Medicaid benefits to women for up to 12 months postpartum. Chicago, too, is putting itself on the map with a universal home visiting program, currently in a pilot phase, that sends nurses to homes in the weeks after birth to answer questions, troubleshoot issues and screen new mothers for postpartum depression.
But so far the solutions are patchwork at best. Child care, mental health assistance, even a community group to help troubleshoot breastfeeding troubles — accessing these lifelines still usually depends on who you know, whether you have access to transportation, and how much you can pay.
“Once I started thinking about the policies and politics in play and the bigger social issues, I wondered: How does that actually play out in someone’s life?” asks writer Elly Fishman, herself a new mother. “The pandemic showed the precarity of all of these systems that are supposedly in place. When it topples, it falls on moms.”
So what do new mothers and parents really need? In a region as diverse as the Chicago area, how do their needs change depending on race, income, gender and sexuality, even citizenship status?
With these questions in mind, Fishman worked through midwives, health care organizations and online support groups to find the mothers featured in this story. To be fair, these parents don’t represent every experience out there — far from it. But together they start to show the twin edges of vulnerability and wonder in this unique window of life.Because this is, at heart, a story about the mothers, the series gets close to them. Listen to audio diaries they logged during early mornings and late nights, graciously shared with WBEZ for this project: You’ll hear first gurgles, the tedium of middle-of-the-night feedings, breastfeeding insecurities and more.
One reporting goal, Fishman says, was to make the experience of new motherhood more visible. “What percentage of the world has gone through this time,” she asks, “and yet it still remains this total mystery because it is happening privately.”
We hope this project will be the start of a bigger conversation. We want to hear from you — particularly if you want to share your own First 12 Weeks experience. Tell us about it at First12Weeks@wbez.org.
– Cassie Walker Burke, external editor at WBEZ