Four-time Olympic-gold-winning gymnast Shawn Johnson East—like so many women—has incredibly high expectations of herself. So when the delivery of her daughter, Drew Hazel, didn’t go as she’d planned, she felt like she’d failed in her first moments of motherhood. “I went in with such a stubborn mind-set of thinking the only way I could bring our baby into the world was naturally. No meds, no intervention. At 14 hours, when I chose to get an epidural, I felt guilty. At 22 hours, when we were told I had to get a C-section, I felt like I had failed,” she wrote on Instagram. Here, Johnson East opens up to Glamour about the complicated world of social media moms, wrestling with mom guilt, and what it means to be a strong mother.
As an athlete, I had one mentality: You have to be strong, not weak. I was never one to take pain medication, worried it might affect my performance or somehow make me less of an elite athlete. Fast-forward to motherhood, and those same attitudes applied. I muscled through the aches and pains of pregnancy, never wanting to be "that complaining pregnant woman," and planned to have a natural birth—it was my body against the pain. It was my first real mom decision, and I felt like the safest option for my baby was going natural. That’s what I thought it meant to be a strong mother.
Things did not go as planned. Fourteen hours into labor, I asked for an epidural. By 22 hours, I was being taken for a C-section.
It was my first wave of mom guilt. I felt like I’d caved, like I was selfish for getting the epidural. I wondered, Am I already making a poor decision for my child? I felt guilty, like I wasn’t doing this for my daughter but as a selfish reaction to the pain. And when doctors told me I’d need a C-section, I felt like this beautiful dream I’d had as a first-time mom to do the best thing for my child had failed. I know that C-sections are relatively safe procedures—safer than delivering vaginally in some cases—but I couldn’t stop thinking, What if something goes wrong because I selfishly decided to do this? I felt like I had failed her already.
There's so much pressure on moms to be perfect. We tell moms that they have to be perfect; otherwise they’re going to scar their child, raise them the wrong way, and leave them with issues that will be all mom’s fault. Sometimes it feels like no matter what decision you make, it's the wrong one. In the hospital I had this painful doubt: Am I already doing something wrong for my baby?
People make every topic so dramatic, so controversial, and so political. You’re a natural birth mom or an elective C-section mom. A breastfeeding mom or a formula mom. A stay-at-home mom or a working mom.
People on social media have a lot to say about this. We all know the mommy shamers—I’ve already been asked how dare I not breastfeed—people with such passionate opinions and an appetite for confrontation. It can breed a very negative mind-set that you’re doing everything wrong for your child. But there’s another side to social media that offers so much support and makes moms not some idealized figures but human.
I know this from personal experience. Three years ago my husband and I shared our miscarriage on social media—it was such a random leap of faith, but opening up about that pain was really the only thing that got me through it. Thousands of women reached out with their own stories, and it showed me a whole community that I hadn't really seen before. It made me feel so much less alone.
After 22 hours of labor ending in a C-section, our daughter, Drew Hazel East, was born happy and healthy. After we brought her home, I thought about how healing it felt to share my miscarriage and decided to open up about feeling like a failure for having a C-section. I still had doubts about the whole thing—Should I feel guilty? Did I do the right thing? Seeing messages like “I went through the same thing and I felt the same way” was so reassuring. I stopped feeling like a failure as a mom and felt human again.
When we’d shared our miscarriage story, I felt this frustration: Why aren’t these feelings of insecurity and shame talked about more? Why do women feel like they have to keep it hidden? I think the same thing goes for having a kid—people make every topic so dramatic, so controversial, and so political. You’re a natural birth mom or an elective C-section mom. A breastfeeding mom or a formula mom. A stay-at-home mom or a working mom. There are so many topics that just alienate you from the world immediately.
I think that's the wrong approach. The moment I got to hold my daughter for the first time, I literally could have laughed at myself and everything that I cared about before that moment. For me to have cared so much about what it would mean if I had an epidural was crazy—I’d brought my daughter into the world happy and healthy. And that was all that mattered in my first moments as a mom.
Now I think being strong as a mom is learning how to go with the flow. You can have your plans and you can have your preferences about what’s best, but at the end of the day, it's about you and your child figuring things out together. Being strong as a mom isn't sticking to a plan; it's figuring it out and wrestling through it. It’s about being able to hold your baby and say, "Okay, we made it one step closer to whatever the goal is." And being okay with however you get there.
Shawn Johnson East is an Olympic-gold-winning gymnast, YouTuber, and mom. Follow her @shawnjohnson.
Originally Appeared on Glamour