The Secret, Magical Underwear That Only Moms Know About

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Photo: Graham Monro/gm photographics

Four years ago I gave birth to my first child, a boy. The labor was almost two days long and ended in a C-section, which my husband and I hadn’t planned for. In the days after, so much of my life felt foreign. It wasn’t only the here’s-a-tiny-baby-for-you-to-keep-alive thing, but also the catheter and the sting of its removal, the surgical Steri-Strips that covered the incision at the base of my belly, the pain of sitting up. I was tired and overwhelmed, sad about the birth I’d had and the birth I didn’t. The nurses kept barging in to take my temperature and ask me if I’d pooped yet. At least they gave me the postpartum mesh underwear.

To a young, healthy person like myself, this underwear is part novelty, part revelation. It’s disposable, for one. That’s right, you heard me: Disposable. Underwear. I was delighted the first time I saw them. Made of a soft, breathable netting that expanded to fit over my hips, they were incredibly comfortable. Also, because postpartum bleeding required me to straddle huge, mortifying maxi pads like I was in seventh grade again, they were practical: The underwear held the pads secure, and if something did leak, the whole mess could be tossed into the trash, forgotten forever. The underwear’s high-waisted fit made me feel like a 1950s pinup girl, and sometimes I deluded myself into believing they were flattering.

In those early days, I cried a lot. But I also enjoyed my new underwear. I felt safe wearing them. Eight months later, when my sister had her second child, I asked if she could get me a pair, just for old time’s sake. I kept them in the back of my drawer like a talisman.

A few months ago I gave birth again, this time to a daughter. The birth occurred in my dining room — in a birthing tub, no less. Aside from my husband and our sleeping son in the next room, the house was filled with women, a coven of them: the midwives, my sister, my mother, and one of my oldest friends, who is also a midwife. Of course, there was no surgery. The midwives regularly checked the baby’s heartbeat; not once did they check my dilation. The labor was half as long as the first and I pushed for only 20 minutes. Everything went as planned, as I had dared to fantasize it would. Unlike the first time, I felt empowered by the birth of my child, exhausted but happy, and I was surrounded only by people I loved.

Nevertheless, I had the mesh underwear at the ready. A friend of mine had given birth three months prior and had passed along a handful of unused pairs. When I slipped one on, their comforting aspects calmed me immediately. My dear mesh underwear! That first night I slept on a puppy pad over the bedsheet, in case of any unseemly leaks. I remember thinking that the underwear would keep everything in place, save me and the linens. I was right. The next morning, I took a godly shower and was grateful for a new pair.

Even as I marveled at how different my two labors had been, my postpartum experiences shared certain similarities. After each birth, I had a perfect baby to get to know. I also had the fact of my physical self to contend with. What had once been on the inside — a human being! — was now on the outside, and it was my body’s job to complete the process. This transition, both times, felt so private: the smell, the mess, the fatigue, the cramps as my uterus shrank back to its original size. It wasn’t easy. No matter what type of birth you have, this process remains the same. It isn’t glamorous. You have a body, you are a body.

Soon after I gave birth to my daughter, my midwives taught me the phrase “Day Threeness,” which refers to the third day after a child is born, when a mother’s hormones really go wild and she can feel emotional, freaked out, and even depressed. For some mothers, Day Threeness appears only briefly, while for others it settles in for a while. Either way, it can be intense. The mesh underwear serves as a kind of shield against Day Threeness. Or, if not a shield, at least a way to say: Hey, we did this big crazy thing called childbirth and we can’t wear regular underwear for a while! That’s okay! You’ll be okay! The proof of childbirth is the baby, obviously, but the body also shows what happened, and it also needs to be taken care of. The mesh underwear recognizes this fact. It allows you to acknowledge the physical challenges of childbirth, and in that acknowledgment, surmount them.

In the past few months I’ve talked about the power of the mesh underwear with other mothers. The women I talked to are not all alike, and they don’t share the same birth stories and child-rearing philosophies. But they agreed with me on this one element of postpartum life. Whether they had a home or a hospital birth; whether they had a vaginal delivery or a cesarean; whether their cesarean was scheduled or emergency; whether they refused an epidural or requested one; whether they resented their birth experience or celebrated it: they all loved this underwear. One friend admitted to wearing it for far longer than necessary; another told me she requested extra pairs, knowing how much she depended on them the first time she gave birth. In a parenting climate that is so often divisive and judgmental, this agreement, this unity, is refreshing.

Last weekend I passed along three unworn pairs to a pregnant friend who is due at the end of the month. I tied the small pile with a pink ribbon. It occurred to me that all new mothers should save a pair to give away to a pregnant woman they love. “Here you go,” we can say, and describe how alternately strange, great, and trying the postpartum experience is. We can warn about Day Threeness, and also assure our friends that it’ll be all right. “Don’t worry. You’ll love this underwear.” And, like that, in this small way, one woman can connect with another, and another, and another.

Long live the mesh underwear, the thing that brings us together.