‘Jane the Virgin’ and the Guilt of Motherhood

Last night in the season premiere of Jane the Virgin, Jane’s child, Mateo, is kidnapped. Thankfully, the ordeal is over quickly and soon after he’s returned to his mother, but Jane is scarred by the act. It haunts her every action, afraid that now they’re damaged goods, afraid that she can’t be a good mother. There are some things the show portrays in an over-the-top manner but last night, Jane the Virgin got something right: the guilt of motherhood.

When I gave birth to my son, it was a difficult labor. Hours and hours of pushing to no avail ended in one last ditch effort in the form of what was basically a reverse plunger on my kid’s head to pull him out. Relief washed over me the first time I heard my son cry. It was done and now we could start our lives together, happy and healthy.

The doctors did their doctor-y things and still under the influence of drugs and exhaustion, I couldn’t quite make out their muffled conversations. There was worry laced in their voice but they wouldn’t look at me. Then a nurse turned and slapped a big smile on her face: “We have to take him down to the NICU, but nothing to worry! He’ll be just fine.”

Neonatal Intensive Care Unit. I didn’t believe her bullshit for one second. All I had heard was, “You couldn’t properly deliver your child and now we have to fix your screw up.” My kid was minutes old and already I had failed him. Still too weak from a day in labor, I couldn’t spend my first night as a parent with my son. I didn’t get to breastfeed but instead pumped milk using the cold, angry machine given to me by the hospital, sobbing both from the pain of it and the paltry amount of milk I’d made after 20 minutes. It wasn’t enough and they’d have to supplement with formula, which I knew was bad because all of the pamphlets said the said thing: “Breast is best.” But he’d already lost so much weight as it was, so who was I to deny him nutrients? Even more, because he was in the NICU, my husband and I didn’t get to have skin-to-skin contact like they said we should have done in all the books but instead gently rubbed his tiny hand locked inside a plastic cage of wires. None of this was how it was supposed to happen.

The nurses did their best to make me feel better, telling me that he was taken care of and I could sleep without worry. I don’t fault them. Those nurses were the best I’ve ever had. But the guilt inside me had built up so much that when they told me I had to leave the hospital while he stayed, I hit my knees in despair. My care was done. I wasn’t a patient anymore but my son was. I felt like I had messed up this whole motherhood thing so much on the first day that I’d ruined all of our lives. I can’t begin to describe to you the awful feeling of going home childless after giving birth. I wandered into the newly painted nursery, numbly staring at the stuffed animals in his unused crib. Every colorful piece in his room was a loud reminder of my failure. 

I couldn’t protect my son.

Last night, Jane the Virgin perfectly encapsulated that grief, that guilt, that anger in a single moment. Jane, sitting on the bed tries to breastfeed Mateo, but he’s not getting enough to eat. Through tears she cries to her mother, Xo, “I just want to do this one good thing.” Wanting nothing more than to be a good mother, Jane pleads with her body to just work so that she can do what should be such a simple, instinctual thing: breastfeed.

Jane’s adamant that things be as a normal as possible, even after something as abnormal as her infant being kidnapped. The guilt piles on the more Mateo struggles to eat. She asks the lactation consultant if “trauma” can cause problems in making milk. Of course it can so Jane immediately puts more blame on herself. She should have known something was wrong and she didn’t, so now she’s being punished by not being able to breastfeed. It’s not a rational response. As Xo tells her, “How could you have possibly known?” And the truth is, she couldn’t have known, but that doesn’t stop the guilt from blossoming into a monster of uncontrollable proportions.

Jane the Virgin doesn’t fill an entire episode with drama. It perfectly blends the sadness and humor in such a way that one doesn’t overpower the other, making it real and at the same time still entertaining. I’m glad that I didn’t have to sit through an entire episode of a tear-soaked Jane, but I did appreciate the little moments that added a sense of reality to her peril.

Even after bringing my son home, I wasn’t out of the woods. After weeks of bottle-feeding, I couldn’t just put him on the boob and expect things to work. Pumping breast milk at all hours became my new normal, but like Jane, I found ways to make things work. I don’t imagine this is the last of the guilt for Jane as a new parent, but I appreciated the realism of her plight in last night’s season premiere. The guilt isn’t rational and it certainly doesn’t make sense, but it’s there.

Jen Stayrook
Jen Stayrook
Don't let the fancy nerd duds deceive you; Jen’s never been described as “classy.” You can find her on Twitter where she stalks all of her favorite celebrities: @jenstayrook. Or you can find her on Steam or Xbox dying in every game she plays as "Rilna." Email: jen.stayrook@theworkprint.com

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