A version of this story was originally published June 25, 2021. It has been updated.
Britney Spears has spent the last 13 years of her life in controlled confinement. She’s been paying a hefty price for merely having a mental breakdown in 2008; a moment she was driven to by an unforgivably misogynistic society and paparazzi who were rabidly preying on her children simply to make a quick buck.
It’s easy to get caught up in thinking wealthy, successful people don’t deserve our empathy. A lot of the time, they really might not. But as Michael Hobbs says (the brilliant journalist who co-hosts the You’re Wrong About and Maintenance Phase podcasts), “Fame is abuse.”
And in the case of Britney Spears, it most certainly is.
Many of us watched the harrowing documentary Framing Britney Spears earlier this year, so we know all about how unfairly she was treated by the press, fellow artists, bloggers, and society as a whole. She was sexualized as a teenager by being marketed that way early on, and her ex-boyfriend sold her out when his solo career didn’t take off the way he wanted it to.
After getting married and having two babies in the short span of three years, it all began to take a toll. She was the butt of many jokes from late-night comedians, she was chased and hounded by paparazzi nonstop, and bloggers like Perez Hilton encouraged her to die—he even sold t-shirts with Heath Ledger’s portrait on them, with the words “Why couldn’t it have been Britney” in bold font.
Why was everyone attacking her so savagely all of a sudden, after years of success in the spotlight and number one hits? There are many complicated reasons, of course. But a lot of it had to do with the fact that she was postpartum.
Let me explain.
Imagine being a new mom with two babies under the age of two. You’re vulnerable in the way that all new moms of tiny kids are, but instead of being able to retreat into the safety of your home and your closest friends and family, you’re hounded everywhere you go.
Flashing lights, thousands of camera shutters, people shouting your name every time you get out of your car or try to take your children to a doctor’s appointment. Your marriage is feeling the strain all marriages face when you’re new parents, but the whole world is weighing in on the sanctity of your relationship.
If you turn on the TV, they’re poking fun at your hair, your nails, your clothes. If you open a magazine, they’re dissecting your marriage and displaying unsolicited photos of your babies. Everyone’s got an opinion, and none of them are kind.
How would YOU feel? Would the mama bear inside demand to be heard? Would you have the ability to remain calm and controlled when cameras are being shoved in your baby’s face?
She didn’t look like the Britney we were used to seeing. The one in full costume with perfect hair, a perfectly toned six-pack, a perfect manicure, and flawless makeup. The one who handled sexist questions from veteran journalists like Diane Sawyer like a pro. The confident, happy, effortlessly magnetic Britney.
Because this Britney was postpartum. She was in the throes of new motherhood and all that goes with it. Her kids came first, and everything else fell by the wayside.
In Framing Britney Spears, it was revealed that her mom, Lynne, believes Britney had postpartum depression. Just weeks after the birth of her second son, she’d filed for sole custody of both of her kids with her ex, Kevin Federline. By the time everything came to a head, her boys were just four and two years old.
All of this was happening under the most unforgiving microscope on a worldwide stage. And society left her to the wolves—because she was postpartum. She was likely struggling. Her priorities had changed. And a lot of people didn’t like that.
13 years after her public breakdown—the moment she was forced to surrender her life, bodily autonomy, and control to her father’s conservatorship—and we’re just now hearing her story. I hope we all continue to listen and learn from this. She deserved grace in new motherhood just like anyone else; instead, she was tormented. Though her father has petitioned to eliminate the conservatorship that he’s used to hold her hostage all these years, the damage is done.
She didn’t owe us anything other than who she was. Now, it’s time for all of us to honor that.