Sometimes, I really want to round up all of the people in the world who deal with, work with, talk about or publicly comment on breastfeeding. I want to get them in a room and sit them down and do a massive amount of group therapy with them.
I hate that breastfeeding is stigmatized in some ways, that women are given a hard time or chastised or publicly reprimanded for breastfeeding in public or posting a breastfeeding picture online. The world is hard for a breastfeeding mama, this I know is true. But I believe it is harder on those who, for whatever reason, don’t breastfeed.
I breastfed my daughter for a full year. She didn’t have a drop of formula until she was 10 months old when we used it to mix with oatmeal. Her checkups are filled with notes of her easy, strong growth, of my breastfeeding success. I was praised by our pediatrician, I was told of all the benefits I was providing my daughter with. My daughter was a natural at breastfeeding, she never had a latch problem or a problem gaining weight. She breastfed quickly and efficiently and easily slept through the night without waking to be fed. Please don’t hate me. And please don’t think my success had anything to do with me as a mother. It was dumb luck and maybe a little bit of good genetics.
However, I did not enjoy breastfeeding. I never experienced the rush of oxytocin mothers coo about. Because I was so concerned with the advice of lactation consultants and internet “experts” I rarely allowed my husband to give my daughter a bottle with pumped milk, terrified it meant she would give up on breastfeeding. We did so so infrequently that by six months she absolutely refused to take any bottle, EVER. I felt trapped by my breastfeeding responsibility. My daughter’s nourishment was tied to my body. I couldn’t be away from her for more than a couple hours without fearing she would starve (I know, ridiculous) or that I was about to ruin the sacred breastfeeding relationship I was hell-bent on maintaining. It wasn’t a joyful experience. I felt resentful that I was the only one who could feed her. But guilt outweighed my resentment. The guilt that was built, brick by brick, by every “breast is best” message I saw and internalized.
I breastfed because I was told it was what I needed to do. We took a breastfeeding class about how important breastfeeding was. I did it to continue to receive the praise from the doctors and lactation consultants. I did it because not a week went by that I didn’t run across an article in some form discussing the benefits of breastfeeding with the not-so-subtle undertones implying that you should breastfeed. Especially if you want the best for your child. You do want the best for your child, don’t you?
I began to formulate ideas for a plan of how we would cease breastfeeding almost 6 months in advance. When doing my research, I was bombarded with comments like, “why would you just decide FOR your baby? Shouldn’t you let your BABY decide when SHE wants to stop?” or “A year is just the standard. Why would you deprive your baby of breastmilk just because she is one?” Shame, much?
I was recently sitting down with a friend who had a new baby. She has been battling several serious issues related to breastfeeding that have not thus far resolved. She shared her experiences with lactation consultants and doctors she has worked with. And I felt a familiar rage rise up in my throat. I looked into her tired eyes and listened as the professionals she had worked with had discouraged her from using bottles, criticized her decision about birth control because it might affect her breastfeeding, reluctantly told her “well, I guess you CAN pump instead of breastfeeding …..” and I was able to easily finish the sentence she heard in her head: “I guess you CAN, but a good mother wouldn’t.”
I looked at her, a very strong woman who isn’t particularly swayed by public opinion or others judgements, and I saw exhaustion. What I wanted more than anything was to say, “If you want to stop, ITS OK.”
It’s a situation I have been witness to with many other women. I have sat while friends cried into their hands of how they had “failed” their babies when breastfeeding was unsuccessful. Women who internally cringe at the comments of “every woman just needs to be supported and breastfeeding will work.” Women who are convinced they have let their children down because for whatever reason, they weren’t able to breastfeed to the gold-star standard they had in their heads.
I want to ask these professionals and these internet experts, when does a mother’s mental, physical, and emotional health stop mattering? When does she become only a vessel whose only purpose is to do everything in her power to make sure only her pure, perfect breastmilk ever touches her baby’s tongue? Why do women who become pregnant suddenly become our property, why do we suddenly feel we have the authority to tell her what to do with her body?
I have learned from our culture that when you become a mother, you give up your right to enjoy life. You invite un-invited advice and criticism and opinions. I’ve learned that we are to become martyrs, that we are to accept that if we just “tried harder” or were “less selfish” or got our “priorities straight” we would have succeeded in some mythical goal that is supposed to guarantee some sort of vague, nebulous success. It feels at times a little cult-y, a lot obsessive, this culture of “breast is best.”
I cringe when I hear that women just need more support to make breastfeeding work. Maybe. I bet that is certainly the case for some women. But what about the women who are exhausted, overwhelmed, sick, in pain, and miserable? What about “supporting” women to make whatever choice they need to make? What about “supporting” women if they choose not to breastfeed? Why must we make them feel like shitty mothers, why must we guilt them with our social and internet commentary? Why must we insist that they bend over backwards and nearly kill themselves in the process before we “allow” them to “quit”? Why is “quitting” only valid in the most dire of circumstances?
I have had time to look back on my breastfeeding relationship with my daughter, and I can clearly see how fear, guilt, shame, and martyrhood deprived me of a lot of possible joy in that first year of life. Moving forward with my next child, I hope that I can learn how to turn down or turn off those voices who are unable to see the value in my own mental, emotional, and physical health. And I hope to work on myself as a true supporter of women, without requiring them to prove their martyrhood in order to be “released from responsibility”.
So in case you needed to hear it today, and hear how truly ridiculous it sounds when said out loud – women, you are more than your breastmilk. For God’s sake, so, so much more than that.