Breastfeeding is a wonderful, beautiful and amazing thing. We as mothers have the opportunity to give our babies life and to give it of our own bodies. The images are everywhere. Babies nursing happily at their mothers breast, sidelying moms, moms with twins. They all look so calm and relaxed.
Prior to the birth of our babies we are given loads of information demonstrating the importance of breastfeeding, the benefits our babies will gain from breastfeeding, not to mention how it is a natural experience that will be relaxing and will offer us the time to bond with our babies.
And then the baby comes. For some breastfeeding is easy, just like in the books we read, just like in all of the idyllic pictures that we see.
For others, it does not come easy. A poor latch can result in unbelievable levels of pain, blood in the milk, a child spitting up red milk, gashes in the nipples. Where is the breastfeeding we read about? Where is that wonderful, beautiful experience that we were expecting? Add to that sleep deprivation and a colicky baby and the thought of putting the baby to the breast can become a nightmare.
In the present subculture of women who see themselves as “natural” or “holistic” breastfeeding is endorsed over all else. Lactation consultants are there to spur you on, breastfeeding coaches paired through WICC. No matter what: keep breastfeeding! “The research shows you’ll get more sleep”; “The research shows your baby will get sick less.” All true.
But what if you simply can’t do it or simply choose not to? What if illness or pain or lifestyle issues makes supplementing or feeding exclusively with formula the best or only choice for you and your baby? What then? How will your peers see you? Will you be judged? Will you be perceived as depriving your child of their God-given right to a healthy immune system? Will your child get sick more? Will you be tainting their bodies with the cursed, man-made formula? Worse yet, will you be looked down upon by your family and peers? Will you be afraid or embarrassed to “admit” that you have supplemented with formula? Will you have to wear the scarlet “F”?
Our subculture (and what we wish for broader society) presents a very strong underlying and oftentimes overt message that those who do not breastfeed exclusively, or who choose not to altogether, should be ashamed of their choices. I clearly remember the shame that I felt when I announced to others that I was supplementing. It was clearly not the #1 choice.
I think it’s important for all of us to be sensitive to the messages that we put out into the world and to the reality of life and the reality of raising young infants, especially when raising them alone without a supportive partner, or when physical or life circumstances arise that make breastfeeding a difficult choice.
Breastfeeding is meant to feed and nourish our children. In the absence of breastfeeding what other choices remain? How do we nourish our babies? How do we keep them alive and help them to grown? Isn’t that the ultimate goal after all? Living up to a subculture’s subversive messages is an imposed stress – and one that can be ameliorated by speaking openly about ALL the options available, not just those that may be out of reach for some. And not only speaking openly about them, but accepting them and sending a positive message that formula and supplement, not breastfeeding if OKAY. It may even be what is BEST for your baby.
I have found that mothers, including myself, who have had to stop breastfeeding for various reason do not talk openly about this due to fear of being labeled a "bad mother". These are intelligent and loving mothers that have revolved everything in their lives around their baby since the second they found out they were pregnant. They are by all means great mothers. However, when it comes to breastfeeding they hide their struggles and the outcome as if by not breastfeeding it cancels everything else out. I cannot stress enough how strongly I feel mothers should support one another through trying times like breastfeeding. I find this so important because not being able to breastfeed usually negatively impacts the mother herself so deeply. It's an incredibly hard transition when you feel inadequate and that you are letting the most important person in your life down. Mothers all too often have a tendency to become competitive and judgmental with one another instead of supportive. It's nice to see this issue being addressed.
Speaking as someone who breastfed for a long time in spite of some difficulties, it can be hard to know what to say to women who start out breastfeeding and then can’t keep it up. I actually had a conversation with a beloved coworker once who had quit breastfeeding because of a problem I myself ended up having. Society really is full of people who both individually and collectively discourage breastfeeding, and in different and subtle ways. People like me want to say, “You can do it! Because I did!” and your message is one of hope, but it often sounds very different on the receiving end. It sounds like judgement. It sounds like I beat you at something. It sounds like I’m Mom Enough and you aren’t. Formula feeding is sometimes better for baby and mama, in spite of the fact that this was not true for me and my son. Formula feeding is usually not harmful even where it isn’t superior.
But I can’t help it: I hate formula feeding. True story: I am formula feeding right now. I hate washing bottles. I hate having to shell out and shell out and shell out. I hate having to keep the stuff in stock. I hate that I let a healthcare provider talk me into giving my son more formula, resulting in my milk drying up before I even realized what was happening. I don’t want anyone who really wants to breastfeed to find herself shortchanged in the same way I was. Sometimes I just don’t know how to express myself without sounding judgmental. Sometimes I don’t know when to shut up.
I know where you are coming from. I was a complete tropper when it came to breastfeeding but then when I look back I ask myself if I coudn’t have done more. No sense sitting around fretting over it though. Baby turned out just fine! If I had another baby maybe it would be different. Who knows? I do know the feeling of wanting to say “Come on! You can do it! Don’t give up now…” But then you also don’t want to get involved when you haven’t been invited to give your opinion. You’re also not walking in their shoes.
I was lucky that I had a peer breastfeeding support woman through the WICC program. She would call me every couple of days after the baby was born to check in and see how things were going and to encourage me. Without her I may have given up a lot sooner than I did.
I also wish someone had shown me how to pump a lot earlier. I had to figure it all out on my own. I think if I had been better with the pump things might have been different.
Lots of what ifs? Not that many answers. We do the best we can and live with those decisions, right?
Yes, great post. I love to hear women talking about their reality. And yes it does seem you will be judged no matter what method of feeding you opt for. I hate that there are always detractors no matter what your choice. Like everything else with parenting, it should be about what is right for you and your baby.