I’m getting really tired of the binary. It rarely ever applies. There are almost always shades of grey. Somehow when it comes to parenting in general, and breastfeeding in particular, it seems as if the entire world has chosen sides, drawn a line in the sand, and booby trapped it (pun intended).
I’ve had a special relationship with breastfeeding. Not special in the staring-into-the-soul-of-my-newborn-while-he-drinks-from-my-heart kind of way. Special in the ‘it’s complicated’ kind of way. When my son was born I was thrown headlong into a battle with PPD, PPA and PTSD. I also realized that despite taking the breastfeeding classes at my hospital and have an LC come by the room before we went home, I had no idea what I was doing. It hurt. It hurt to the point of revulsion and sobbing on my part. I had an oversupply, I was always engorged, I was healing from a c-section and surrounded by people, not getting enough rest, and I was slowly losing my mind.
Every single time I tried to feed him everything inside me screamed NO. It was something that my body, mind, and heart did NOT want to do. I was convinced that I was the worst mother in the world. I hid all of those feelings and only told my boyfriend that ‘it hurts me’. He had no idea that I meant that the act of feeding our son was hurting me on so many levels.
So why didn’t I stop? Why didn’t I tell someone how bad it was? Why didn’t I ask for more help? Well, it’s complicated. Part of it is that I was developing a mental illness and so wasn’t really able to advocate for myself. The other part is that everything I heard and read everywhere I looked said that breastfeeding was natural and normal and the absolute best thing that I could do for my child. This is what I had been made for, this is what hundreds of millions of years of evolution had created my breasts for. This is the point of being a mother. Breast is best.
Except when it’s not. The truth is that I didn’t derive comfort or peace from holding my son in my arms as an infant. I did it. I held him, and cuddled him, and kissed his chubby cheeks. I lavished him with affection, but I didn’t feel it. It drained me, this act that I was putting on for everybody. It can be damn hard to fake it till you make it.
One night I put him to the breast and the pain – physical and mental – was just too much. I tried a different latch and it felt physically better, but emotionally I just wanted him off of me. The shame/pain cocktail was too much and I broke down sobbing. Dork Dad took the baby from me and told me to stop. He didn’t know what was wrong, but he knew this wasn’t right. We got out the pump. About two months later we switched to formula. I felt tremendously guilty. I had failed at one of the essential tasks of motherhood.
I felt that way right up until I had my daughter nearly three years later. Little Miss is a breastfeeding machine. If I’d let her nurse all day and night she would do it. She nurses when she’s hungry, when she’s teething, when she needs comfort, when she’s sleepy. She rivals her father for fixation on my chest.
It doesn’t hurt. Not physically (unless she bites) or emotionally. Sometimes I talk to her, sometimes we do the staring into each other’s eyes thing. Sometimes I’m asleep. Mostly I’m writing something in my head or working through a problem. It isn’t some magical thing. It isn’t all that beautiful (Dork Dad disagrees, but he can’t be trusted to be unbiased about my boobs). I’m simply feeding my kid in the way that works best for us. She’s six months old and we’re starting to give her purees and let her taste sauces and soups. She doesn’t seem interested in anything that hasn’t been in my bra first, but we’ll get there.
This has been a bit rambling, but I do have a point. Here it is: The words we use matter. When you ‘normalize’ breastfeeding you make formula feeding abnormal. When you say ‘breast is best’ you make formula the worst. At this point it isn’t really about intention – it’s about effect. How about we normalize feeding? Feeding our babies is normal, starving a baby is abnormal. Each mother/baby dyad is unique and will need a plan that works for them.
We need to see more moms nursing in public so it doesn’t seem strange. We need to see moms nursing using different holds so that women know that there is no ‘right way’ and plenty of options. We need more IBCLCs in hospitals and communities, especially communities of color, so that there is support for every mom who wants to breastfeed.
We need training for every nurse and doctor who will interact with a new mom on the full range of maternal mental illnesses: postpartum depression, postpartum anxiety, postpartum OCD, postpartum PTSD, and postpartum psychosis. They also need to be trained to spot D-MER (Dysphoric Milk Ejection Reflex) and offer support.
We need to make sure that breast pumps are covered b
y all insurance, that women know this, and that women are taught how to use breast pumps before they leave the hospital.
We need to be sure that we aren’t shaming moms who need to, or choose to, feed their babies formula. We need to make sure that formula is affordable to all moms. We need specialty formulas (goat’s milk, sheep’s milk, vegan, etc) to be more widely available so that moms have choices that fit the dietary needs of their babies.
How about we normalize supporting all moms? How about we normalize giving moms information and trusting them? How about we normalize maternal mental health screening so that we can support the nearly one million moms who will suffer this year?
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