Breastfeeding shame can start earlier than you think.
I didn’t want to breastfeed.
That doesn’t make me a horrible mother; it just makes me honest. Saying that openly isn’t necessarily easy—particularly in a culture where it’s become almost commonplace to shame women who choose not to breastfeed.
It wasn’t that I didn’t want to do what was best for my child, but breastfeeding is serious business. Mostly, it was my own fear that was driving this hesitation: fear I wouldn’t be able to produce for her, fear that I wouldn’t be able to get her to latch properly, fear that it would forever ruin my boobs (yes, that’s completely vain…but it’s also the truth. This is a safe space, right?).
When I mentioned during my pregnancy that breastfeeding may not be for me, I could tell it bothered my husband . He didn’t say anything at first; treading lightly, as most expectant fathers tend to do, and chose his moment carefully. He told me that breastfeeding was really, really important to him; that while he would never pressure me toward any decision when it came to my body, he really wanted me to reconsider it…
Shit, I thought. It was my marital obligation to consider his request…his only request. I told him if he felt that strongly about it, then I would absolutely try. Perhaps this was what I needed to hear to force myself to face these overwhelming fears.
Because of all of my breastfeeding-related anxieties, I decided to take a class at what is considered to be the premiere breastfeeding seminar in Los Angeles. I piled into a plastic folding chair along with 20 other expectant women, glossy white folder in hand promising to be my breastfeeding bible. And that is where the shaming began. A polished, dare I say smug, woman took her place in front of us. Sitting on a stool, peering down at us like a breastfeeding Gandalf, she spent more than two hours offering us a crash course in the best breastfeeding practices: preparing, gear, positions, problem solving tactics, etc. She also preached to this group of hormonal, impressionable women, who came to her seeking advice and counsel, that if you do not to breastfeed, you are threatening your child’s emotional, mental, and physical health. Any ailment your baby could possibly befall would somehow be a result of your decision not to breastfeed. I’m not exaggerating; she was charged, aggressive and seemingly intent on scaring the hell out of us.
What does that sort of dangerous rhetoric do to a woman who wants so desperately to breastfeed, but for whatever reason her body can’t produce enough milk? Or a woman whose child struggled to latch or reacted poorly? How about the mother who simply chose not to breastfeed; who was capable of breastfeeding, but decided it wasn’t right for her child, her family and her body. How does that rhetoric make her feel?
Me? I breastfed for 10 weeks. When I suffered my second round of mastitis, my husband handed me the antibiotics that had already once halved my supply. As I considered ingesting this drug that I knew I needed to take but also knew could damage my milk supply, I cried. I thought about risking my own health, as I shivered and convulsed in my bed because of the infection, with It’s a Wonderful Life running in the background like a goddamn joke. I sobbed as I tried to feed my hungry, tiny baby. I knew I needed to take the medication, but she was so pure and so small, how could I possible fill her body with formula? I wasn’t ready to stop; it hadn’t been on my terms. I kept hearing the vicious echo of that woman, and all the horrible things that could happen to my daughter because of what I considered to be my incompetence.
The first time she drank formula, I had to leave the house. I couldn’t be the one to give it her. She was taking in this foreign substance into her perfect little body, and I was now convinced it could somehow poison her. And I wondered about the discussions we are all having about breastfeeding during pregnancy, and if they are really benefiting us...or damaging us?
The women who sat in that Hollywood backroom breastfeeding class came desperate to do everything they could to ensure a successful breastfeeding experience. They wanted so much to make sure they could breastfeed, something that women have been doing since the beginning of time, because they KNEW how important it is...even before the instructor began her lecture.
And at some point after their babies came, when many of those women most likely hit their breastfeeding brick walls and were forced to make a difficult decision, it was probably those judgmental, terrifying words about formula feeding that rang through their ears, like they did for me.
To the instructor who is spouting this knowledge -- at this class and others -- we’ve come to a point of diminishing returns. You’re no longer doing any good for the newborn children of America; you’re just being an asshole to the women who came to you looking for guidance and support.
To the many women—not all, not even most, but many—who hear these charged words and blanket judgments, and then feel inclined to regurgitate them on playgrounds, in coffee shops, and at mommy-and-me classes, it’s simply not OK.
At the end of the day, we all want to be the best mothers we can be…I believe that…because here you are, reading a blog post on motherhood and breastfeeding… But only YOU know what will make you the best mom you can be. Not me. And certainly not some woman in a parking lot in Hollywood.
And guess what? After my baby began formula, she slept, she giggled, and WE ALL WERE HAPPY AND HEALTHY…
Look, I’m not an idiot. I understand the unparalleled benefits of breastfeeding…but my question has always been, at what cost? Who is to say what is right for another family? Are you in that home? Because I’m not in yours, so I will not tell you how to handle your family business.
What I do know, without any uncertainty, is that in a new family, one of the most important things is a healthy, happy baby...and mama. By whatever means necessary.