Breast is [Not Always] Best
I stopped breastfeeding my second child after three months of trying really hard to stick with it.
With my firstborn I also really struggled and lasted seven months. Both times, I felt a lot of mom-guilt, worry, and concern over not breastfeeding long enough and not breastfeeding exclusively when I did. I just couldn’t master it though - breastfeeding was physically painful for me; I didn’t produce enough milk; my babies and I could not figure out latching; and it was an overall frustrating, unhappy, and messy experience for both me and my babies. But the culture of breastfeeding at all costs made me stick with it to a point where it impacted me negatively postpartum. Even though my intuition (not to mention my family and friends) was telling me to stop breastfeeding, I felt like stopping was not really an option. The culture of “breast is best” kept me going despite it not being best for my family.
Breastfeeding was not something I felt comfortable doing in public so I ended up becoming isolated and housebound. This was really bad for me in terms of my mental health and well-being and I was already finding it difficult enough to cope with the realities of motherhood. It was only as I realized that I was becoming depressed and miserable that I finally made the choice to stop breastfeeding.
So I stopped and guess what? Almost instantly my mothering experience was better and simpler. Once I stopped I felt like I could finally enjoy my babies and mothering. But I also felt like I had failed. I felt an overwhelming desire to keep it secret that I had stopped breastfeeding. I didn’t want to talk about it, didn’t want people to know, and I felt like the baby formula was physical evidence of my shame and failure. All around me there was so much messaging that breastfeeding was the one true way and that a “good mom” or “real woman” should somehow just find a way to master breastfeeding because “it comes naturally” and it’s what the female body “is designed to do” (I’ve heard that phrase so many times and it makes me bristle every single time).
When I was still in the thick of trying to breastfeed I tried to talk to our pediatrician about the challenges I was facing with “breast is best.” Our pediatrician was also the head of the major breastfeeding clinic in our city. I told her that I had tried different breast pumps, numerous nipple shields, hired lactation consultants, and purchased balms and lotions and nothing was helping. I told her that I was really worried because breastfeeding meant that I was not leaving my home and thus felt like I was kind of losing it because I was stuck at home due to breastfeeding. Her response? “Then you don’t leave the house.” Imagine how great our follow-up appointments with our pediatrician were once I had to tell her I stopped. In retrospect I can see that this was an untenable and ridiculous situation that I found myself in. At the time, though, I just felt guilt and shame and was convinced that every time my babies had a common cold it was because I failed them. Today I wonder, why the hell would she tell me that?
My kids are now 11 and 8 years old. Breastfeeding is a thing of the past - almost an abstract thing. I support women in their choice to breastfeed. I think that breastfeeding absolutely must be “allowed” everywhere (permission is not needed!). I believe the science around breast being best for babies. I understand that for most women breastfeeding is the easiest and most economical option out there. For most families it just makes good sense. But the thing is while breastfeeding might be right for most women it really and truly is not an option for all women. The overarching culture of breastfeeding at all costs and the almost “policing” of it that makes women who don’t breastfeed feel inferior and guilty needs to stop. I am stunned at how some of the same people who would never dream of telling a woman how she should and shouldn’t menstruate, work out, dress, manage her diet or any other facet of her physical self jump to judgment over breastfeeding. Let’s stop that.
Today even though breastfeeding is far in the past for me in some ways it isn’t. I’m older than many of my female friends and several are only now having babies. When we talk about mothering it seems that breastfeeding always comes up as a non-negotiable. There is rarely discussion around choice and seldom is there open acknowledgment that sometimes breastfeeding does not and cannot work for everyone. If you don’t breastfeed there remains A LOT of that familiar guilt, shame, and judgment. The culture of “mandatory” breastfeeding makes me worried for some of my friends. I want them to know that breastfeeding is a choice, that they are empowered to make their choice, and that they are not bad mothers or failed women if they decide not to breastfeed. Breast or not, we’re all just doing the best we can.
Isn’t that enough?