World Breastfeeding Week – Guilt, Judgement, and Lactivism

I’ve gotten a lot of great comments here and on facebook that have me thinking hard about how to talk about breastfeeding in a productive way.  A lot of readers comments talk about guilt and judgement.  So how to we reconcile this with the goal of promoting breastfeeding?

Keep in mind, this is intended to be a thought-provoking post.  It may make you feel feelings and think uncomfortable thoughts.  That’s okay.  Feel free to comment.  This isn’t an echo-chamber here.  It’s my house, but I do welcome civil discussion and I’m not afraid to speak candidly and gently with someone who disagrees with me.

Guilt

Oh, boy. This first one is a doozy. Women carry a lot of guilt. Trust me. I grew up in the South and I’m Catholic.  I know all about guilt. Specifically, though, I’d like to talk about guilt with respect to breastfeeding.  

In response to yesterday’s post I had several comments here on the blog, on the Knocked Up – Knocked Over Facebook page, and on my own personal Facebook page that referenced the notion of guilt and disappointment over breastfeeding.  I’m glad that my readers brought up this issue.  I will confess that this was a really big elephant that I was trying to avoid, but upon further reflection, I decided that it would be disingenuous to do so. 

So let us ask ourselves: Why is there so much guilt surrounding the issue of breastfeeding? Here is what I see most often: Women feel like they failed at breastfeeding and this sense of failure manifests as guilt and crops up painfully if they come across information showing that maybe they could have breastfed after all had they only known. 

Some examples: Mom is told she has to stop breastfeeding to take a medication (for PPD, migraines, flu, pain, etc) only to find out much later that either the medication was safe after all or that there was a viable alternative that she could have used instead.  Brand new mom is recovering from her birth in the hospital and is told that it just doesn’t look like her milk is in so she’ll need to give her baby formula only to find out later that it can sometimes take up to five days for milk to come in and that those tiny quantities of colostrum are plenty for a newborn with a stomach the size of a grape. Mom thinks she’s not making enough milk because baby seems to want to nurse all the time ever hour over and over only to find out later that this is simply normal newborn/infant behavior and isn’t a reflection on milk supply at all.  Mom is in so much pain when she nurses and the lactation consultant says the latch is fine and that it “shouldn’t be hurting” but the pain is so great that she ends up stopping only to find out later that she likely had a treatable medical condition like thrush or mastitis or that the baby had a treatable condition like a tongue tie.

When confronted by information that calls into question the decisions they made (under duress) to stop breastfeeding some moms feel, understandably defensive. Let me be very clear to moms who feel this sense of failure:  You did not fail.  I’m going to say it one more time: You did not fail.  Not by a long shot.  Society failed you.  The medical professional who gave you misinformation failed you.  A society that promotes a false concept of newborn behavior failed you.  The community that wasn’t there for you when you needed support the most failed you.  But above all, you didn’t fail.

If you didn’t fail, you have nothing to feel guilty about.  Take those feelings of guilt, recognize them for what they are, and set them aside.  Life is full of “should haves,” “could haves,” and “what ifs.”  Know that you made the very best decision you could have made at the time with the information you had available.  Leave the baggage at the side of the road and move on, a wiser and stronger woman.

Judgement

This one goes hand in hand with guilt. I hear stories from other mothers about being approached by strangers who make inappropriate comments: “Why are you giving that baby a bottle? Don’t you know that babies should be breastfed?”  Please do not mistake this kind of thing for “lactivism” (which I will talk about next).  To explain this, I’ll need to explain a personal theory of mine.  This theory involves a bad word.  If that offends your eyes, feel free to cover them.

The Asshole Theory.  Anyone stranger who approaches you in a mall (or a park or a restaurant or any other place) to confront you about the way you are feeding your child is an asshole.  Nothing more, nothing less.  Assholes look for ways to cut down other people.  When you encounter an asshole, the best thing to remember is that their comments are not about you.  Their comments are about them making themselves feel superior.  If it wasn’t about breastfeeding, the asshole would  find something else to be an asshole about.  Recognize an asshole for what he or she is.

Now, that’s not to say that the only time mothers feel judged is when they’re dealing with the above-mentioned group of people.  Moms feel judged all the time:

When they encounter people that make different parenting choices

Please don’t mistake other people’s different choices for judgement against your own choices.  We make the best choices we can as parents, and we make the best choices we can for our children.  I choose to wear my child in a baby carrier.  That works for me.  Your baby may not like being worn or you may not have found a carrier that is comfortable for you.  We all do things differently!  What’s right for my child, may not work for your child.  You made the decisions you did for specific reasons. Own those reasons. Be confident in your choices.  And just do not pick up that guilt monkey.

When they talk to an overzealous friend who might be making assumptions about the reasons behind her choices

I’ll talk about this further when I talk about lactivism.  Here’s something I keep in mind though.  Sometimes being a new parent is like having a new toy.  You’re really excited about this thing you’ve just learned and you want to share and you don’t know the best way to share that excitement without trampling on someone else’s toes.  The new idea is so shiny and sparkly that it doesn’t even cross your mind that someone might not be as excited and entranced as you are.  It’s just so cool!  And you think, “Wow. She’s not excited about this sparkly thing that I just found out about.  What’s wrong with her?”  Yes, this is judgement.  No, it’s not very nice.  But can we really chalk it up to the Asshole Theory?  Or is it plain ignorance and immaturity?  Having been guilty of this kind of excitement, I’d like to say that, for the most part, it’s a simple case of maturity mixed with a tiny bit of insecurity.

Instead of feeling judged and taking on guilt, what if we all viewed these instances as a chance to set boundaries?  What if we respond to our excited friends by saying things like, “I respect your views, and I would just ask that you extend me the same courtesy,” or “I’m really not comfortable talking about this,” or (my favorite) “I’ll forgive you for asking me that if you’ll forgive me for not answering.”  Then change the subject.  You’re under no obligation to defend or debate your choices and experiences if you don’t wish to.

When they read a newspaper article talking about either the risks of formula feeding or the benefits of breastfeeding

I’m going to have to defer to a wonderful article from Annie at PhD in Parenting for this one. 

The intent of the study is not to pick on moms or to make them feel guilty. The point of the study is to achieve greater societal, political, and institutional support for breastfeeding.  [snip]  It is time that we accept the facts. When compared with breastfeeding, formula has risks. That doesn’t mean that every mom who doesn’t breastfeed is “some kind of baby killer.” What it does mean is that every mom who does want to breastfeed deserves a fighting chance to be able to do so.

Emphasis mine.  The entire article wonderful and a lot of the comments are solid gold.

When it comes to judgement, remember this: You can’t control other people, but you can control your reactions to them.  We’re going to run into judgemental people no matter what we do.  Of this I know!  Remember, I breastfed a three and a half year old while in the depths of hyperemesis gravidarum.  You better believe I got judged for that!  But I choose not to take it on.  I make my choices and I stand by them.  If someone wants to judge me, fine.  Let that reflect on them.

Lactivism

With the above comments about guilt and judgement in mind, how can we promote breastfeeding in a healthy way?  You know the old saying, “You catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.”  So what do we do (in addition to all of the things I talked about yesterday)?

I can tell you what we shouldn’t do.  We shouldn’t make a snap judgement when we see a woman giving her baby a bottle.  For one thing, we really have no idea what’s going on there.  Is there breast milk in that bottle?  Could be.  But what if there is formula in there?  Remember all of those barriers that women face in our society? Lack of support, predatory marketing practices by formula companies, lack of information, lack of community, etc?  Maybe she never got that critical piece of information that you got that helped you succeed.  Maybe she was molested as a child and cannot for very personal and intense reasons breastfeed.  Maybe she’s one of the minority of women who truly does have a medical barrier that prevents her from breastfeeding such as hypoplasia.  Remember, even our very dear friends have things that they may wish to keep private from us.  It’s important to be sensitive and remind ourselves that every person’s situation is different.

We also shouldn’t approach people that we don’t know because that would make us assholes (see my theory above).

What we should do is let our pregnant friends know that if they need help or have any questions that they can call and talk to us.  Here is what I always say, “I’m not sure if you’re planning to breastfeed or not, but if you are, I’m happy to help you in any way I can. I’ve got a whole lot of information right at my fingertips, and I know several really good lactation consultants that I can put you in touch with.  If you want any information, let me know and I will give it to you.”

And then do you know what I do?  I drop it.  I’ve said my piece.  I’ve made the offer to help.  My friend is free to take me up on that or not.  I won’t push the issue.  I will gently correct misinformation if she chooses to share with me.  And if she asks for me to help, I am ready to do everything I can to support her.  But I let her make the first move.

Once again, I’d like to reference Annie from PhD in Parenting whose article “I won’t ask you why you didn’t breastfeed” sums up my feelings so perfectly.

So what does this all mean?

Fellow lactivists, let’s work hard for societal change.  Let’s speak out against predatory marketing tactics that undermine women’s ability to breastfeed.  Let’s encourage medical professionals to educate themselves and give sound, evidence-based medical advice.  Let’s take off the gloves and change society for the better.

But when we deal with other mothers on an individual level, let’s remember that behind every woman’s breastfeeding outcome, there is a story that she may or may not wish to share.  Let’s treat these other mothers gently, and remember that she is the only one who knows the very personal and intimate details of that story and that those details are none of our business.

We mothers all want the same thing.  We want what’s best for our children.  Instead of playing the guilt/judgement game, let’s work together to make the world a better place for our children.

***

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I’m celebrating World Breastfeeding Week with Natural Parents Network!

You can, too — link up your breastfeeding posts from August 1-7 in the linky below, and enjoy reading, commenting on, and sharing the posts collected here and on Natural Parents Network.

(Visit NPN for the code to place on your blog.)

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