World Breastfeeding Week is technically over, but it’s still National Breastfeeding Month, so I’m writing one last post on the subject. There was one particular article going around this past week that really rubbed me the wrong way – it was in TIME, and it was written by a doctor. I refuse to actually link to it because it’s filled with gross inaccuracies and twisted data. But the main message was that World Breastfeeding Week shouldn’t be celebrated because it makes mothers feel guilty if they weren’t able to breastfeed.
Since when is celebrating one person’s success shaming someone else? That’s like saying “I refuse to support The Biggest Loser because it makes others feel guilty that they’re sitting on the couch, not losing weight.”
Who decides if something is shaming or inspiring?
Because I know I’ve been inspired by other women’s breastfeeding stories. At 6 weeks postpartum I met another woman who had exclusively pumped for a year, and thought wow, maybe I can do this. I’m inspired by mother-and-baby duos who were able to move on to a successful nursing relationship after having a tongue-tie revised. I’m inspired by friends who struggled with their first baby but had a smooth journey with their second baby. None of their success shames me or makes me feel guilty.
And if it did make me feel guilty, is the answer to walk around with my hands over my ears in an effort to avoid hearing anything that might hurt my feelings? How do we ever hope to learn new things if we allow our guilt to get in the way? And why should 1 person’s guilt prevent others from hearing the message? I don’t feel guilty when I learn about the benefits of directly nursing over exclusively pumping; I know that the way I did it wasn’t the ideal, and I’m glad to know that information. Do you really want to live your life in the dark?
Like I said in my first post on this topic, 85% of new mothers want to breastfeed exclusively for 3 months or more, yet only 32% meet their goal. If you’re in that 53% who didn’t meet your goal, it’s not my place to tell you how to feel about it; you’re entitled to your feelings. But I do want to tell you how I’d feel about it.
Maybe you feel guilty because you thought you couldn’t make enough milk to satisfy your baby during those early weeks, because they wanted to eat all the time. I’d feel angry that we live in a culture that teaches women that our babies need to be on schedules right away. That we don’t educate women about cluster feeding and about growth spurts and about how milk production actually works. That we don’t encourage on-demand breastfeeding. That we don’t set the expectation that every mother-baby duo is different, and will feed at different intervals. I’m angry that an un-educated relative casually suggested a formula top-off because your baby seemed hungry. That person didn’t know that the formula would cause your baby to suckle less, thus demanding less milk from your breast, thus reducing your milk supply, and fulfilling the issue that you didn’t have to begin with. I’m angry that someone didn’t tell you that how much you pump isn’t an indication of how much milk you are making or how much your baby is getting. Breastfeeding is an age-old biologic process, not one that listens to our 21st century clock or technology. These are all cultural problems; we’ve gotten so far away from breastfeeding that we’ve lost our knowledge about it, and our expectations are all out of whack. So I wouldn’t feel guilty, I’d feel angry.
Maybe you feel guilty because you were pressured to start giving formula in public, because someone stared at you or sneered at you or had the gall to actually say something ugly to you when you tried nursing your hungry baby while (gasp) living your life. I’d feel angry that we live in a culture that has over-sexualized breasts to the point that everyone has forgotten about their function. That mothers have to fear being wrongfully kicked out of an establishment because some employee doesn’t know the laws protecting a mother’s right to breastfeed in public. That we even need laws protecting our right to feed a hungry child. That most of the laws don’t have enforcement provisions, so you have no legal recourse if you are kicked out of somewhere. I wouldn’t feel guilt, I’d feel angry.
Maybe you feel guilty because you couldn’t keep up with your baby’s demands when you went back to work. I’d feel angry that we force women back to work before they’ve even had a chance to establish their milk supply. That we’re the only industrialized nation in the world that doesn’t mandate paid maternity leave. That despite new laws requiring employers to provide reasonable break times and a place to pump at work, not everyone is on board yet. That many mothers still have to pump in a bathroom, are forced to pump at times that don’t match their body’s needs, and are discriminated against and have hours cut because of their requests. That as a nation, we have so little respect for women and children that we don’t do everything we can to support this critical time (we can’t all work at Netflix). I wouldn’t feel guilty, I’d feel angry.
Maybe you feel guilty because you listened to bad advice from a professional you trusted. I’d feel angry that the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends 1 year of breastfeeding but then does very little to actually support it. That I constantly hear about pediatricians making recommendations about infant feeding that aren’t evidence-based. That we still have to worry about postpartum nurses “sneaking” formula bottles to our babies in the nursery, when their stomachs are still the size of a cherry. That the billion-dollar formula industry is the one actually pulling the strings; they’re in our doctors’ ears, in our hospital discharge bags, filling our shelves with samples before our babies are even born, preying on a mother’s worst insecurities at her most vulnerable moment. That they cast a cloud of doubt on our abilities, that they make us lose trust in our bodies. I wouldn’t feel guilty, I’d feel angry.
Or maybe you did everything you could, and despite your best efforts and doing everything right, you truly couldn’t produce enough milk. Or your baby was born prematurely and wasn’t coordinated or strong enough to make breastfeeding successful. Or you had to take a medication that prevented you from breastfeeding, or your child had some other medical complication. Nature dealt you an unlucky hand. You got a raw deal. Guilt isn’t the right emotion here; it might make you feel sad, but I hope it never makes you feel guilty.
Maybe you feel guilty because you’re done having kids and won’t have the opportunity for another “do-over.” Maybe you don’t have an opportunity to find inspiration from others’ success. But don’t you care about what the experience is going to be like for your daughters? For your granddaughters? I know you do care, because you’re a good mother, regardless of how you fed your children. Please let go of your guilt for their sake, for progress sake.
Or maybe none of these roadblocks were in your way. Maybe the decision was entirely yours from the get-go not to breastfeed. Or life circumstances meant you made a decision to stop when you were ready. These things are all your prerogative. Breastfeeding is a relationship, which means it has to work for both parties. No one is impeding on your freedom to make your own decisions – I just hope that it was truly your decision, and not one made for you by our society’s cultural expectations. And a decision you make of your own free will should never make you feel guilty. If you were confident in your decision, then there’s no reason that World Breastfeeding Week should offend you. I’ll support you if you support me. And I’m sorry about all of those ugly people who do actually directly shame you for formula-feeding. They undermine the entire cause.
There’s a million and one other scenarios that I didn’t cover. But as you can see, I’m of the mindset that guilt has no place here. How will we ever improve our breastfeeding rates if we’re too afraid to share information for fear of making someone feel guilty? In just a decade, Cambodia was able to increase their exclusive breastfeeding rates in the first 6 months from 11% to 74% through the use of a national media campaign, extensive health-worker training, and establishment of mother support groups. It takes educating an entire society, not just the mothers. They certainly wouldn’t have accomplished this if they were too afraid of offending a few people.
So it’s your choice. You can either feel shamed by stories of breastfeeding success, or you can feel inspired. You can either feel guilty about what happened to you, or you can feel angry toward the system and culture that is failing so many of us. Although it’s not enough to stop at anger, it’s not a good emotion to dwell in; it has to be turned into positive action. Become a more active participant in your healthcare, and have more meaningful conversations with your doctors. Demand more from our lawmakers and our employers. Normalize breastfeeding so that some day, our daughters won’t have to fight for where they can feed their children. I can’t wait to see that day.