Within the childbirth support community, it seems to be generally understood that the way a woman feels in labour is just as important to consider in her care as her physical health and safety. When a woman feels validated and supported during her delivery, she feels more satisfied with her birth experience and herself even if her labour and delivery moves down a path she was hoping to avoid. The way we feel about ourselves is heavily influenced by the support we receive from others and can have a profound impact on the way we parent and the way we accept ourselves (or not accept ourselves) for quite some time.
So it seems we understand this ~ that when we choose to validate someone’s difficult experience, offer words of understanding and acknowledge that they’re doing the best they can, we are positively influencing someone’s perspective of themselves and their situation. The impact of this positive self-outlook persists for months or years afterward as a mother continues to see herself as a person capable of making decisions that are right for her and her family.
But this is not what I see in the support around breastfeeding mothers.Breastfeeding is a huge commitment for a lot of women. It’s exhausting, challenging and a kind of giving over of your body that some women are not expecting. The images around breastfeeding suggest a mother will feel connected with her baby, elated and blissful and certainly some mothers feel this while breastfeeding or perhaps all mothers feel this at some point during feedings. However I don’t think that it’s hard to believe that some mothers have a different experience of breastfeeding and instead feel frustrated, angry, disappointed, worried, exhausted or defeated especially if they’re having difficulty or are not able to breastfeed for one reason or another.
So when they’re already feeding themselves with negative self talk around their breastfeeding troubles, the LAST thing they need is for someone else to pass judgment on their situation. Some comments I’ve heard that were directed to breastfeeding mothers include “This is the sacrifice you have to make as the mother of your child,” “Breast is Best,” “Your child will be sicker if you don’t breastfeed but it’ll be smarter if you do…” “Breastfeeding is by far the best thing you can do for your child,” “Formula is evil.”
Studies show that breastfeeding has endless benefits for the mother and her child – I’m not debating that. There is so much research outlining the physiological and emotional benefits of breastfeeding for both the mom and baby I find it hard to believe that anyone would doubt it ~ my beef is not with whether or not breastfeeding is healthiest for babies, it’s with the language and messages that women received when they need or choose to feed their children in a variety of ways.
One mother told me that when an acquaintance found out that she was bottle feeding, she was told that in choosing to bottle feed she was choosing to harm her children and her relationship with her children. What this acquaintance didn’t know what that this mother had had a breast reduction, had received support in a variety of ways for weeks in attempt to establish a breastfeeding relationship with her child and was now suffering from postpartum depression. Six years later, this mother is still affected by the weight of those words.For women who feel that finding that a compromise or alternative to breastfeeding supports the kind of parent they want to be or supports their family dynamic, sayings like “Breast is Best” can feel like an arrow to the chest. It sets women up for a ‘pass or fail’ system in parenting. No one has more concern for their family’s well being than the parents themselves. These decisions are NOT made lightly; they are in fact made because they truly feel that they make the biggest positive difference to the overall health of their new family.
In making these difficult decisions women need good information and NON-BIASED support – they do NOT need to be criticized and harassed and their decision undermined by anyone.
Women who choose to breastfeed their babies longer than the ‘normal’ considered period of 6-12 months experience similar unsolicited moments of advice or judgment because of their decision. It seems that women are encouraged to breastfeed their baby to the point where they feel that they are directly harming their baby if they don’t, and then are told that they are doing just that thing if they breastfeed their babies for ‘too long.’
Our job as people supporting new families is to balance encouragement with understanding, to help parents see that they have it within THEMSELVES to make the right decisions for their unique family situation and then to commend them and celebrate with them when they make a decision that makes them feel better about themselves as parents. We are doing a disservice to parents if we leave them feeling inadequate or selfish in their decision to breastfeed or not (and yes, a mother can still feel badly about herself if she continues to breastfeed). The measure of a job well done is not in whether or not she continues to breastfeed – it’s in whether or not she feels empowered in her ability to make choices for herself.