Friday, June 4, 2010

Healing: Some Breastfeeding Discussion

While catching up on my blogrolls after my ten-day holiday, I was surprised and moved to find that not one, but TWO of my favourite writers had tackled the subject of breastfeeding in the past week.

First, Linda at All and Sundry tells us that "It's all normal" when it comes to feeding your child. Having been contacted by a doula, Linda ponders what this pro-breastfeeding advocate might have said to her when she was [formula-] feeding her own kids. Apparently, this unnamed doula feels that there are a lot of negative things said to breastfeeding mothers, and so she takes it upon herself to counteract this by offering an encouraging comment to breastfeeders whenever she sees them. Linda muses on what she herself might say to a formula-feeder, and concludes that the appropriate response would likely be to "Smile and tell her what a beautiful baby she had. Because anything else is really none of my damn business."

To which, of course, I offer a hearty AMEN.

Heather at The Spohrs Are Multiplying opens her post by saying that "Breastfeeding is really, really hard in the best of circumstances." (Now there's a sentence we don't see or hear often enough!) She discusses her own struggles in feeding her daughters. Madeline, born premature, spent her first weeks and months in the NICU, being fed pumped milk. Annabel is healthy and at home, and has been since the start, but Heather's mental health deteriorated so significantly following Annabel's birth that her doctors, caregivers, and family were all pleading with her to increase her medication to a level that would genuinely assist her. Heather, with the stubborn single-mindedness that seems so familiar to me, didn't want to up her meds, as it would then be passed to Annabel through breast milk. It became a choice between her own mental health and her daughter's physical health, and we all know who wins loses in that scenario. After struggling with guilt and panic attacks, Heather made a choice ensuring that she would be the best mother she could be to her daughter. It was months later before she could actually write about this choice, however, as she still felt ashamed of her decision.

These are powerful stories that need to be shared. I've witnessed horrible prejudice and mistreatment of bottle-feeding moms, and I've treated myself badly for my own sense of failure. My mental health was precarious at the time that I tried to make rational decisions around how to feed my daughter, but of course I couldn't realize that at the time. Looking back, I wonder how I got through it. But even knowing what I know now doesn't change the fact that I still struggle with feelings of guilt and inadequacy. I've tortured myself on dark lonely nights when I can't sleep, wondering if Gwen's disinclination for affection was caused by an unrewarding breastfeeding relationship. I've wished thousands of times that one choice or another could be revisited: the choice to have a hospital birth led to us getting the Norovirus, making Gwen too ill to nurse and jeopardizing my milk supply. Or the choice to believe the public health nurses when they said I didn't really need to see a lactation consultant, they were just as knowledgeable.

The breastfeeding bomb pops up in unexpected places, and whenever it does it's like a punch to the gut. Gwen is now two years old and yet when she goes to the doctor, I still have to answer whether she was breastfed or not (and I never know what to say, because it's not really a yes-or-no question in my world; yes she was, but not exclusively). Reading magazines or checking out websites about parenting and kids' health will still poke me in my sore spot by reminding me that one of the Top Five Ways to Avoid Everything You Want to Avoid and Make Your Kid Brilliant is to breastfeed.

I am taking steps, now, to let go of this. It's still difficult. But I think there are a few key things that are helping me. One is to realize, like Heather says, that breastfeeding is difficult at the best of times. Having difficulty with something that is difficult is not a mark of failure. And ours, like Heather's, were not the best of times. A favourite statement I like to remind new moms about - one that I wish I had known, back at the time when breastfeeding felt like the only way to be a good mom - is that "Lactation is natural. Breastfeeding is an art." Yeah, that's right, world. It doesn't just happen magically, and it isn't all innate. IT'S A HELL OF A LOT OF WORK. Sure, some women take to it more easily than others, and if you're one of them, thank your lucky stars. But for the rest of you? You need to know - you're not alone. You are not the only one struggling with this. And it pisses me off that we as a society would rather let new moms feel like failures, feel isolated and scared and that they are doing it wrong, than to tell the truth: it's hard, and feeling like it's hard is NORMAL, and it doesn't make you a bad mom.

Another thing that helps is to look at Gwen - who now gives affection eagerly and unabashedly - and know that neither her health, nor her intellect, nor her emotional development, are any the poorer for having breastfed for a shorter time than I imagined, and having never achieved the brass ring of "exclusive breastfeeding".

Finally, and this is the hardest and yet most important key to my letting go: I did not fail at breastfeeding. (I have never said or typed those words before, and it's challenging to do.) I need to change my thinking. I did breastfeed. I breastfed my daughter to the absolute extent of my ability for nine full months. That was not what I'd planned, not what I'd hoped, but that is what happened. And I should - I CAN - accept that. I did not succeed to the extent that I'd dreamed, but that is not the same as failure. And I am starting to work on redefining that experience not in terms of what I did not do, but in terms of what I did do. Maybe I can even define myself (in my own mind - the only place it really matters) as a breastfeeding mother, not a breastfeeding failure. And when I see those little breastfeeding bombs, I can remember those moments with contentment, not resentment.


Jess said...

I'm happy to see you write a nice post about this issue. You're very insightful, and I think it's great of you to express the simplicity of breast feeding being very hard, and that we are alone in the beginning. Times aren't what they were, and new moms don't have the same help as we used to.
Besides, nothing goes the way you picture it, from breast feeding, to the baby looking different than you pictured during pregnancy. And every situation is unique. Like moms try too hard to be perfect.

Amberism said...

ah, breastfeeding.

My response is usually something like "it's agonizing. But free and that's my only motivation!".

I'm VERY glad to read that you're healing from this, and taking a different perspective about it. Personally, I thought you an absolute hero during that phase of your relationship with Gwen *hugs*

(and it IS just a phase, even if you breastfeed until they're 4, you're going to be the Mommy for THEIR ENTIRE LIFE - isn't that more influential than how we feed them?! Isn't there so much more that matters?!)


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