Last year, I wrote a post about being kicked out of a so-called breastfeeding support group on Facebook for asking for advice on gently weaning my 13-month-old daughter. It was a sad experience - one that really depressed me about the state of the breastfeeding wars, and about how even our attempts to re-create the village of maternal support can go horribly wrong.
Well, fast-forward almost a year (my baby girl is turning TWO next month!). I discovered this weird spam-esque inbox on my personal facebook account. (If you're curious, go to your Facebook inbox and look for a tab called "Other". That's where messages from people who are not your FB friends end up.) It was a year-old message from a stranger, all about the Great Getting My Ass Kicked Out of a Breastfeeding Group on Facebook. And this message made me SO happy, I just had to share it. This total stranger came and found me on the internet to tell me she supported me and had my back and is part of my village. Oh my God, yes. THIS IS MOTHERHOOD. THIS IS SISTERHOOD. You have to read it.
NOTE: This is a work-in-progress looooong post that I'm considering as a new first chapter for my book (www.workpumprepeat.com) . I'm posting it here in the spirit of crowd-sourcing. This topic is SO difficult to navigate, and there is no clear answer to what is "good" or "bad" messanging about breastfeeding, for women who are struggling with it. I would really love and appreciate feedback - including critical feedback - about whether this hits the mark, or is way off, or is somewhere in between. THANK YOU!!
You’ve noticed, haven’t you, how it seems like everyone has something to say about breastfeeding?
I'm getting closer and closer to the publication of my book for working, breastfeeding women, and as I accidentally become one of those people who moves in breastfeeding circles a lot, I'm starting to notice something disturbing about how mothers of new babies are sometimes viewed and treated. I don't know if what I'm about to write applies to YOU, lactivist hopefully reading this right now, but I'd like to ask you to read this with an open mind and ask yourself whether you recognize anything here.
Here is the major disclaimer: I am talking about a minority of breastfeeding advocates here. Most of you lovely people do not do what I am about to talk about. And "lactivists" are super important. And all of you - including the ones I'm talking about here - are amazing people who are working hard for women and babies. I'm not going to keep disclaiming this throughout this post, so please write this on your heart. I mean it: you are awesome.
OK, here goes: If your job or public persona is related to breastfeeding, do any of these sound familiar?
My wonderful friend Ellie Stoneley, a popular blogger based in the UK (and a Bruce Springsteen fanatic, which won this Jersey girl's heart straight off), wrote a piece this week that has gotten love from both HuffPo and UNICEF. In essence, Ellie notes a recent study that found that PPD "is more than double in women who planned to breastfeed and then were unable to, whereas the women who planned to breastfeed and then did are 50% less likely to be affected."
Ellie goes on to talk about how essential it proved to be that she prepared for breastfeeding, through classes and reading, before the birth of her lovely little sprite Hope, and how important postpartum support was. She advocates strongly that every woman, in every country, have ready access to ongoing support in the early weeks and months of her baby's life, because, let's all say it together: BREASTFEEDING MIGHT BE NATURAL, BUT IT AIN'T EASY.
Ellie's piece resonated with me on a lot of levels, and I am so proud of her for advocating for something that ALL women and babies, of all socio-economic levels, everywhere, need and deserve. But it also got me thinking that something continues to be missing from this conversation. (I can say this, knowing that Ellie will have my back!)
When I was in business school, I had a classmate and friend named Josh, with whom I worked on every group project. Fortunately for me, he is one of those people who will always tell you the truth about yourself. He called me Captain, and if I were sugar-coating it I would say this name came from my demonstrated leadership abilities, but in honor of Josh, I'll shoot you straight and tell you it was probably because I'm bossy.
Anyway. One day, we were arguing about what needed to be done on something we were working on, and I wanted to do more, more, more. And Josh looked at me witheringly and said, "Captain, your problem is that you let perfect be the enemy of good."
I'll admit it took me a solid 36 hours to understand what he even meant by this. Because in my mind, perfect has always, ALWAYS been the thing to strive for. Especially when it was something measurable, with grades, scores, rankings, or numbers of any kind. But when I did finally get it, it changed my life.
This tendency toward perfectionism and neurotic need-to-measure-itis came into full flower when I had my first child. Breastfeeding was something I could be perfect at, if I just worked at it hard enough. And it was something so rife with measurables, I was practically giddy with anticipation. Ounces (of milk pumped or fed, and gained by the baby, and frozen in the freezer). Feedings per day. Hours of sleep at a stretch. Weeks until baby slept through the night. Count count count. Measure measure measure.
And then there was the "Exclusive Breastfeeder" badge.
What is it about motherhood that makes you the property of anyone and everyone? From the moment your belly pops out, people - STRANGERS - are touching you, rubbing you, caressing you. My most distinct memory of this was after I had gotten a pedicure (at least I think I got a pedicure - I couldn't actually see my toes). I stood up from the chair and the woman looked at me and exclaimed, "Ohhhhh! You are pregnant! I just thought you were fat!" And then she double-handed my belly like a Harlem Globetrotter.
I also remember people coming up to me in the supermarket and asking me what my birth plan was. Maybe this is the slightly hippie nature of the city I lived in at the time. I knew well ahead of time that I'd have to have a planned C-section (long story), and when I told people this, their faces inevitably fell. Responses ranged from "I'm so sorry!" to "Why???" to "Are you sure you HAVE to do that?" - but all were negative.
I am having a holy-shit breastfeeding insight this week. Here goes: Guilt = response to what one does. Shame = response to what one IS. Which one is at work for me, and for other breastfeeding mothers?
Guilt played a huge role in my breastfeeding struggles, and in those of many, many women I've interviewed. Or at least, I have always thought of what I experienced as "guilt".
Recap: Guilt = response to what one does. Shame = response to what one IS. As women struggling with breastfeeding, are we feeling guilt?: "I had a hard time balancing breastfeeding and work/older siblings/whatever"? Or - so much scarier - are we feeling shame?: "I'm a failure." "I'm not a good mother." "I'm not enough." "I'm not fully a woman."
I remember exactly what I said to my husband when breastfeeding my first child was ridiculously painful and hugely anxiety-inducing: "I'm a failure. Women have done this for all of human history, yet I can't do it." That was shame. That was me feeling that who I was just wasn't good enough for my baby. Or, maybe, not good enough, period.
I’ve decided it’s time to wean my daughter off breastfeeding. She turned one this week, and it was a breastfeeding milestone I never thought I would reach. And now, I’m ready to stop.
I’m ready to stop because breastfeeding exhausts me: emotionally, physically, mentally. For me, it is a blessing but a huge challenge.
I’m ready to stop because I work full-time, which means I have to make time to pump breast milk during every single work day, and this is not easy. In the past year, I’ve been on a dozen business trips, which involve incredible planning and logistics to leave enough milk at home, and to pump and travel with dozens of ounces of milk.
I’m ready to stop because while I love the bond that nursing created, it’s exhausting to be the sole source of a baby’s milk. It means that every decision – see a friend, work late, exercise (just kidding!) – requires an extra set of plans about how long I’ll be away, whether I’ll need my pump, whether I will have a private place to pump, whether I will need a cooler and ice packs, and what I need to wear to get access to my boobs.
I’m a working mother of two small children, and I’ve breastfed them both. In fact, I’m currently somewhere in the middle of breastfeeding my second child, who has cut two teeth recently and knows how to use them, so we’ll see how much longer this continues. And it’s been interesting, being alive and mothering and breastfeeding during a time of historically high intrusion into women’s nutrition relationships with their babies. I’m not a breastfeeding crusader – quite the contrary, actually. I’ve found the whole situation to be exhausting and crazy and difficult. I’ve never participated in a “nurse-in” (a whole bunch of women nursing their babies in public to prove a point). I am already sad about how fast my baby seems to be growing up, but I look forward to the day when I am not the source of her nutrition. I’m just kind of middle-of-the-road on this whole thing.
But I care about how our culture treats women, and there is one specific dynamic that I’ve been tracking, and been bothered by, in that way where you can’t put your finger on what bothers you, and you turn it over and over in your mind, until one day in the shower it hits you. So here it is:
The “breast is best” thing has totally jumped the shark. I understand, and applaud, and am grateful for, the early crusading work of women who have fought the fight to make sure that breastfeeding is promoted, valued, and legally protected – because there was a time when it was none of these things.
Work. pump. repeat.