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7 Oct

Shame And The Mom: A Boob Story

Before I had children, I was deeply discomfited by the idea of breastfeeding. Neither pregnancy nor childbirth alarmed me – both would be uncomfortable, I figured, and the latter would involve some extreme measure of pain, but, really, nothing that the ordinary horrors (the monthly bloating and cramping and general misery) of womanhood hadn’t prepared me for – but breastfeeding? A tiny person, feeding off of you? Off of your boobs? Really? It provoked all variety of confusing fears about the psycho-sexual experience of motherhood (you have to expose your boobs? really?), and even though I understood, intellectually, that there was nothing weird or creepy or gross about breastfeeding, and fully intended to nurse my children, if I had them, I still, sometimes – involuntarily, and almost imperceptibly – shuddered when I thought of it. Breastfeeding. Breastfeeding. Eww.

Of course, when I finally did have children, that all changed. Mostly. My personal experience of breastfeeding, apart from the pain and difficulty (more on that in a moment) was – to be maximally gushy about it – transcendent. Nursing my babies, nourishing my babies, holding them close and providing for them – me! with my very own body! – was, to understate it, amazing. But that was in the privacy of my home. Nursing in public was difficult for me: I was anxious about exposing myself, about receiving disapproving glances and unwanted stares. And every disapproving glance or unwanted stare (stink-eyed in malls and libraries, ogled at DisneyWorld, asked to cover up on a plane) just reinforced my shame. It also, however, provoked a measure of frustration and, later, outrage. How was I supposed to care for my children, nourish and nurture my children, when so much of the outside world frowned upon it? And: how dare they?

I’ve written at length about my frustration with the fact that public breastfeeding is still not wholly accepted in Western culture. That mothers – women – are made to feel any measure of shame around the act of nourishing their children is, in my opinion, deplorable. And the fact that it was not so very long ago that I felt such shame – and that I bought into the shame long before I even put a child to my own breast – still hurts my heart. Which is why I didn’t hesitate to support public criticism of Nestle during their recent social media debacle. The calculus was simple: anything that undermines efforts to help breastfeeding become an accepted public norm = bad, anything that promotes breastfeeding = good.

But is any such calculus ever so simple?

A good friend wrote me last week and recounted her experience with breastfeeding her newborn son:

I had the baby one month early… He didn’t latch and I didn’t produce sufficient milk to pump and feed him. I tried for a solid month. I practiced latching with him every day. And every two hours from the time I had a fairly traumatic c-section experience, I pumped in order to try to get production going until (I hoped) his latch would develop. For a month… I took medication in order to help production. Nothing worked. This was horrible for me. I felt like my baby was basically being poisoned (with formula), and that I was failing as a mother. This was made worse by the fact that all information outlets were telling me that it is practically impossible not to produce enough milk. That, apparently, wasn’t a medical possibility. I had a lactation consultant who visited me many time and whom I visited. I talked to La Leche League. In short, I tried. It didn’t work…

So, my baby is formula fed. I resent the fact that formula feeding one’s child is practically viewed as poisoning one’s own baby… I’m suggesting that the mothering climate is hostile to formula feeding. I couldn’t breastfeed, but, really, I think we ought to reinstate formula as an active choice mothers can make without being considered bad mothers –even if they can breastfeed. It’s almost impossible to find good information and advice on formula brands and formula feeding issues, as the parenting industry would prefer that formula feeding just didn’t exist.

She’s right, I think, mostly. The parenting community might not be out-and-out hostile to formula-feeding, but there is absolutely an entrenched and often very vocal bias against it. I’ve been part of that bias. In my experience, that bias is most often motivated by a desire to see breastfeeding more widely accepted in the public sphere – every image of a bottle-fed baby, arguably, reinforces the idea that bottle-feeding is the norm – and to encourage new mothers to overcome whatever shame issues might be holding them back from nursing their children. But if formula-feeding mothers are being shamed in the process, isn’t that a problem?

I had a great deal of trouble breastfeeding both of my children. It was, for the first month or so with each of them, mind-bogglingly painful. With Emilia, I was fortunate enough to have a lactation consultant who told me that I would not be a bad mother if I ended up choosing to formula-feed – her permission to give up was exactly (if perversely) the motivation I needed to keep going, because the knowledge that I could quit if I got to the breaking point was enough to push me to continue to keep giving it another day, day after day, until the pain receded. With Jasper, I was not so lucky. With no formula-friendly lactation godmother, I was subjected to the repeated assertion that if it hurt, I was doing something wrong (I wasn’t. I know this) and that if I quit, I – and my child – would regret it. It made me crazy – literally. My post-partum depression worsened under the constant pain and intensifying anxiety, even as I reminded myself that someone, at some point, had told me that it would be okay to quit. Even as a few sane voices in the blogosphere quietly urged me (off the record, always) to consider quitting, for my sanity’s sake, I was gripped by the conviction that it would not be okay if I quit. It would be wrong. I should be able to do this. A good mother could do this, would do this. I was a lactivist, for God’s sake. And so I persevered.

It never really stopped being painful, with Jasper. He nursed round the clock, and my nipples bled, and I almost never slept. I was sparing with my PPD meds, for fear of contaminating my milk. But I battled the gathering dark, and persevered. I nursed publicly, and proudly: on planes, in front of TV cameras, standing in front of a crowd while speaking at BlogHer. I nursed another woman’s child. I persevered. For ten months. Ten dark months. And then I quit. Exhausted from the lack of sleep, and the pain, and on the verge of falling headlong into the dark, I quit.

And I felt ashamed.

I felt ashamed because, goddammit, didn’t my child deserve to nurse longer? Wouldn’t it be best for him to nurse longer? Weren’t all the other good moms doing it? Wasn’t I just selfish to not want to breastfeed longer, to not keep trying? I could breastfeed; what kind of lactivist was I, anyway, if I chose not to breastfeed?

I was right to stop. I was losing my battle with PPD, and my doggedness with my breastfeeding efforts had a lot to do with that. And an institutionalized mother would have to bottle-feed anyway, so. I quit. I was right to do so.

But it would have been nice to have not felt so strongly that it was something close to bringing upon myself the End Of My Maternal World to quit nursing. It would have been nice to have felt, really felt, and really believed, that it would, really, have been okay to quit nursing. It would have been nice to have felt – to have believed – that to choose to not breastfeed was not a damnable choice. That I could opt-out of nursing, and still be a good mother, a good woman, and a good activist in mothers’ causes. But I didn’t believe that, not really. Even as I told other women that it was totally okay to formula-feed if they couldn’t nurse or if it would serve the cause of managing PPD – even as I insisted upon choice – I didn’t really believe it for myself. Fine for them, I thought, but not for me. And I’m still very much gripped by something of this idea: when I look back on my experience nursing Jasper, I’m proud. I’m proud that I persevered. I’m proud that I set aside my own wants and needs in order to care for him in what I believed was the best possible way. I’m proud, because having done so, I have something that I can point to, during those dark nights when I’m worrying about whether or not I’m a good enough mom, and tell myself, see? You are a good mom! Look what you did!

And this, I think, is both entirely reasonable and entirely unreasonable. I did do something awesome. I sacrificed. But sacrifice shouldn’t be the criteria for being a good mom. And the standards for being a good mom shouldn’t be understood to be uniform. As I’ve insisted in this space ad nauseam, moms can’t win. There’s always somebody, somewhere, who is going to think that your parenting sucks. Co-sleep, don’t co-sleep; baby-wear, don’t baby-wear; home-school, public school; public school, private school; free-range, close-range – there’s no universal truth about what makes a good mother, so why should we assume that there’s one universal truth about how good mothers feed their babies? Breast is best, we know that, but there are a great many factors that make formula-feeding an entirely reasonable choice for a good mother to make. Necessity, for one. Sanity, for another.

It remains, whatever our choices, that there’s still a lot of work that must be done in the public sphere to make breastfeeding an accepted public activity, to ensure that women never feel the discomfiture, the ill-understood shame, that I felt before becoming a nursing mom, and that I was made to feel far too often afterward. The nursing mom should be an established figure in public life and in the culture, and we should work hard toward promoting her as such. But we should be careful, should we not, that when we fight the shaming of nursing mothers, we don’t, in the process, shame mothers who don’t nurse? How do we do that? How do we make this, always, about choice?

Because it should be about choice. It should. If we make about anything else, we just hurt ourselves.