Five months ago, while warded in the hospital after delivering Michael, I made the terrible mistake of turning on the overhead TV and selecting the “How to Breastfeed” channel. On screen, an extremely well endowed woman calmly held a baby to her breast, in the crook of her arm. Neither woman nor baby was noticeably moving. The woman was smiling serenely at her quietly suckling baby, and the voice over was saying something about “bonding” and “enjoyment”.
I looked down at my crazy newborn who was attempting to breakdance on my chest, and figured that everything was going very wrong.
The hospital would have done better screening Breastmilk – The Movie instead.
Other than the fact that it shows what actually happens – hyperventilating newborns and all – the film is also a good reminder that breastfeeding, like almost every other parenting decision and course of action, is complicated. There is no single, universal experience. It is entirely different for every woman, every child, and every circumstance. And yet, as a society and individually as mothers, we have apparently decided that breast is always best.
I remember calling my friend a week after Michael was born. I was depressed, anxious and falling apart. I asked if she thought it would be okay if I didn’t breastfeed. I needed validation from another mother that I would not be failing my child. I was aware of the absurdity of it, even as I was making that call, but I think at the heart of it I needed someone to give me a compelling reason to continue to try to breastfeed my baby, even though it was wreaking havoc on my mental and physical health, and affecting my enjoyment of my son.
Especially when formula is not an evil alternative. (It may taste like evil, but that’s different.)
So why was I so conflicted about it? Why did I refuse to let it go?
The community health worker interviewed in Breastmilk puts it this way: “Breastfeeding is one of those things that you have to be ridiculously competitive to do. You have to be almost mean about it. There’s a certain kind of push, a umph that goes with breastfeeding that, you know, the off chance your child may not be fat when they get older is not gonna do it.”
At the crux of it, I didn’t want to fail. Feeding one’s baby has become a competitive sport in recent years, and I was not prepared to come in last place. Because if the general message given to me and every mother is that breastfeeding is best for your child, and if snide distinctions are made between mothers who exclusively breastfeed / partially supplement with formula / exclusively pump instead of nurse / fully formula feed, and if mothers who have managed to power through incredible hurdles in order to exclusively breastfeed for 6 months / 12 months / 2 years are celebrated as champions and heroes, you start to believe that there are winners and losers. The losers are at best seen as pitiful, and at worst, self-serving failures.
We judge because we compete, and we compete because we are afraid to be judged. We judge ourselves. We judge other women. A mother who managed to breastfeed against great odds is tempted to look down on mothers who clearly “didn’t try hard enough”. The woman blessed with an easy breastfeeding experience is tempted to think that the supposed challenges experienced by others have been exaggerated. People who have never breastfed ask, “Why didn’t you do it? Why couldn’t you do it? Look at the benefits!” And so mothers who don’t breastfeed often find themselves backed into a corner, having to justify their decision to themselves, to their families, to the world. If the reason is conveniently prohibitive, then you’re safe. “I tried really hard. But my baby had a high palate and couldn’t latch.” God forbid it be a the sort of reason and thought process which shows us up to be anything less than totally self sacrificing. “I had to work.” “I had to save my own sanity.” “My relationship with my spouse was suffering.” “I just didn’t like it.”
There is a scene near the end of Breastmilk, which is incredibly sad. Colleen, the mother who is devastated by her inability to breastfeed due to low supply and latching issues, sits on a park bench with her baby. She says that formula feeding “makes me question what kind of parent I’m being, what kind of bond I’m creating with my child.” And she truly feels this, even as her healthy, happy son lies curled on her chest in a soft knot of contentment, sleeping, and her arms wrap round to embrace him.
I believe in giving mothers the benefit of the doubt – that how we are feeding our children in our particular circumstances is right for us, for our families, for our children. I believe that whether we feed our babies breastmilk or formula is only one of a plethora of parenting decisions which we will be making for the rest of the time that we are parents, and that it’s really nobody’s business except ours. I believe that the woman who formula feeds should be supported as much as the woman who breastfeeds.
Do I think breastmilk is better than formula milk? Yes. Do I think organic food is better than non-organic? Yes. Do I think music lessons are better than no music lessons? Yes. Do I think having my baby sleep on his back is better than letting him sleep on his tummy? Yes. But am I going to always choose the better option? No. Because parenting is complicated, and we are all doing the best we can.
I ended up loving breastfeeding. But I had to do it my way, and it has definitely morphed into its own creature over these five months. So on hindsight I am glad that I did not give up entirely after one week, and eventually found something that worked for me. But it would have been nice to have gotten here in a different way. I wish guilt, fear and pride had not been the primary driving forces behind my determination to go on.
Instead, what if all of us were able to make our decisions based on better information, and real support from the ones closest to us, and society at large? Then maybe more women who should be breastfeeding would be breastfeeding. And more women who should be formula feeding would be formula feeding. And all of us would be finding more joy in our choices.
So if you’re a mother, and you feel like everything is falling apart, let me take your hand and say, “If you really want to do this, I’m with you. Let’s look at the difficulties one by one and see if we can’t get this licked. But if you want to stop, let’s throw out the damn pump and burn the nursing bras and rejoice that formula is such an amazing invention.”