Posted by: Diana Cassar-Uhl, MPH, IBCLC | May 25, 2012

Forgiving ourselves and the truth about breastfeeding


I haven’t met a single person who enjoys “the mommy wars.”  I’d go so far to say I even despise the WORDS describing this us vs. them concept that has permeated our culture.  Let me cut to the chase:  mothers who parent differently from me are not my problem.  The culture that makes the biological norm seem like the more difficult, less convenient, unrealistic, extreme choice is my problem.  Cultural constructs, ranging from an uninformed father to the deeply-rooted misogyny of a supervisor in the workplace that make  the biological norm NOT the best choice, are my problem.

There are far too many of these constructs, and as long as there is money to be made for every mother who does not breastfeed, the fight to eliminate those barriers to the biological norm will be a messy one … especially if we burn half our ammunition fighting against each other.

I’ve been reading and listening to a lot of Brene Brown.  She’s a psychologist who has spent several years researching, essentially, what distinguishes people who live connected, loving lives from those who don’t.  She finds that vulnerability, allowing oneself to be seen, is one key to experiencing what she describes as “wholeheartedness,” and that shame is the ingredient that prevents vulnerablity/wholeheartedness/authenticity. She says that love and belonging are available to those who believe they’re worthy of love and belonging. (I can’t even begin to summarize the significance of her work in one paragraph, so I urge you to take 25 minutes today and 25 minutes tomorrow and listen to these two TED talks by Brene Brown … they’ve changed how I look at everything.)  The Power of Vulnerability     Listening to Shame

What is most fascinating to me about what Brene Brown has uncovered is that, when we aren’t wholehearted and authentic, when we’re failing to confront our shame, we become toxic.  Cutting down others who make different choices from our own is toxic.  Being unable to see our own shortcomings is toxic.  Believing we are only “enough” if we can check all the boxes and be someone else’s definition of perfect is toxic.

I started my blog with the goal of normalizing breastfeeding in American cultureI defined normal, and contrasted it against the alternatives.  I also acknowledged that, even in the absence of barriers, some can’t and some don’t want to.  In our culture, the alternative has become preferable to the norm — bottle-feeding is the cultural norm.  Thanks to the information age, we are at no loss for the latest research, opinion piece, or controversy, whether from the comfort of our homes, on the go with our smartphones, or wherever we are.  The myths and misinformation get dressed up as studies or passed along as fact by the self-appointed authority of the day.

“Pacifiers won’t interfere with breastfeeding.”

“Breastfeeding mothers don’t contribute to society.”

“Breastfeeding an older child makes him dependent.”

“Sleeping with your baby is dangerous.”

“It’s unrealistic to expect today’s mothers to breastfeed exclusively for 6 months.”

It can all get deafening in a hurry, leaving us insecure, defensive, and ready to attack anyone who challenges the decisions we finally come to in all the noise, because we’ve embraced cultural norms that are at odds with our biological norms.

The mother with insufficient glandular tissue whose breasts didn’t develop enough for her to exclusively feed her baby isn’t going to let him starve because supplementation isn’t biologically normal.

The mother who carries the health insurance for her family isn’t going to quit her job because feeding expressed breastmilk by bottle isn’t biologically normal.

The mother who quit breastfeeding her twins before they were two weeks old because no one in her immediate support network thought breastfeeding was important or necessary (because they hadn’t breastfed any of their babies, either) isn’t supposed to berate herself for the rest of her babies’ first year because she’s buying, mixing, and feeding an alternative to the biological norm.

Yet, rather than taking a deep breath and acknowledging that we did the best we could with the choices we believed we had under the circumstances we faced, we struggle with whether we’ve done enough – and frankly, the notion that we’ve done anything less than 100% for our children is just too painful to bear.  The shame that we might not have “done enough” takes our breath away.  We sweep it under the carpet, or more likely, we undermine those who somehow accomplished what we felt to be impossible – we scoff at “supermom” and imagine she’s the unattainable ideal, or we consider her choices not worth it – knowing nothing about her story or what drove her decisions.  There are winners and there are losers.  There are haves and have-nots.

I’d like to think there’s another way, and it starts with first accepting that we do the best we can in the situations we’re in, and forgiving ourselves when a booby trap (thanks, Best for Babes) interferes with our efforts to breastfeed.

But, in our noble efforts ensure that no mother feels like she hasn’t done enough, we are making a grave mistake.  We tiptoe around the importance of the biological norm in birth, infant feeding, and care.  We say “breastfeeding is a personal choice,” but do we spend enough energy understanding why the alternative is attractive?  Instead of saying “my kid is healthy, so don’t try to make me feel guilty,” why can’t we say “I chose an alternative, but I did so after weighing the risks and the benefits to my family?”

When we are dismissive of breastfeeding as the biological norm, touting it as a “lifestyle choice,” that mother with the hypoplastic breasts won’t feel like demanding a full explanation of her condition from her healthcare provider and pressing for research into the environmental exposures that might have caused or worsened her lactation failure.  That mother in the workplace feels no reason to find ways to be with her baby AND fulfill her job responsibilities, or put pressure on the culture so that her motherhood is respected, not viewed as a liability.  That mother of twins might not seek to learn to bottle-feed her babies in a manner that preserves what she can of the biological norm, such as is highlighted in this article by Analytical Armadillo, or explore why breastfeeding isn’t part of her culture, why it isn’t considered part of the normal, regular progression of pregnancy and mothering.

By accepting breastfeeding as a lifestyle choice in an effort to not make each other feel bad, we cheapen the importance of breastfeeding as a public health issue.

We permit poor or no maternity policy when a working woman gives birth.

We expect flight attendants and wait staff to ask that woman feeding her baby to cover up.  We expect breastfeeding mothers to stay at home or pump and feed a bottle if they dare leave the house.

We allow supervisors to discriminate against breastfeeding mothers who require time and space to pump during their workday or who keep their babies with them whenever it’s practical – because breastfeeding mothers “made a choice” that is perceived as negatively impacting the workplace (regardless of their contributions).

But if we can embrace how we’ve fallen short, and instead of attacking each other, put pressure on the culture that has done little to uphold the biological norm, that is where progress happens.

Let’s acknowledge that after we give birth, our bodies make milk for a reason … and let’s press the culture for the option to do better.  Then, and only then, will “choice” truly be a factor in infant feeding – informed choice that exposes all of the biological AND cultural risks and expenses of each option, and forces progress toward eliminating all of the barriers to giving our babies everything they deserve.

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Responses

  1. So True!

  2. Diana, I love the way you write and the way you feel. Thank you for all you do to advocate for the rest of us!

  3. Thank you! I’ve been reading and working through Brene Brown’s work as well and I agree she’s hit the nail on the head in terms of the roots of the so called “mommy-wars.” What I think is particularly telling is how inflated this is in the media. Certainly there are communication breakdowns and insensitive comments between mothers, but the real source is in the way our media and multi-national corporations feed on our shame and use it to undermine women and pit them against each other. I’m so excited that Brown’s work has become so popular at the same time as the Time cover and the Badinter book. I really think this is a game changer for our work. Many thanks for articulating the connnection so clearly!

  4. beautifully written! I enthusiastically agree with every word. Thank you for writing this :)

  5. You say what I am thinking. Thank you Diana!

  6. [...] heck, parenthood – is seen as a liability, not only where I worked, but throughout our culture.  Breastfeeding is seen as a choice a military mother makes – but if she makes it, she’s perceived as not putting the mission first [...]

  7. I am o mother of two and a pediatrician. I breast feed both children for extended periods. I am a breastfeeding advocate. My job is in nurseries at the academic hospitals where I live. I am committed to improving breast feeding rates in my state. I am trying to implement a breast feeding education curriculum for resident physicians where I work. I am studying to become a certified lactation consultant. I loved your article. Some of the phrases I like to use when helping mothers breast feed are ” any breast milk you provide your baby is a gift” and when a mom is struggling with milk production I remind them that “the best gift you can give your baby is a sane mom.”

    Thanks for your work in helping make breast feeding the norm and formula the alternative!


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