It’s a Shame About Breastfeeding

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.

We have to find a way to eliminate the dangerous road to shame in the conversation about breastfeeding. Guilt sucks, but it’s got nothing on shame. Shame goes way, way deeper than guilt. It finds the bottom-most part of your soul and takes up residence there. It colors how you look at everything you do, every human interaction. And once it’s there, it sticks around for a long time.

This little mental/emotional trip I’m on stems from a fantastic, game-changing piece on breastfeeding that a friend sent to me last week. It’s about the recent, now infamous, breastfeeding sibling study, and how the debate about “biomedical outcomes” of breastfeeding is kind of missing the point.

The author of this piece, Alison Stuebe (a maternal-fetal medicine physician, breastfeeding researcher, and assistant professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology – follow her on twitter!), notes that “(t)here is tremendous anger and angst that poisons conversations about breastfeeding and prevents us from finding common ground…This is bad for mothers, and it’s bad for babies.”

Stuebe goes on to list some basic truths about breastfeeding that would have absolutely saved me 3 1/2 years ago – “common ground”, as she calls it . This list is worth a read in full. It’s worth pinning to a wall. It might be worth tattooing on your body. It is so chock-full of weapons in the battle against shame that I could never list all of them here. But here are a choice few (quoted directly from the piece):

  • Breastfeeding is not “free” — it requires a mother’s sustained time and effort.  Calling it “free” implies that her time does not have value.
  • Some women love breastfeeding. Some women do not. A mother’s personal experience of breastfeeding is important.
  • The individual mother is the most qualified person to weigh…tradeoffs and decide what feeding method is “best” for her and her child.
  • Infant feeding is one of many determinants of health and well-being for mothers and infants. Mothers and babies who formula-feed are not doomed, and mothers and babies who breastfeed are not magically inoculated against all diseases for all time.
  • Rather than squabble about the extent to which breastfeeding impacts biomedical outcomes, we should fight for the rights of mothers to decide how care for their children and enable them to do so, thereby improving health and well-being across two generations.
  • Shaming a mother for feeding her baby — in public or in private, whether at the breast or with a bottle — is unacceptable, and it should not be tolerated.
  • Not all women are physically capable of breastfeeding. This has been true throughout human history. The statement, “All women can breastfeed,” is false. It is also harmful, because it implies that women who are not able to breastfeed are not women.

That last one – man. Reading it still chokes me up, because I don’t know if I ever really eradicated all of that shame that took root in my soul in those early, terrible weeks of trying to breastfeed my son, when I was convinced that I was just not up to the job.

This blog post, in all of its eloquence and intelligence and empathy and humanity, was a gift to me – a research-backed love letter of sorts. I hope that it will be shared far and wide. Thank you, Alison, for saying so many things I needed to hear.

I hope that each of us – we women (and some men!) who talk a little obsessively about breasts and breastfeeding – will contribute in a meaningful way to a culture that meets mothers where they are. That’s what drives me to write this blog, to tweet about breastfeeding, to write a book for working/breastfeeding mothers, and to accidentally become “that person who always talks about boobs” amongst my friends. It’s finding a common ground that cuts across the Mommy Wars, across the milk-shaming, across the judgment and anxiety and guilt and shame.

So in the spirit of love letters and anti-shaming and common ground, I have my own little contribution to throw into the mix. When I started to emerge from the worst of my feelings of shame about my breastfeeding challenges, I developed a little mantra for myself. I’m not big on mantras, but this one has stuck with me for years, and I have shared it liberally with other breastfeeding women:

Your worth as a mother is not measured in ounces. 

Try it. Say it out loud. Write it on your pump or My Brest Friend pillow or on a sign next to your rocking chair. It’s true. It’s the truest thing I know – or at least, want to know – about being a good mom in that first year.

Now it’s your turn, readers: what has your experience been like? Does this guilt vs. shame thing resonate for you? I’d love to hear from you in the comments, or even carry your guest blog on the topic.

xo

**A version of this post appears on The Huffington Post.

P.S. Want more posts and content about the journey through modern motherhood? Join me at www.facebook.com/JessicaShortallWrites.

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9 thoughts on “It’s a Shame About Breastfeeding

  1. I am breastfeeding our third child (as I did for the other two) and as a full time student and small business owner, I have come to that point where weaning is close. Baby is eating more solids, and pumping simply isn’t as effective (for me) which has decreased my milk supply. I feel guilt every single time I buy formula for the sitter. Even worse, when baby nurses, had lunch, and still is hungry, I feel like a failure when I give in and prepare a bottle. I KNOW that I am a great mother, and I have given him an amazing gift by breastfeeding for as long as we have, but I still FEEL like a failure. I wanted to nurse him to a year, and it looks like we’ll miss it by two months. I should feel proud that I did this incredibly demanding thing with all of my other commitments. But I don’t. I just feel sad and ashamed that I couldn’t do it. This feeling passes, I know that from the first two babies, but it reminds of how complex and complicated this thing called motherhood can be!

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    1. I’m sorry. I know pretty much exactly how you feel – or my own version of it anyway. Here’s one trick I use on myself and on friends – I ask, “how long were you breastfed?” The answer is usually “I have no idea.” Then I ask, “if you did know, would you care?” And the answer is almost always no. As we grow up, how we were fed in our first year of life shrinks to insignificance. You are doing so much more for those kids that WILL stay with them and that they will value.

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  2. This is an excellent mantra for BF moms! I struggled BF my first baby, finally the LC told me I had to supplement bc she was losing too much weight. I felt like a failure even though I had tried EVERYTHING. My son took to nursing like a champ, gaining almost a pound a week at the beginning. But unbeknownst to me I had some bad PPD setting in and I didn’t want to nurse him. My husband (nor I at the time) couldn’t understand why I didn’t feel triumphant in my ability to nurse the second time around, and I switched him to formula and quickly tried to decrease my supply. I had tremendous guilt over that after I came through my depression. I resonate with the call for us to support moms feeding their babies, no matter what form or fashion! Amen to our worth not being measured in ounces! If we have a third child, this mantra is going up all over my house! Thanks!!

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    1. Thanks, Karen. Your situation sounds SO familiar. So glad you got through what must have been a really, really hard time. I hope you are in a great place now. One trick I like to use is to ask myself and others, “how long were you breastfed?” Most people don’t know…and don’t care. As we grow up, whether and for how long we were breastfed diminishes in importance. All the other stuff we get from our mothers is just so much more of what makes us happy and healthy children and adults.

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