guest post: the reality of breastfeeding?

A few days ago, I stumbled across some articles about breastfeeding. They weren’t the usual uber-positive articles I was used to encountering. The first article purported to be a no-holds-barred account of the difficulties one can encounter when breastfeeding.  The second article, while a few months older, was more extreme about the pain a mother can encounter while breastfeeding.

OK. True confession time. I didn’t breastfeed my son. Hell, I didn’t even carry him. He came to us via gestational surrogacy, and I decided not to attempt to induce lactation. Our awesome gestational carrier did pump breast milk for him for almost 6 months.

It may seem like I don’t have a dog in this fight, but I do because I’m a woman and a mother.  The prevailing message about breastfeeding is that it is best and if you don’t do it, you’re denying your baby his/her natural food. It’s also irreplaceable bonding time. Not breastfeeding might damage maternal-child attachment.  Not breastfeeding might doom your child to a variety of poor outcomes. Not breastfeeding may even doom you, the mother, to serious breast or ovarian cancer.

I’ve watched what the pressure to breastfeed has instigated. I’ve had too many friends both offline and online berate themselves if breastfeeding doesn’t work out or even when they decide to stop pumping.  Wondering what is wrong with them if their breastfeeding journey is more of a struggle than they thought it would be. They feel as if they’ve failed their child and failed as a woman. At the very least, they feel disappointed in themselves and their experience with breastfeeding. Add in infertility, and a failure to breastfeed or less time breastfeeding than one wishes becomes yet another way in which our body has betrayed us.

And I don’t want any woman to feel that way about herself and her body ever. Ever. I’m not trying to start a debate about breastfeeding. Truly. But I am adamant about the power of mommy blogging. I credit mothers blogging with helping to pull back the curtain on motherhood and demonstrate the reality of what motherhood is like. It has major highs and lows, and mothers are not one-dimensional characters. It can be both awesome and suck at the same time.  These are messages society has not been used to seeing, but they are necessary.

I’d like to see the same attention given to how we feed our babies. How you fed your baby is part of the lingua franca of motherhood, meaning that you can’t join a mommy’s group or meet a group of mothers without method of sustenance becoming practically an ice breaker. And source of judgment.

I’m not against breastfeeding. Far from it.  What I appreciate about these articles is that they bring scrutiny and awareness to the reality of breastfeeding. For some women, it is hard. For some women, it doesn’t work. It isn’t a bed of roses for every woman, and while breastfeeding is laudable, it should not be held up as the only acceptable way and only positive, easy stories portrayed. If your nipples are falling off, for God’s sake, find a different way to feed your baby!

I support every woman and whatever choices she makes, but I don’t want any woman to feel compelled to pursue a certain direction because of peer pressure and one-sided media representations.

What do you think? Do you think articles like these provoke fear or do you think they are a needed reality check?

What kinds of articles about feeding your baby would you like to see the media and blogs tackle?

*****

Keanne of Family Building With a Twist in her own words: I’m KeAnne (like LeeAnne w/ a “K”). Mommy to 1. Wife to someone who knows how my mind works. Scary (you should see what goes on in my mind). Owned by 3 cats. I work full time and don’t craft or DIY (you’re welcome). I like books, conspiracy theories, Downton Abbey and cooking. I dislike chocolate, zinfandel, carpet beetles and experts. Expect over-thinking, the occasional rant, strong opinions and the occasional (OK, often) piece of useless knowledge.

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Comments

  1. While I also struggled with breast feeding at the beginning, I think the articles are a bit extreme and unbalanced. Yes, breast feeding is super tough at the beginning but if you stick it out it gets easier. I am still bf and my baby is nearly a year old. I did nearly give up in the beginning but I carried on with support. In my opinion there is more pressure to formula feed and the longer you bf the weirder you feel.

    • I definitely see that there is a perception of an acceptable “window” for BFing. I had a friend who posted on exactly what those first few weeks BFing were like. She took down the post, but I really appreciated her honesty and the reason she had written it was to let people know that yes, it was tough but it does get better. That message needs to be out there more.

    • I agree 100%. Breastfeeding takes a ton of effort, and commitment. I had pressure to supplement all the time, which was not helpful. Trudging through the first few weeks gave us over a year, and 3 months of frozen, breastfeeding.

  2. I’d agree with Heather. I felt a LOT more pressure to give formula in the beginning then support with BFing, and once I hit 6 months (and especially 1 yr), lots of judgement about continuing to breastfeed.

    I’m not a fan of the articles above at all. There are a lot better ways to give balanced information about the challenges AND rewards involved with breastfeeding. Sure, it’s not all sunshine and roses, but it’s not all bleeding nipples either for goodness sakes. For me at least, once we got through the first few weeks it was EASY.

    I loved this post in particular that I came across recently: http://birthwithoutfearblog.com/2013/05/27/reflections-on-extended-breastfeeding-one-mothers-journey/

    • I agree that articles are a bit extreme, and I love the post you linked. I wonder how much of this pressure differs by region? It seems like everyone I know in NC breastfed or wanted to try to breastfeed. I was afraid of judgment b/c D had bottles.

      • I live in a pretty crunch area of CO – but even here a lot of ppl (my husband included!) get super judgey about “extended” breastfeeding.

        The formula pressure was from the one of the nurses and the peds docs in the hospital after just 36 hrs! How ridiculous is that? Luckily everyone else was supportive of my wishes to BF.

  3. I really enjoyed reading your perspective on this, and do 100% believe that you DO have a dog in this fight. I have only followed you since D was a toddler, so I didn’t realize that your carrier pumped for 6 months. That is amazing to learn. Each relationship I learn about is so different, but with many common threads.

    I am one of the “naive” women who thought breastfeeding would just magically happen. Like a switch would flip and I would just know how to do it. I didn’t realize BOTH of us would have to learn, that we would fall down many times, that it would be hard, that I would be pressured and belittled by EVERYONE (despite “just trying to help”) and how demoralized I would feel. I don’t know why I didn’t research it, I just didn’t. I can’t be sure what I would have thought had I come across the above articles early in my search. Professionally, I gather and critically interpret research. But personally? The first few things I find that cause me to have an emotional reaction really set the tone. While I do believe that *honest* accounts of breastfeeding are valuable, it concerns me that sensationalized accounts (even article titles, like above) are widely circulated. I would wager that the vast majority of women researching the topic are pregnant and therefore emotionally vulnerable on such a loaded topic. A more balanced approach is needed.

    I have to agree with what Josey and Heather have said though. I felt tremendous pressure to both “try harder” and “give up”. To take off-label meds to up my supply *and* supplement with formula. I also started getting side-eye for breastfeeding my son after a year because he is *GASP* a boy. Many mixed messages but little support in either direction. I don’t get it.

  4. I applaud you for this post. And I applaud the posts you linked to. Breastfeeding is f’n hard. And it’s not always in anyway fun. It can be incredibly difficult and demoralizing. And failing at it can be incredibly guilt inducing. I had a really hard breastfeeding and was so happy to be done with it at six months. It’s probably the thing I’m most nervous about attempting the second time around. On the one hand I want it to be a better experience and on the other hand I don’t want to have unreasonable expectations; for all I know it will be worse! Having honest conversations about how challenging breastfeeding can be and how it’s okay to make decisions for your own emotional and physical health without sacrificing the well being of your child are so important. These messages are not very common, at all, and they need to be.

  5. After mostly reading very positive and cheery stuff about nursing before my elder girl was born, it was so miserable in the beginning. If anyone had suggested formula I would have quit in a blink of an eye, but I was lucky to have a cheerleader spouse, doctor, and mother/MIL. The only person sick of the whole deal and ready to switch to formula was me, but it did get better so it was probably worth the awful start. I had a wicked hard time getting breastfeeding to work with the kid, but after the 6 full weeks of misery (and mastitis twice) it got better. By the time we got to 4 months, it was easier and by 6 months it was really easy so we stuck with it. I make it a point now to nurse the baby in full view in public because I know girls and women are watching and learning. I’m also lucky in that nobody has berated me for nursing (we quit before at 13 months). The thing I think is missing from the discussion is the part about pumping. It’s all well and good for women to nurse when they spend 24 hours a day with their babies/small kids, but realistically not everyone does that, and pumping is just miserable and hardly supported. I appreciate the honesty but I think we need the whole story, not just the scary beginnings. I’d also like to hear more about how and why women stop. Is it because pumping is awful or someone is scaring her about baby’s growth (with need or without)? Is it because work and pumping are totally incompatible? Is it because exclusive pumping was the only thing that worked and it made everyone miserable after a point? The hospital where my baby was born reports that 70% or more of new moms leave the hospital nursing, but how many are still doing so at 4 months or 6 months or a year?

    • I think you are absolutely right that there need to be more discussions about pumping. With my daughter I was able to stay home for six months (my maternity leave bordered summer break) so I only had to pump at work for a few weeks. But this time I’ll only have three months at home and I highly doubt I’ll be able to pump long enough to get to my goal of six months. Pumping while teaching is almost impossible and there isn’t much I can do to make it happen. Blerg. Breastfeeding is so hard.

    • It would be very helpful to see more written about the reality of working and pumping. That is one topic I really appreciate Liberating Working Moms tackling.

  6. This is such an emotional topic for me. Being able to breasfeed my children the “normal” way is the one thing I don’t know that I can’t let go of. Thank you, infertility, so damn much. I prepared and fought to be able to nurse my boys (who came to us through adoption) for a long time before they were born (with my youngest, I worked on inducing lactation almost 18mon before he was born). Me and that damn pump were the best of frenemies for more than a year. I had a crazy job (a home-visiting social worker) with a completely inconsistent schedule, both before and after he was born. But I did it. And we’re still doing it, me and my 33mon old boy.

    And I totally admit – for the first time ever – that I judge mamas who don’t breastfeed. Mostly, I am pissed at them, jealous of them, because they *could* do what I wanted (want!) to be able to do and yet they don’t. I have had to use an SNS for almost 3 years with my youngest. We’ve never once nursed without it. I have spent I don’t know how much time/money finding donor breastmilk. I while I rationally know this is *my* issue and has nothing to do with how other mamas choose to feed their babies, I’m beyond jealous that they aren’t doing it. I know. It’s irrational. I know. And yet there it is.

  7. I think where you live is a key issue on the pressure you feel either way. Where I live, you are isolated and shunned if you don’t breastfeed. I had medical issues: my supply was crap and I was supported in every way to continue breastfeeding. And discouraged to use “industrial crap” ie formula. I tried medication, both accepted and alternative. I paid $10,000 dollars on lactation consultants. I was damn committed to making it work. The twins were weighed before and after they fed: they weren’t getting enough. My breastfeeding schedule was constantly being tweaked and adjusted by my lactation specialists, who were wonderful. But my body refused to cooperate. When I told my twins group about my supply problems, not one person suggested formula. I was only told to keep trying and “breast is best.” Eventually, the most pro-breastfeeding lactativist I had worked with told me, with tears in her eyes, that we had tried everything and I should not feel guilty anymore about the fact that I NEEDED to supplement. It was a powerful moment.

    Oh, the guilt. I still feel guilty today.

    • Sheesh, with twins I would have thought you could have caught a break and there would be less pressure. I am so sorry you had a rough time.

    • That’s the thing that makes me nuts, nuts about the whole thing. The culture around baby feeding is super binary – either you breastfeed or you do formula and there is NO acceptance of a mix. Why on earth couldn’t there be both? There is no reason! I’m so sorry you went through all that guilt-tripping and nobody suggested formula sooner. Bodies can only do their best and formula is a good alternative to breast milk. I hope we develop a middle way soon where women are supported and the focus is on a happy family with a growing baby (or two or more) rather than obsessing about what’s best for baby. Best for baby is not the only factor in a breastfeeding relationship, or at least it shouldn’t be.

    • I wish you didn’t feel guilty. I wish women didn’t have to feel guilt over similar experiences and the decision to supplement. This makes me so angry.

  8. I think it’s important for the media to portray a variety of perspectives when it comes to breastfeeding. I see so many “breast is best” articles (example: http://www.drmomma.org/2009/07/breastfeeding-in-land-of-genghis-khan.html I’ve seen this article everywhere this week on FB) and articles that portray an easy and beautiful breastfeeding journey. I think it’s important that women see the other side of the coin – particularly for women where that was their reality. It’s so good to see your perspective echoed by another Mom – it takes away some of the guilt and self blame. I worry that the article Josey posted above would just make any woman who struggled and didn’t overcome the battle would feel awful and guilty reading the article she posted. I think it’s a beautiful piece.

    I do recognize that women who intend to breastfeed may read these extremely negative accounts and fear for their tits, but I would hope any women would be wise enough to extend her search and find that experiences vary widely. Most breastfeeding experiences aren’t all sunshine and rainbows, but they aren’t your nipple falling off either.

    Personally, my breastfeeding relationship with my son came easily even though everything a lot of things were stacked against us. He was born via c-section, I didn’t get to hold him until hours after he was born, his first attempt to feed he stopped breathing, then he was taken from me for another 8 hours for overnight observation. Once he was brought to me though, we didn’t miss a beat. He latched great, he fed great, gained great. Not once did I have mastitis or thrush (though I did have the occasional plugged duct). Even with an easy start, breastfeeding in the early months was exhausting, It was hard! After three months or so it was smooth sailing and we made it til 13 months where I weaned him to pursue fertility treatments (Something that I will always feel a bit guilty about).

    As moms, I think what we all need is less guilt and more support. Support if it was hard and it didn’t work that it’s okay to stop, support for working moms to pump if they choose, or moms who breastfeed to do so in public and as long as their baby and her wish, or to bottle feed from the get-go.We put enough guilt on ourselves, we definitely don’t need any more from elsewhere.

  9. I think the more realistic stories about breastfeeding there are out there, the better…especially stories about what appears to be a not-uncommon experience—-EXTREMELY difficult & painful at first, but keep at it and it will get better. I think if I’d read a story like that, I would not have stopped nursing my first at 3 weeks. I was having a lot of trouble & pain, and I searched and searched for some information to know whether this was normal or not. And found NOTHING at the time. So I figured (in my addled, post-partum mind) that something was clearly wrong with me or him and that this likely wouldn’t work (i did work with an excellent lactation consultant, but really the motivation had to come from within) and I gave up early. With my second, I had the same issues in the beginning but realized that the difficulty & pain would ease over time and just kept at it and made it almost a year.

Trackbacks

  1. […] Building with a Twist wrote a guest post for us featuring two articles about the realities of breastfeeding and the pressure it puts on […]

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