Confession: I didn’t breastfeed my son.
It wasn’t because I couldn’t, or because I didn’t produce enough milk, or because he wouldn’t latch on.
I didn’t breastfeed my son because I didn’t want to.
Here’s the part where many folks rush to judgments, where they assume that I’m selfish or lazy or uneducated. This is the part where many assume — if only for a moment — that there must be a flaw in that part of my DNA that programs women to be nurturers and creates an instinct to draw our babies to our breast. This is the part where those same people wonder what’s wrong with me.
Because, believe me, those are the things I’ve thought about myself for years.
When my first son was born, I tried to breastfeed — and I hated it right from the start. I didn’t get that warm feeling other women seemed to have when their baby was suckling at my breast. There was no oxytocin, no bonding, no connection. Instead, there was anger and frustration. My skin crawled every time I nursed, and just thinking about nursing my son filled me with dread, rage, and sadness. I resented my newborn baby for infringing on my body in this way, and I hated myself for feeling this way about feeding him.
I quit nursing after a few weeks and instantly felt relief. But even though the rage, resentment, and that awful skin-crawling feeling faded, they were replaced with a heavy coat of shame and guilt. I should want to breastfeed, I thought. What’s wrong with me?
I generated a fair amount of self-loathing myself, but the shame and guilt was fed and fueled by other parents, magazines, and our society in countless subtle and not-so-subtle ways.
Let’s start with the way we think it’s okay to ask every new mom — whether a co-worker, cousin-in-law, or stranger in the Walgreens checkout line — the invasive question, “Are you breastfeeding?” What the hell is up with that? We don’t ask strangers how soon after childbirth they had sex or whether they had their son circumcised. We don’t ask strangers if they shit on the delivery table or whether they had an episiotomy. So why do we ask every single new mother whether she’s breastfeeding or not? Is it some kind of voyeuristic curiosity, or because on some level we attach maternal worth to how a woman feeds her child and the sacrifices she’s willing to make? Whatever the reason, our desire to ask this question of anyone and everyone implies that there is a right way and a wrong to feed and care for our children.
Of course, I was doing it the wrong way.
On top of all the questions (with actual or perceived judgment hidden in them) are the bajillion articles, blog posts, and news stories about how “breast is best.” There are the Judgey McJudgersons ready to pounce on anyone who admits they didn’t like breastfeeding. All of these messages — whether covert or hit-you-upside-the-head-obvious — combine together to send the very obvious message that if you do not breastfeed, you are an inadequate mother.
And this has to stop.
Let me be very clear: I am aware of the benefits of breastfeeding. Nearly everyone is. I fully support a mother’s right to breastfeed her child where and for as long as they both feel comfortable. I appreciate the support and resources available to nursing mothers.
But this can’t come at the expense of support and resources for women who, for a variety of reasons, do not breastfeed. When my son was a baby, and the shame was still hot and intense, I saw a large sign in the window of a popular local maternity and baby story that read: Babies Are Meant To Be Breastfed. When I read this sign, my heart sunk. My face flushed, my hands shook, and tears stung my eyes. What does it say about me, as a mother, if my baby was meant to be breastfed, and I had chosen to deny him that for my own emotional well-being?
I was hurt and angry, but I was also worn out. I considered writing a letter to the store to express my disapproval, but realized it was a fight I was incapable of winning. I was the one who had failed, after all. Wasn’t I?
Over time, however, I realized that I hadn’t failed at all. Breastfeeding, for whatever reason, was not a healthy option for me. There was no primal longing to nurse my babies, and breastfeeding only exacerbated the postpartum depression I was struggling with.
When my second son was born three years later, I decided I would not even attempt to breastfeed — and it was the best decision I could have made for myself, my son, and my entire family. I was confident in my choice and got the support I needed from my husband and doctors. But the shame and guilt was still there.
Over the past several years, the shame and guilt has lessened a little. Part of the reason is time. A decade will heal many wounds. Another reason is the increase in acceptance for formula feeding in general, and support for all mothers, regardless of how we feed our babies. My friend Wendy Wisner, who’s a lactation expert and a wealth of information for nursing moms, is paving the way for increasing understanding and connection among all mothers. “The judgment and shame over not breastfeeding has to end,” she writes. “Love is what’s important.”
We have to stop with this glorification of mothers as beatific and quasi-angelic martyrs, and we have to stop assuming that all mothers feel the same instincts, longings, and urges. These assumptions and stereotypes only set us up for failure, create stigma for women who mother differently, and exacerbate any inherent shame or guilt we mothers might already feel.
Motherhood looks different for all of us. But even though we might mother differently, one thing is certain: We all love our children fiercely.
And love is all that is asked of us.
Love is, after all, best.