I worked with breastfeeding moms for 8 years, as a volunteer breastfeeding counselor and lactation consultant. Almost all of the moms I worked with struggled with breastfeeding to some extent, whether it was latching, milk supply, navigating the return to work, or dealing with criticism from friends and family.
I worked with moms who found success at breastfeeding. I say that with the caveat that finding success as a breastfeeding mom means different things to different people. Exclusive breastfeeding isn’t the only way to be a “successful” breastfeeding mom. Sometimes you are faced with low milk supply, a non-latching baby, or a work schedule that makes breastfeeding nearly possible. And so you define your own success as a breastfeeding mom. And yes, that might mean feeding your baby any breastmilk at for any length of time, whether directly from your breast or not.
I have also worked with moms who felt like they “failed” at breastfeeding. Maybe they didn’t breastfeed for as long as they planned. Maybe there was a medical reason they could not produce a full supply of milk or that their baby could not latch well. Maybe their workplace didn’t properly accommodate them, or they were simply too overwhelmed by their short maternity leave, lack of support, or sheer exhaustion to go on.
I worked with mothers who fell into depression when breastfeeding didn’t work out, who needed to stop associating with me or any breastfeeding helper because doing so was too triggering. These are the mothers whose stories broke my heart. I told them that breastfeeding or not had nothing to do with how good a mother you are or your worth as a mom, and I hope these mothers took that to heart. I believe this wholeheartedly.
At the end of the day, what matters is that you are a mom who shows up for your children, treats them kindly, and who does her best to be attuned to their needs. You can do that whether you breastfeed or not. Full stop.
All that being said, I was and still am a staunch breastfeeding advocate. What I mean by that is that I believe in every mother’s right to breastfeed if she chooses to. I believe in every mother’s right to be properly educated on the benefits of breastfeeding, and to receive evidence-based information about how to make breastfeeding work. I believe in every mother’s right to have good support for breastfeeding and for it to be available to her no matter what (and yes, I am aware how much more work we need to do in this country to make that reality possible).
I am also a believer in the power of sharing our breastfeeding stories – successes and struggles. I led a monthly breastfeeding support group out of my living room for seven years. The power of sharing your breastfeeding questions, thoughts, and stories with a room full of real mothers going through the same things you are is very powerful, and is what sustains so many women on their breastfeeding journeys.
Now, so many of us share our stories of motherhood and breastfeeding over the internet. This has opened up various avenues of communication and connection, and that is awesome. But it has its pitfalls for sure. Just take any comment section on any breastfeeding article or post. Whether you share a breastfeeding success or a failure, someone has some kind of problem with it. Someone feels attacked.
We’ve gotten to a point where many of us are afraid to say or share anything at all, especially when it comes to a breastfeeding success. This is not okay.
Case in point: A few months ago, actress and singer Jessica Simpson, who had recently given birth to her third child, shared a picture of milk she’d pumped for her baby. It was a very full bottle of milk – a little over 5 ounces. (I’m going to jump in her and reassure any mother who can’t pump that many ounces at once that you are totally normal; 2-5 ounces at a time is a normal range, and how much you pump isn’t really a true measure of your milk supply.)
Simpson captioned the photo with: “This is what success feels like.” And as you can imagine, the internet damn near lost their mind.
In a nutshell, commenters responded by saying Simpson sharing her own success made other moms feel inadequate, and that it was rude and inconsiderate for her to do that. For example:
And of course there were the people who had to chime with the whole “fed is best” argument, stressing that breastmilk success should not be measured by whether you feed your baby breastmilk or formula, but just whether your baby is fed at all.
Again, I do get where these moms are coming from. There is a real pain and hurt that mothers experience when breastfeeding didn’t go as planned. And it is true that breastfeeding isn’t the most important thing in the world, but having a happy, healthy, and well fed baby is.
All that being said, when a mother shares her breastfeeding successes – her dreams and goals as a breastfeeding mom – it has nothing to do with anyone else. Truly. If you feel triggered, or if you are concerned about someone else feeling triggered, that is understandable. Go ahead and block or unfriend anyone or anything that you can’t deal with.
But please don’t put that on anyone else. It is not another mother’s responsibility to censor herself about her breastfeeding journey (successes and struggles) just because someone else might get hurt. Maybe that sounds harsh, but it’s true. We are each responsible for our own feelings and boundaries – no one else is.
And about the breastmilk vs. formula thing? Yes, a fed baby is best, but breastmilk and formula are not the same thing. Breastmilk is a made of live cells tailor-made to your baby’s needs. Breastmilk cannot be replicated, and affords proven benefits that formula does not.
No mother should be shamed for using formula if they need or want to for any reason. But a mother who has fought hard to get as much breastmilk into her baby as possible? Can we please for the love of God let her celebrate?
A mother who shares her breastfeeding success deserves that moment because she worked her butt off to get there. And she is motivating other mothers to do the same. For so many mothers, it’s other nursing moms who keep them going – even more so than their doctors, family, or friends.
And besides breastfeeding, can we please – as women – start to understand that sharing in someone else’s success does not detract from our own success? It’s enough that we have to fight the patriarchy each and every damn day; if we are fighting each other too, no one wins.
We are stronger and more resilient than we know. We can do better than this. We owe it to ourselves, to our families, to our culture, and of course to our children.