When my oldest daughter was born, the nurse laid her perfect, naked body on mine and told me to try breastfeeding. I clumsily turned my baby toward me, but had no idea what to do. The whole thing lasted just a minute or two, but it felt strange and uncomfortable. When we left the hospital two days later, I wasn’t at all confident I could breastfeed.
Exhausted and consumed with worry, I nursed, pumped and sobbed my way through the next few weeks. I hardly slept and my daughter steadily lost weight. The doctor finally told me to supplement her with formula. Overwhelmed with guilt, I didn’t want anyone to know I wasn’t breastfeeding exclusively. And people asked me all the time: the women in my mom’s group, people from work, even the deli counter guy at the corner market.
Are you breastfeeding? How often? I heard breastfed babies have grainy, yellow poops, like mustard? Does she have yellow poop?
I’d smile tightly and nod, yes, yes, I was breastfeeding. I didn’t tell them I was also bottle-feeding. Sadness and shame plagued me: why couldn’t I nourish my baby entirely on my own? Each time someone asked me about it, I felt like a phony and a failure.
My story is not an isolated one. When we ask moms if they’re breastfeeding, we’re asking a very loaded question. For all you know, a mother who desperately wants to breastfeed her baby might be struggling to produce enough milk or has a baby who refuses to nurse. A mom who wants to breastfeed might not be able to for medical reasons, either hers or her baby’s. A mom who wants to breastfeed could be struggling with depression or trauma or both. Maybe a mama is breastfeeding and finds your question rude and intrusive. Or maybe this mom decided she does not want to breastfeed. Period. Full stop.
Asking a woman if she’s breastfeeding out of curiosity, to make conversation or because you hold a certain, possibly judgmental, opinion about the matter is incredibly unsupportive. Believe me, this question is far more emotionally triggering to a new mama that it can ever possibly be to you.
So don’t ask about breastfeeding.
If you’re truly concerned about how life is going with a baby in the mix, there’s a different question you can ask:
How are you doing?
What moms really need is to feel cared for and supported. What they need is a support system. They need the love and understanding of family and friends, doctors, neighbors, strangers and yes, even the guy behind the deli counter. In those delicate first days, weeks and months of motherhood, women need to know they will not be judged or criticized for the way they feel or how they choose to mother their babies. However a mama feeds her baby is the right way. Making her feel otherwise is unkind and counterproductive.
What mamas do not need is to feel anxious about answering the breastfeeding question, even if they are in fact breastfeeding. They, for sure, do not need our judgment or advice, tips or tricks. They do not need to feel ashamed they aren’t breastfeeding or chastised because they’re struggling to make it work. They do not need to be constantly reminded of the grief over losing the option to breastfeed if it’s physically or emotionally impossible to do so.
When we focus so intently on what new moms are doing, it’s easy to lose sight of how they’re feeling. Becoming a mother is an intense transition. Our relationships with our partners, family, and friends shift. Physically, our tender bodies are healing, we’re sleep deprived and taking a shower seems like a luxury from some other woman’s life. Meanwhile, hormones rule our emotions and for some of us post-partum depression takes hold.
Through it all, our hearts, minds and bodies organically re-orient toward our babies. Their livelihood and comfort are our primary concern. There is nothing we won’t do to nourish and nurture our newborns. And yet, what we plan for and what actually happens might be two very different things.
We dreamed of an un-medicated, vaginal homebirth but ended up with an emergency C-section. We planned to co-sleep but find ourselves with a bassinet in the room instead. We committed 110% to breastfeeding but for whatever reason – and there are many – we find ourselves feeding our baby by bottle instead.
Figuring out how to be a mom is no small thing; managing the intense feelings around this new role is even more challenging. The hardest part for so many women is realizing when they need support and asking for help. Let’s not make moms anxious or ashamed by asking them about breastfeeding. Let’s not run the risk of adding guilt or sadness to their already full emotional plates.
There is simply no good reason to ask a woman if she’s breastfeeding or weigh in on her choices. There is, however, every reason in the world to ask her how she’s doing and make her feel supported, loved and seen for the amazing human she is: a mom.