Every August, in celebration of World Breastfeeding Week, my social media feed is flooded with breastfeeding praise and celebrations, including badges created by La Leche League (LLL), a breastfeeding support group, documenting specific parts of the breastfeeding journey.
These badges include many different breastfeeding milestones — one for every month or year a mom has breastfed her child, as well as badges for occasions like “I breastfed my baby in public!” or “through mastitis!” or even “through postpartum depression!”
I exclusively breastfed my son for 13 months, and am now breastfeeding his little sister, who is six months old. I see many LLL badges that would apply to me. I’ve continued to nurse despite initial difficulties, through oversupply and overactive letdown, through postpartum depression and anxiety, through medicating my mental illness, through going back to work, and through a horrible bout of mastitis.
But you won’t see me sharing any of these badges. Because I don’t think I should be celebrated for any of it.
It’s not that I don’t support breastfeeding. Obviously, I do, considering I did it for more than a year for my firstborn and am doing it again for my second baby. I even have one of those “tree of life” photos of me and my son framed and hanging in my bedroom.
Breastfeeding is good. It’s lovely for those who want to and can do it. It has certainly been lovely for me, once I got through some early challenges. I will forever cherish the moments with a sleeping baby on my chest, fed and happy, warm and content. I have nursed my baby because I want to, because it works for me and for them and because my privilege as a middle-class white woman allows me the time and space to do so.
I recognise the badges are intended to be a form of support. A way for parents to celebrate their successes and say to others “You can do it, too!” But here is where I find those messages problematic.
First, such messages ignore the fact that breast is not best for everyone. Most notably, those who have an insufficient supply, babies with certain allergies or those who simply do not want to breastfeed for any number of reasons. Those reasons are really no one else’s business, and in those cases, formula is an equally valid choice.
Secondly, and perhaps my biggest issue with these badges, is that they emphasise breastfeeding above all else. Breastfeeding through mental illness, through sleep deprivation, through supply challenges, through an infant refusing the breast, and through infection are not necessarily achievements to be celebrated, and in fact, they can be dangerous feats to aspire to.
“Idolizing breastfeeding above all else only serves to cement the idea that good mothers are those who sacrifice themselves for their children, and any mother who might have the audacity to ever choose herself is selfish.”
Celebrating breastfeeding at all costs sends the message that nothing else matters — no other markers of health for mom or baby — that struggling is part of it, and if you don’t see the struggle through, well, you just aren’t trying hard enough. It’s a glorification of martyrdom that I cannot condone — a message that motherhood requires suffering, and that if I suffered, you must, too.
Idolizing breastfeeding above all else only serves to cement the idea that good mothers are those who sacrifice themselves for their children, and any mother who might have the audacity to ever choose herself is selfish.
Breastfeeding was not a contributing factor in my postpartum mood disorder, but for many moms, it is. For many more, the pressure to breastfeed is a major culprit in their onset of postpartum depression, especially if they find they are unable to exclusively do so. The reality is that in our society, moms who do not breastfeed are demonized, and unless they can prove they tried their very best, often pushing themselves to the brink of exhaustion, their choice to use formula is deemed unacceptable.
Even if these badges and messages are not intended to shame, they inherently do. When I proclaim I breastfed through mental illness, it sends a message to others that this is something to aspire to. And that pressure puts moms’ lives at risk.
What is deeply missing in discussions surrounding infant feeding is the concern for the mother’s health, well-being and needs. This is often a second thought to the widely regarded primary goal of ensuring an infant receives breastmilk.
I would argue that what is perhaps even more important than whether or not a baby receives breastmilk is a mom’s health and happiness. Not only because Mom is also a human being of value, but because her health is intrinsically linked to a baby’s wellbeing. If Mom needs or wants to stop breastfeeding to get more sleep, to get well, or to recover from infection, then that is perhaps what is best for the baby in the long run.
Trusting women extends beyond decisions about whether or not to parent, or believing women when they say they have been sexually assaulted. If we are to trust women, it means trusting moms, too. Moms are perfectly capable of weighing risks and choosing what is best for themselves and their families. They are further empowered to do so if they know it is okay to prioritise their own health, and they will not irrefutably harm their children by doing so.
All parents should be supported. Those who choose to breastfeed should absolutely receive support from groups, from other parents, and from the stories of others’ successes. Furthermore, breastfeeding parents should be supported nursing in public, lawfully protected in the workplace, and have access to a maternity leave long enough to establish breastfeeding and recover from birth.
For moms who don’t want to breastfeed, or who find they can’t, let’s alleviate the pressure and let them know they do not have to breastfeed through any challenge they do not want to. That is it okay for them to quit. Because it is.
How children are fed as infants is really a very small part of this whole parenting gig. So many other factors have contributed to who my children are and who they will be. My healthy, thriving, breastfed children display no differences from their formula-fed counterparts at daycare or on playdates. They all get sick sometimes. They all fuss when they don’t get their way. They all make messes, and they are all immensely loved.
This article first appeared on HuffPost Canada Personal
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