The Blog

It's a Shame About Breastfeeding

I am having a major insight this week. Here goes: Guilt = response to what one does. Shame = response to what one IS. Which one is at work for me, and for other breastfeeding mothers?

I am having a major insight this week. Here goes: Guilt = response to what one does. Shame = response to what one IS. Which one is at work for me, and for other breastfeeding mothers?

Guilt played a huge role in my breastfeeding struggles, and in those of many, many women I've interviewed. Or at least, I have always thought of what I experienced as "guilt".

Recap: Guilt = response to what one does. Shame = response to what one IS. As women struggling with breastfeeding, are we feeling guilt?: "I had a hard time balancing breastfeeding and work/older siblings/whatever"? Or - so much scarier - are we feeling shame?: "I'm a failure." "I'm not a good mother." "I'm not enough." "I'm not fully a woman."

I remember exactly what I said to my husband when breastfeeding my first child was ridiculously painful and hugely anxiety-inducing: "I'm a failure. Women have done this for all of human history, yet I can't do it." That was shame. That was me feeling that who I was just wasn't good enough for my baby. Or, maybe, not good enough, period.

We have to find a way to eliminate the dangerous road to shame in the conversation about breastfeeding. Guilt sucks, but it's got nothing on shame. Shame goes way, way deeper than guilt. It finds the bottom-most part of your soul and takes up residence there. It colors how you look at everything you do, every human interaction. And once it's there, it sticks around for a long time.

This little mental/emotional trip I'm on stems from a fantastic, game-changing piece on breastfeeding that a friend sent to me last week. It's about the recent, now infamous, breastfeeding sibling study, and how the debate about "biomedical outcomes" of breastfeeding is kind of missing the point.

The author of this piece, Alison Stuebe (a maternal-fetal medicine physician, breastfeeding researcher, and assistant professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology - follow her on twitter), notes that "(t)here is tremendous anger and angst that poisons conversations about breastfeeding and prevents us from finding common ground...This is bad for mothers, and it's bad for babies."

Stuebe goes on to list some basic truths about breastfeeding that would have absolutely saved me 3 1/2 years ago - "common ground", as she calls it . This list is worth a read in full. It's worth pinning to a wall. It might be worth tattooing on your body. It is so chock-full of weapons in the battle against shame that I could never list all of them here. But here are a choice few (quoted directly from the piece):

  • Breastfeeding is not "free" -- it requires a mother's sustained time and effort. Calling it "free" implies that her time does not have value.
  • Some women love breastfeeding. Some women do not. A mother's personal experience of breastfeeding is important.
  • The individual mother is the most qualified person to weigh...tradeoffs and decide what feeding method is "best" for her and her child.
  • Infant feeding is one of many determinants of health and well-being for mothers and infants. Mothers and babies who formula-feed are not doomed, and mothers and babies who breastfeed are not magically inoculated against all diseases for all time.
  • Rather than squabble about the extent to which breastfeeding impacts biomedical outcomes, we should fight for the rights of mothers to decide how care for their children and enable them to do so, thereby improving health and well-being across two generations.
  • Shaming a mother for feeding her baby -- in public or in private, whether at the breast or with a bottle -- is unacceptable, and it should not be tolerated.
  • Not all women are physically capable of breastfeeding. This has been true throughout human history. The statement, "All women can breastfeed," is false. It is also harmful, because it implies that women who are not able to breastfeed are not women.

That last one - man. Reading it still chokes me up, because I don't know if I ever really eradicated all of that shame that took root in my soul in those early, terrible weeks of trying to breastfeed my son, when I was convinced that I was just not up to the job.

This blog post, in all of its eloquence and intelligence and empathy and humanity, was a gift to me - a research-backed love letter of sorts. I hope that it will be shared far and wide. Thank you, Alison, for saying so many things I needed to hear.

I hope that each of us - we women (and some men!) who talk a little obsessively about breasts and breastfeeding - will contribute in a meaningful way to a culture that meets mothers where they are. That's what drives me to write this blog, to tweet about breastfeeding, to write a book for working/breastfeeding mothers, and to accidentally become "that person who always talks about boobs" amongst my friends. It's finding a common ground that cuts across the Mommy Wars, across the milk-shaming, across the judgment and anxiety and guilt and shame.

So in the spirit of love letters and anti-shaming and common ground, I have my own little contribution to throw into the mix. When I started to emerge from the worst of my feelings of shame about my breastfeeding challenges, I developed a little mantra for myself. I'm not big on mantras, but this one has stuck with me for years, and I have shared it liberally with other breastfeeding women:

Your worth as a mother is not measured in ounces.

Try it. Say it out loud. Write it on your pump or My Brest Friend pillow or on a sign next to your rocking chair. It's true. It's the truest thing I know - or at least, want to know - about being a good mom in that first year.

Now it's your turn, readers: what has your experience been like? Does this guilt vs. shame thing resonate for you? I'd love to hear from you in the comments.


(A version of this post originally appeared on my blog)