This isn’t a “how-to-have-a-happy-nursing-relationship-post” or an “I’m-a-lactivist-and-here’s-why-treatise.” On the contrary, I want to make all moms feel comfortable around here – even those who for whatever reason were unable to or chose not to nurse their babies (or toddlers). At the same time, I also want to be able to freely write about my own nursing experiences without having to worry about offending someone or having a mom tell me that once a child starts asking to nurse, she’s clearly too old for it (more on that one in a bit). My personal breastfeeding experiences have been overwhelmingly joyful. Sure, there was the difficult time when a baby started nipping at me and went on an unexpected nursing strike. There was the overabundance of milk that choked the same baby who suffered terribly from reflux. There’s been engorgement, clogged ducts, and leaky breasts. There has recently been the difficult task of abruptly ending a nursing relationship where neither Mom nor baby was really ready. There’s also been backlash and even some hate email after I wrote about why I nurse at Mass. So, yes, breastfeeding three children well beyond infancy has not been without challenges.
Still, I openly admit I am a woman who loves to nurse. Breastfeeding gives me peace. It helps me to connect with my children. It forces me to slow down. It has taught me great lessons in compassion, and I find it fitting that God uses the image of a baby at her mother’s breast to reveal His divine compassion that constantly and endlessly flows out to all of His children (Isaiah 49:15). I like the cuddle time nursing offers. It has also helped me overcome some of my body image issues. After giving birth, nursing gently prods me to overlook my lumpy, postpartum body and to instead be in awe of the exquisite design that is me and is fully capable of completely nourishing and infant. Each roll my babies acquire is from the milk that comes from my body. Amazing!
I like to talk about nursing just as I enjoy rambling on about my children because it brings me satisfaction and happiness. The only reason I don’t like to share my own nursing anecdotes is because breastfeeding seems to be one of those topics that can quickly become divisive. Sometimes I can see why. There are zealous lactivists who seem to suggest anything but breastmilk is akin to poison. That’s unfair to caring moms who don’t breastfeed; it’s also unfair to grown children (like me!) who weren’t nursed.
But something else strikes me as unfair as well. There’s a tendency for women who didn’t nurse or perhaps just didn’t nurse as long as I have to get defensive when all I’m doing is sharing about the personal joys I’ve reaped from breastfeeding.
I once wrote a top 10 list for nursing a toddler. Mostly, I received an influx of positive feedback from other moms who, like I, have found great love and satisfaction (and sometimes sacrifice, too) in nursing a child beyond infancy. But I also offended someone. I’m not writing this to pick on this mom. I admit to being angry when I first received her comment, but it landed in my inbox during Lent and a time when I was tightly restricting my online activity. So I let it go and didn’t jump in to defend myself. I kept quiet because sometimes silences speaks far more loudly as well as profoundly than a string of impetuous words.
Yet, recently as I’ve been looking forward to having another nursing babe in my arms and even perhaps reinstating a nursing relationship with a toddler who certainly has not forgotten about the gladness she finds nestled in her mama’s lap while nursing, I’ve been pondering why we women who do nurse and openly express why we do so have to be so careful to not offend anyone.
When the topic of nursing comes up – whether on a blog, in a real-life discussion, or on some forum (that isn’t clearly just for nursing moms) – there always seems to be at least one woman who, for whatever reasons, was unable to breastfeed and is quick to finger point or accuse the breastfeeding mom(s) of being insensitive or of just a being weird, crazy lactivist, or needy. (I once had some moms tell me in an online forum that I was sad about a child weaning because I was emotionally needy and more concerned about how I felt than how my child was feeling. Whatever.). Maybe this mom sees the benefits a nursing mom cites for nursing her child and immediately commits a common fallacy in logic. For example, I have written that nursing is a maternal act of love. The insulted reader subsequently responds, “Ergo because I did not breastfeed, you’re saying there is no maternal love in me.”
Huh? When have I ever said that?
Breastfeeding IS an act of maternal love (most of the time, any way), but it is only one act of expressing your love for a child. My mom wasn’t able to breastfeed me for more than a few weeks, but there are pictures of her cradling my soft head in the nook of her arm with a bottle gently pressed to my lips, and the love is undoubtedly there. Very much so.
And allow me to share a time when nursing was not so loving. I don’t like to think about this memory much, but I was exhausted (most of my less-than-ideal mom moments unfolded when I was shaky from severe sleep withdrawal). My husband had been working long hours, and my third baby (the toddler I’ve had to sadly and abruptly wean because of preterm labor) would cry from starting at around 8 p.m. to well past midnight every night unless I walked her. I called this difficult time of day our midnight march.
One dark and stormy night (okay, it wasn’t stormy, but the well-worn cliche does add some dramatic effect), I collapsed in exhaustion and cried out, “What do you want? Just take the boob! Take it!” Then I shoved my breast into my baby’s mouth. She choked on my Niagara Falls of milk and reluctantly began sucking through a steady flow of tears.
That was not love, my friends. That was desperation.
However, nursing generally is an act of love, and I do grow tired of people saying things like, “If a child can say, ‘Mommy,’ he’s too old to be breastfeeding.” Really? What about a child who has a lovey like a blankie that he carries around until the age of two or three, or maybe a little one uses a pacifier or needs a hug from his mom “just because.” Are these children too old for these things?
Part of the problem is that it’s my breast showing my love, and breasts in our culture are not frequently viewed as instruments to feed our babies and dispense love but as sexual things, objects to ogle.
Breastfeeding also seems to be a more sensitive topic among women because it involves our bodies, and we women tend to take anything to do with our bodies too personally. We praise our bodies when they “work” and nursing seems to go relatively smoothly, and we harbor disappointment and maybe even hate when our bodies let us down. Maybe breastfeeding doesn’t feel so natural. Or maybe we end up having to deliver our baby via C-section when we dreamed and prepared for a vaginal birth. We sometimes see our bodies as incompetent, faulty machines. So when we throw around phrases like “breast is best,” and our breasts, our bodies, don’t seem to offer what is best all, we feel guilt and a sense of failure, and we get defensive when moms whose bodies apparently “worked” sing the praises of nursing.
(And we don’t just pick apart our bodies because we feel they’re not functioning right but because of how they look.)
Whatever the reasons, I’ve found that when I write about nursing, almost more than most any other parenting topic, there are moms out there who feel like I’m personally attacking them for not breastfeeding when all I’m trying to do is share my reasons for breastfeeding. Too often we moms read between the imaginary lines. We draw unfair conclusions about other moms. For example, that as someone who openly praises breastfeeding, I obviously believe moms who don’t nurse their toddlers or nurse at all don’t love their children as much as I do. Or that if I claim to be striving to embrace natural, attached motherhood (striving is key) and then share some of the choices I may make as a parent – practicing extended nursing, being open to the family bed, etc. – I’m suggesting that if you don’t do these things you aren’t an unnatural, detached mother. Ridiculous.
Here’s the truth: I am 100 percent pro-breastfeeding, and I want to share with others that they can breastfeed and experience joy. I want to spread awareness, not guilt, for those who don’t breastfeed. One of the biggest stumbling blocks to a successful breastfeeding relationship is a lack of support. Similarly, I know of several moms who weaned before they and/or their babies or toddlers were ready because of what others thought of them or insensitive comments made about them still nursing. So I want to support moms who choose to nurse in public or into toddlerhood. I want them to know they’re not alone. I want moms who have new babies who need to nurse frequently to not feel like they have to sequester themselves to a dark, private room. The more others see moms nursing, the more accepted it will become.
As I said earlier, I will always welcome readers and friends who do not breastfeed their babies, who could not breastfeed their babies, who adopted children and never had the chance to experience breastfeeding even if they perhaps longed to gave induced lactation a try. But I will from time to time extol the perks of breastfeeding. I will share why nursing babies and toddlers is a rewarding experience for me. And when I do, if my words hurt you, please forgive me. And, maybe, try not to be so sensitive. I know it’s hard. I can feel wounded or insecure about my own parenting choices when I see how someone else seems to handle a situation or overcome a particular parenting challenge.
But then I force myself to reflect on the bigger picture of motherhood, why it’s so easy for us to get caught up in the emotions that run high in these mothering trenches. My longtime, faithful readers may feel like I’m sounding like a broken record here, but it’s worth saying it again and again until we moms start building each other up instead of tearing each other down. There is no one-size-fits-all to good parenting. Likewise, when a parent expresses her own parenting views and what works for her, don’t fall into the trap of jumping to false conclusions that she’s saying that if you don’t parent this way, you are not as loving or as good as a mother. And if you do feel hurt or threatened or wistful or whatever because of something she has written, take a deep breath and click away from the site (or politely excuse yourself from the discussion at the playground). If you feel it’s necessary, gently point out to the author that her words touched a nerve (because I have seen a few insensitive, way too opinionated posts that do, in fact, tear moms down who do things a bit differently), but don’t attack her or her way of parenting. Don’t express your opinion out of spite.
Don’t blow out her candle to make yours brighter (I love this phrase that my sixth grade teacher used to say; I use it a lot), to make you feel better about your own parenting convictions.
We mothers can be an insecure lot probably because we care so passionately about our vocations and our children that we want to do everything right, everything perfect, to ensure our children feel loved. We want affirmation that our own decisions have done nothing but encourage our children to grow and to blossom. When we feel threatened, it’s easy to lash out at those who do things differently. It’s not really because we want to hurt them. What we really desire is to validate our own parenting decisions. I say this not to be preachy, but because I know from personal experience. I don’t recall having ever said anything spiteful or overly defensive to a fellow mother’s face. Nor have I even commented on a blog anonymously or questioned another mother’s personal parenting choices in Cyberspace. I’m actually not much of a blog commentator simply due to time constraints, although bed rest has afforded me with more time to join in combox conversations. But whenever I do comment, I make it a rule to only share affirming words to cheer another mom on or to share some insight that relates to a post rather than contradicts it.
Yet, I’m, by no means, immune to thinking not-so-nice thoughts about other moms and their parenting style, thoughts that are far removed from being humble.
Long ago I met a mom who’s children were all blissfully sleeping through the night by eight weeks. I was insanely jealous of this woman because my first child, who was two at the time, was still waking up several times each night. I also started to question my approach to nighttime parenting and if I was raising a child who would never know how to sleep on her own (for the record this same child sleeps in until 8ish most mornings now and falls asleep after a quick backrub and a gentle kiss on her forehead, although she still does often quietly slip into the cozy comfort of the family bed in the middle of the night). I was a first-time mom with an insomniac. This didn’t seem fair. And what if her atrocious sleep habits really were completely my doing? Maybe I’d created a sleepless monster. As I was mulling over these thoughts, the mom started to tell me her approach to getting her kids to sleep that way (it was approach I personally could not adopt because it made every maternal fiber in me twitch in anxiety). I tuned her out. I started thinking ugly thoughts about how she wasn’t as caring as I was, how she just wasn’t as patient and loving and giving as I was. Not nice. Not nice at all.
Chances are, at some point in most of our parenting careers, we’ve had similar thoughts. Maybe we’ve been able to bottle them up until they leaked out when we morphed into a troll lurking in a blogging mom’s combox. Maybe we really were warranted to feel threatened. I once had a jewelry repair man lambaste me for not dressing my baby warm enough. I wanted to tell him he was an idiot. Instead, I told him my baby seemed fine and we weren’t going to be out long, and I smiled politely. I knew my baby was a complete sweat hog and didn’t need to be bundled up in Georgia spring weather, but I felt better with my reaction than if I’d told him to mind his own business.
Does cutting other moms down to size (or anyone who offers unsolicited advice) really make us feel better? Does it make us better moms? Will it make them better moms if we tell them the way it should be done (whatever “it” is)? Or does it just make us feel hurt and divided? Does it make us feel guilty and sad?
If another child is truly threatened – let’s say from abuse or neglect – then, yes, we have the responsibility to speak up, to give that child a voice. But let’s save our voices and our precious energy and not waste it on expressing our biting opinions just because we want to give ourselves a pat on the back while burying another poor mom under a derisive zinger.
We’re in this together, Moms. Remember that.
Write and share about what works for you. If you believe babywearing brings peace and ease to your day (as I personally do), then wear your happy baby and feel free to talk about the advantages of having your wee one close by. Share the joy more than the opinions. If you’re on the other side and give birth to mammoth babies that you simply cannot physically bear to have barnacled to you for more than a few minutes, accept that. Know your baby is just fine, and resist the urge to accuse the other mom of being a holier-than-thou mom.
It does help to have at least a few friends who share our parenting worldview. For example, I have a close friend who also practices extended nursing and embraces some of my other parenting choices, and we can laugh about the challenges of older children tugging at our shirts when we’re out at public as well as blink back the exhausted tears when our child refuses to go to sleep.
But I’m also careful to not shut out or avoid moms who may do things differently than I do. Because the truth is most of us moms have more similarities than differences. We all have hard days whether we have two kids or twelve, whether we bottle or breastfeed. We all have joyful moments, too. Calling out the dichotomy between working and nonworking mothers, moms who breastfeed or not, moms who send their kids to private school or public school or homeschool only diverts attention from what moms share in common. Instead of constantly quibbling over our differences, we should be encouraging one another and lobbying together on our children’s behalf and on our own behalf. Give children love, and rememer the way different moms give love varies, but it’s all love. Give moms support, so it’s easier on them to dole out the exhaustive kind of love children demand of us. Call a truce in all of the different kind of mommy wars that seem to wage online and in real life. And, remember, when it comes right down to it, whatever parenting choices we make, we’re mothers first, and what we all have in common is that we have children we love – children we are trying to raise the absolutely best ways we know how.