I read a thoughtful and honest article on Essential Baby today, from a writer sharing her painful experience with breastfeeding.
On this blog, I’ve written predominantly about breastfeeding from a positive perspective: the how and the why and the what’s-so-awesome. I’ve written like this because as a breastfeeding counsellor, the most overwhelmingly common phrase women come to me with is, ‘I’m having XYZ problem – please help me keep breastfeeding.’
But what about when women don’t want to breastfeed?
In her article, 'I stopped Breastfeeding because it felt awful', Amy Gray writes:
'I feared judgement from others and quickly learnt to tell people I, instead of feed. I’d tell them I just didn't have the fuel in my breasts to make milk ... It was easier to tell these people “I can’t” instead of “I won't'"I think this is an incredibly important point. There is a huge distinction between can’t and won’t.
The most commonly cited reason for early weaning is, “I couldn’t.” This isn’t technically accurate—most women are biologically capable of breastfeeding. And when I hear women’s experiences and stories (and as Gray astutely points out in her article: “There will always be armchair experts who will softly cluck they could have saved someone with their wisdom...”) often the reason is more accurately, ‘I didn’t want to.’
There's two reasons why I believe it's important to differentiate between 'can't' and 'won't' when it comes to not breastfeeding. Firstly, because saying "I couldn't" when technically one could perpetuates common myths about why breastfeeding doesn't work, potentially at the detriment of other women (who might really, really want to breastfeed, but falsely believe they 'can't'.) And secondly, because women should have an unconditional right to dictate what they do and don't do with their own bodies. And a woman who chooses not to breastfeed, for whatever reason, should feel supported to own that choice.
But of course, we live in a culture where women are damned if we do, and damned if we don't.
A woman’s choice not to breastfeed doesn’t happen in a vacuum. And women choose not to breastfeed for a myriad of complicated and deeply personal reasons.
Anyone who’s ever breastfed, or is close to anyone who has, would be aware that in our culture, we perpetuate two main messages about breastfeeding:
1) Breastfeeding is best
2) Breastfeeding is hard.
And surrounding these two conflicting messages are a vast and complicated web of other, equally conflicting and emotionally nuanced messages: ‘Feed like this, feed like that. Baby should behave like this, baby should behave like that. Feeds should be X long, at X intervals. No, feeds should be XYZ long, at XYZ intervals. Baby should gain X amount of weight, at X days/weeks/months. Don’t feel guilty, don’t judge, don’t neglect your husband, don’t do it in public, and whatever you do, remember that all good mothers breastfeed.’
Just as a woman’s body is policed in day-to-day life (size, shape, hair, and countless more) and in pregnancy (what foods to eat, what tests to have, what not to do) and in birth (time limits, cervical dilation progress, interventions) so too is a woman policed in breastfeeding.
In our culture, breasts are seen primarily as sexual objects, as play-things for men. A significant proportion of women suffer sexual abuse in their lifetime. For most women (myself included), a baby’s sudden and intense longing for her breasts is incredibly confronting – when for all of her post-pubescent life, her breasts have been mostly tucked away as little more than a fashion accessory. We rarely grow up around, or see in every day life, breastfeeding women.
With the burden of all the above – along with the overwhelm of constant, insidious formula marketing, the ubiquitous bad breastfeeding advice, and the sleep-deprived, emotionally-difficult and hormonal state of new motherhood – it is little wonder that breastfeeding can cause many women discomfort, revulsion, pain, and even trauma.
More often than not, breastfeeding hurdles can be overcome with the right information and support. (And here I'm being a softly-clucking armchair expert.) However, finding the ‘right’ information can be incredibly difficult—mostly because the inherently female act of breastfeeding has been long-derided and written-off as flawed in our patriarchal culture. But the right information helps only if the mother desires it.
And admittedly, this is something that has taken me about five years as a breastfeeding counsellor to understand.
For many years, I have joined breastfeeding discussions armed with what (I hope) has been empathy and helpful, positive breastfeeding information. But increasingly I wonder if my direction is not quite right. I staunchly, unconditionally support a woman’s right to do only as she wishes with her own body. So what about when she doesn’t want to breastfeed?
Although most women do inherently wish to breastfeed, for many, when breastfeeding aversion becomes so severe it’s because the experience of breastfeeding has, from birth, snowballed in a cascade from slightly difficult to supremely horrific. For other women, breastfeeding aversion exists from the start, due to highly personal trauma or other reasons. However, regardless of what a woman’s reasons are for deciding not to breastfeed, she should be supported to own that decision, unconditionally, and owe no explanation.
My youngest child has just recently weaned, ending almost seven years of continuous breastfeeding for me. I certainly haven’t loved every moment of it. Some of my breastfeeding moments downright sucked. (Pun intended). Just like parenting often sucks. Just like my work. Just like my writing. Just like everything in life, breastfeeding has its ups and its downs and it isn’t always romance and earth-mother flowy-haired bliss.
Absolutely, breastfeeding comes with its science-backed list of healthful things. But for me, breastfeeding was about discovering that I wasn’t the flawed women and mother society said I was. Alongside the physiologically unremarkable normalcy of it, I breastfed to remind myself that I was actually capable, and functional, and the sole authority to make decisions for me, my body, and my children.
But I’m sure other women have other reasons to breastfeed. Or not.
I would love for our cultural messages about breastfeeding to be this:
1) Breastfeeding – it’s why we have breasts
2) Breastfeeding – they’re your breasts, and you know best.