Book Club Discussion # 1: Breastfeeding… or not
by Sharon Tjaden-Glass
In this post, I include an excerpt from my forthcoming book, “Becoming Mother: A Journey of Identity,” (coming in August 2015) followed by commentary. I intend this post to be a springboard for a book-club-like discussion, so feel free to contribute!
From the chapter entitled, “The Conflict”:
Why did my inability to breastfeed cause me so much devastation? Was it perhaps because I still felt so connected to Felicity? Certainly, this presented a paradox: How could our needs be in such conflict while we were still so attached? She needed food, and I couldn’t provide it. It seemed impossible.
But there was another, deeper layer to my devastation—the devastation of a wounded identity, one that was still a newborn itself. That fresh identity as a competent mother—hero of my own story, defender of my newborn baby—was now at risk. I was becoming some breed of mother who didn’t neatly fall into one category or another. How could I have had an unmedicated childbirth and now be formula feeding my baby? What kind of mother was that?
Mothers like me didn’t seem to exist in mommy blogs or on-line forums. Mothers who gave birth without medication always breastfed their babies! They endured the pain so their babies would be alert after birth and latch with no problems. If they could stand the pain of childbirth, the pain of nursing cramps and chomped nipples and mastitis would be child’s play.
This is what I thought.
But again, these thoughts emerge from living in a society that emphasizes choice. When our concerns are not simply feeding our children, we can refocus our concerns on how we are feeding them. And when those feeding choices are presented on a continuum of “good, better, and best”, it’s fairly easy to jump to the conclusion of “good, better, and best mother.”
Even after I reassured myself that I was a competent mother, I knew the stereotypes that follow mothers who formula feed today. Our identities are not solely composed of what we think about ourselves. They also include—whether we like it or not—what others think about us. We may not care what some people think about our parenting, but we want those whom we respect to see us at least as good parents, if not great parents. And so this was a major psychological blow at a time when I was already bottoming out because of the fluctuations in my postpartum hormones.
So when I was unable to breastfeed, I had to reconcile many truths. I had to surrender my commitment to breastfeed. I had to accept that my baby wouldn’t be eating what everyone was calling “the best.” I had to reconcile what this decision said about my new identity as a mother. And I had to accept a very definite separation from my baby at a time when I wasn’t ready to let go.
Until I decided to wean Felicity, I had relied on evidence-based research to make decisions about labor, birth, and feeding. And while all of this knowledge helped me to avoid an unnecessary labor induction, it was not the definitive authority that I had imagined it to be during pregnancy. Because I lacked confidence in my own instincts as a woman and a mother, I placed all of my trust in this research, believing that it would provide me the best counsel about how to solve any problem that I could encounter as a new mother.
In fact, Robbie Davis-Floyd (2003) explored this tendency of American mothers to grant more authority to scientific knowledge than their own intuitive and bodily knowledge. She asserts that this tendency arises from American cultural beliefs that possessing, “scientific knowledge about medical birth” gives mothers power and control in a culture where, “knowledge… is respected… (and) enables one to be a competent player of our cultural game” (p. 31). Not only does her cultural observation explain my intense desire to read and research during pregnancy, but it helps me understand my own distrust in my body’s signals.
But if I had been able to listen to my body and trust my instincts more, I would have probably stopped breastfeeding around eight days postpartum. It was at this time that I knew my milk supply was not going to increase. My daughter was already eating mostly formula despite my constant pumping and nursing. I had done all of the interventions that I could try and the outcome was the same—one to two ounces of breast milk per day. At this point, I had to start denying what was happening to me in order to keep going. Every time I nursed her, I reminded myself that breastfeeding was best and that I was doing the right thing. I refused to let myself focus on the fact that she could only draw half an ounce of breast milk during a feeding. Instead, I allowed statistics and the results of scientific studies to overshadow my own personal experience.
But it wasn’t just research that fueled my self-denial.
It was also my own pride.
I shared in today’s breastfeeding enthusiasm to the point of sacrificing my own health. I had read about the dangers of infant formula. I didn’t want processed food going into my baby’s body. Unlike women of my mother’s and grandmother’s generations, I live in a time when breastfeeding is now heralded as the best decision that mothers can make for the health of their babies. It supports their immune systems. Breast milk is more easily digested, so babies have fewer cases of constipation and diarrhea. It makes them smarter? It decreases their chances of developing obesity? Okay, those findings seemed like a stretch, but I was willing to believe them—since I was going to breastfeed.
But ultimately, it was my own pride that kept me nursing and pumping until I literally had nothing left to give.
I didn’t want to be criticized. But I also didn’t want to be wrong.
(This is only an excerpt from this chapter. Buy the whole book in August! Request an email when it’s available here.)
This section of the book was extremely difficult for me to write because it required me to
1) honestly assess my attitudes before I began breastfeeding
2) honestly assess my actual experience with breastfeeding and position it within the context of modern society’s expectations and norms for motherhood
3) express the chaotic, internal dialogue that ruled my thoughts in those first months of motherhood
4) articulate the complex identity crisis I experienced with enough context for others to understand how and why it occurred
5) be vulnerable to an audience who could choose to write me off as a mother who “didn’t try hard enough”
6) not resort to sweeping conclusions about breastfeeding, but rather acknowledge the truth that other women have very different experiences with breastfeeding
To be clear, I don’t think that breastfeeding necessarily causes an identity crisis for women. Rather, I see it as one of the many ways that we–especially Americans–measure “success.” We do it in every other facet of life. We measure success by the things that we do–studying all night to get an A on that exam, practicing all year to win that dance competition, killin’ it at your job for three years to earn that promotion.
And then we reward this work: trophies, diplomas and degrees, promotions, new and better jobs, new houses. We’ve worked hard enough. Others see us as valuable. Banks trust us.
So if we do this in every other facet of life, why should we expect anything different from the process of becoming a mother? Doesn’t it make sense that we set up these goals to achieve in motherhood and then crumble when we feel like we can’t reach them?
And what happens if we don’t achieve these goals? Quite often, we resort to the fundamentals of attribution theory: If we don’t succeed, it’s because something else stopped us from succeeding, but if someone else doesn’t succeed, it’s because they are somehow flawed.
And this is crucial for understanding why it was such a big deal to me that I couldn’t breastfeed–I knew that a lot of people would ascribe my “failure” to breastfeed to flaws in my own personality. I wasn’t tough enough. I was uneducated. I wasn’t vigilant enough seek out the right help. And this is why I found it so critical to defend myself by oversharing the awful details of my descent into hell with others. If they just understood my situation, they would understand, I thought.
This happens a lot with expectations for birth, too. In my case, my expectations for birth rather closely aligned with what actually happened (with some frustrating deviations–to be told at another time). But I was able to come out of that experience with the feeling that I had “succeeded.” And so, my identity as a “good mother” was bolstered by this experience.
So I really think that the identity crisis comes from having strong expectations before you give birth, not living up to those expectations, and then feeling like the society in which you live is actively measuring your success in motherhood according to those expectations. That–I believe–is the perfect storm for this kind of identity crisis.
If you are a mother, what expectations, or even “goals,” did you have before you gave birth? Did reality match those expectations? If not, how did it make you feel and how did you cope?
Looking forward to hearing from you!