In the middle of writing my Valentine’s Day blog post yesterday, I took a break and scrolled my Facebook feed. There flashed a Canadian news update from the Husband of Florence Leung who tragically took her own life, we learn now from suffering with Postpartum Depression, perhaps exacerbated by her struggles with breastfeeding. It triggered a memory of a sweet Mama we lost earlier in 2016 – beautiful Allison Goldstein, also from suicide as a result of PPD, perhaps worsened by taking a commonly prescribed med to increase her breastmilk supply. Absolutely heartbreaking. My empathy for those families runs so deep. And like many Moms who saw these stories on the news, we can see ourselves in these Mamas and identify with their struggles. Please, not one more.
I’ve stayed distant from talking about breastfeeding tips and tricks on my blog. Quite frankly, I kind of wish they would vanish from my feeds. I know there is good intention from those who write about them, and yes, I completely understand the benefits of breastfeeding, but the barrage of messages about it flooding social media I fear do more harm than good. Why? Because “benefits” extend beyond the nutritional composition of breast milk, and after the experience of bringing a new life into the world there is no greater benefit to a family than the well-being of the Mother. Breastfeeding is far from “normal” or “natural” for MANY new Moms, heck even experienced ones like myself. Four kids in and each and every experience with feeding my babes was different. My last being the most challenging. If I must share anything about my breastfeeding experience it is this – my mainly formula-fed baby is “exceptional” academically. No affects on brain development and IQ over here. My babe who was EBF the longest? Yah, they got sick every other week of their first year of life and now eat dust balls, dirt and their own feces in the bathtub and, like magic, get sick less frequently maybe as a result. Anti-bodies facts on reverse over here.
But in spite of knowing this, that pressure man, holy it weighed heavy and having something to prove to the “Breastfeeding Advocates” sent me to a very dark place my fourth time around the new Mama block. With the good graces of a husband tuned so well into me to know I was not right, and my stubbornness to make breastfeeding work, I sought support and carried on with it, but it came at a price- lingering flashbacks of suffering, memories of pain so great it sent me into a out-of-body state with non-stop tears and silent screams for help, wondering why the “feel good” effect from breastfeeding and Oxytocin surges were not working like before. The mental fatigue and what felt like physical torture from doing what was supposed to be “best” tarnished my early bonding experience with my new babe. Breast was certainly not best in this circumstance. My mental health was.
I purposely do not ask Moms of newborns “are you breastfeeding?”, as having experienced all sides of the breastfeeding journey I know this is not what you need to be answering to in those early, fragile, vulnerable days. I know while struggles are similar, our experiences will be unique. I will not force my advice on you. Instead, I will ask you “how are you recovering, Mama?”, “how’s your spirit doing?” Can I ask you to try to do the same? I know you may feel it’s an innocent question, but to a Mom of a new babe it could just be another dagger to her already fragile heart. You may not know that asking that question of some Moms may be pushing them further into a spiral of guilt, shame and overwhelm. She shouldn’t have to explain her feeding choice, not to you and especially not to a stranger in the Tim Horton’s line who doesn’t even know her name yet. It’s intrusive. Instead be a safe place for her to come if she wants your advice.
So my Valentine’s Post can wait. A much greater message needs to be spread – please, for the love of all Mothers, let’s remove the feeding pressures, perhaps by softening the “breast is best” message. To those who had an easy go of it, that’s amazing. But like so many things on this journey, your experience is unique. We need more consideration for those it has not been easy for, or those who quite simply chose not to breastfeed from the start. What Moms need to hear is “healthy Moms are best”, “nourished is best”, “mental well-being is best”, and be surrounded by resources and support that follows through with making that happen.
For the Mama currently struggling with her feeding choices, this is a little Love Note to you:
Congrats on your new bundle! Maybe your first, maybe your fourth. Wow, you and your body have just done something miraculous. I hope you are recovering well and have the supports you need in these first precious hours.
I know, the first choice you’re about to make as new Mama is how to feed your babe. Go with your gut, do what feels right for you. Tune out those posters in your face shouting “Breast is best”. Just listen to your voice. Nourishing your baby is what matters. And though it feels like the weight of the world is on your shoulders to go with what you “should do”, I’m your virtual Mama friend giving you permission to do what feels instinctively right. There is no greater benefit to you and your family than a content Mama, and a million other ways to bond and show your baby love beyond your feeding choices.
But if you want to give breastfeeding a try, be gentle on yourself. Maybe it will come super easy. That’s amazing. But know it’s not always an instantaneous, flawless feeding undertaking. In fact, the joy of it may quickly be masked by the pain of it. I know, so many will tell you to push through the horrendous cramps brought on by nursing, bear with your scabbing, puss-filled nipples, because “breast is best”. Darling, if that pain becomes too much, if your baby is not thriving as a result, if you feel yourself slipping into a dark tunnel of overwhelm and resentment, take my hand, beautiful Mama, let’s go get some formula. It’s a perfectly viable option. Maybe just for 1 bottle, maybe for the rest of your feeding journey. You need rest. Go get some. Formula is also a good feeding choice, and making the choice to supplement is not failing your baby. In fact it’s quite the opposite. You are making the choice to put your well-being AND the baby’s on a level field. When the world around you becomes entirely focused on the baby in front of you, I’m telling you that you need to be there for yourself in a BIG way.
There are so many pressures on this Motherhood journey you will face – return to work vs. stay at home, homeschool vs. private school vs. public school, organic vs. regular grocery and on and on and on. Learning to silence the noise is what I hope for you. Happy Moms mean happy families. Period. As long as you are not abusing your children, you are doing a mighty fine job, Mama. After nearly a decade into parenting I know the greatest badge of honour a Mother can attain is not whether and for how long they breastfed their child, it’s having well-adjusted and genuinely good humans to offer the world, and it begins with being a content Mom. Be your own Valentine first. Self-love and self-care in action allows all other love to flourish, including that for your family. Find your “person” and share your struggles. You are not alone. You are so loved. Let others love you and care for you. Let yourself heal from the inside out. Your body and spirit have been through a heck of a lot.
But Mama, if the light is hard to find, if your world feels like is crumbling in front of you, if you feel like you can’t handle it any more and the shame and guilt and anxiety and worry all becomes too much, please do just one more thing, pick up your phone, call 911 or one of the numbers below. You matter. You are worthy. You will see the clouds clear and find that light again. I promise you will. You are so loved and so needed, and though your feeding choice may seem like the most important thing right now, it is but a very small phase in this long-term journey of Motherhood and it is nowhere near as important as your child having YOU. Your value as a Mother is not defined by your feeding choices. And as much of this note is to all the beautiful, struggling Mamas out there, it is also the note I needed for myself. I was so close to the brink it fills me with despair to know fellow Mamas have not made it through. You do not need to suffer. Suffering does not equate to being a good Mom. It is destructive. Being brave and getting help is the first step to making the rest of the best decisions for your family. A Mom’s well being is best. Period.
A Mom Who Completely Understands and Cares
Post Partum Support International
United States: 24 Hour National Suicide Prevention Lifeline hotline
And a side note to our Health Care Systems:
We need education not expectation imposed on new moms. Education that not just focuses on the source of food for the child, but the well-being of the family. The only pressure a new Mom should feel is that to take good care of herself as well. The pressures begin with their first responders of support – doctors, nurses, consultants, extended family. Post-natal care of a Mom is equally important to the care of the new life. Improve your Post-partum check-ins. The checklists are not enough. Instead of just Lactation Consultants, let’s offer Mama Wellness Coaches. Empower new Moms with support, not scrutiny over feeding choices. Not one more Mother should ever feel so pressured she resorts to extreme measures to breastfeed that threaten her will to live.
Thank you to all the readers who liked and shared this post. I was contacted and interviewed by CBC Radio’s “The Current” to discuss the pressures on Moms to exclusively breastfeed. A panel of experts joined the discussion. You can listen to the broadcast here: