It’s easy to assume that all other breastfeeding mothers (past and present) and advocates will offer the same, understanding support but sometimes the way they support is actually loading on guilt. They don’t mean to, perhaps, but in the midst of offering encouragement it can be easy to develop some air of superiority and a “there’s one right way” attitude. I have seen and heard incredibly educated women that advocate breastfeeding be astonishingly insensitive and judgmental. That kind of “support” only serves to drive a wedge between those that need help and those that actually have the information and experience to give it.
How not to support and how to avoid being unintentionally unsupportive- part 5.
Unsupportive support is…
If she’s having difficulty, saying “It was easy for me, you must be doing something wrong.”
I had someone that was super supportive of me breastfeeding say this to me. It stuck with me for 6 years, 3 babies. Any time breastfeeding got challenging I would think I was a failure, what was wrong with me that I couldn’t breastfeed easily? After all, SHE could and breastfeeding is supposed to be natural. Eventually I learned that everyone is working with slightly different equipment: different breasts, different nipples, different education and information, different circumstances, different babies with different mouths, different tongues, and different personalities. Which all ads up to equally valid different experiences. It doesn’t mean there is something wrong with the mom. If anything, if you see a mom having a difficult time and breastfeeding was so easy for you, encourage her to seek out real help with an International Board Certified Lactation Consultant (IBCLC) and be her support to keep seeking help until the difficulty is resolved. You didn’t have a hard time, that’s great, but she is and hearing about how easy it was for you and how you can’t understand why it’s so difficult for her only implies that somehow she’s failing. It can very well lead to her feeling that maybe she should just accept that failure and give up when really all she may have needed was some real help. To help keep you from comparing her to you get comfortable with this thought: “Is my story helpful? If not, shut up.”
Telling her “If you just decide that it’s going to work, it will- make up your mind.”
There is something to approaching a goal with resolve, I’ll give you that. I hope moms go into breastfeeding feeling confident in their bodies and ready to fight for it if need be. Statements like this don’t actually help build someone’s confidence though, instead they open the door to self doubt if they encounter problems that they just didn’t try hard enough. Or they’re a bad mom if they feel like giving up. And pointing out that someone must not have tried hard enough and couldn’t possibly be a part of the 2% that’s physically not able to breastfeed (someone is though!) is like telling them their challenges were all in their head or they were making up excuses. If you truly want to build up her confidence, tell her you believe she can do it and you’re there if she ever needs anything, even if it’s just to talk at 2am. Just please avoid loading a catapult with guilt for her, she can probably do that just fine on her own. Tell yourself “If you decide to support someone, be nice about it- make up your mind.”
When a breastfeeding mom asks for help and receives responses like “why would you do that? You shouldn’t do that you should do…”
Whether she’s wanting to wean her 6 week old baby off the breast or introduce solids at 4 months, answer her question, even if you don’t agree with what she’s wanting to do. THEN provide the information that you find helpful in understanding why maybe making a different decision would be wise. Words like poison, disgusting, gross when discussing supplementing with formula; or phrases that could dismiss the trouble she’s having like “if you’re doing it right it shouldn’t hurt,” can sound like voices screaming “FAILURE!” Launching immediately into a lecture as to how she’s making the wrong choice and implying that she’s uneducated isn’t going to make her want to listen. It will probably make her defensive and look for help elsewhere. Like from a formula hotline. It doesn’t matter if you agree with what she wants to do, answer the best that you can and respect her right to make the decisions for her family. Never say “I would never do that” or “why would you do that?” Chances are strong that once you do answer her question and then politely share why you made a different choice you’ll find a conversation unfolding that is open to new ideas. Instead of coming off as a know-it-all going out for the mom of the year award, you’ll be a friend sharing your experience. Repeat after me: “Just answer the question then share information.”
A popular sentiment in “lactivist” circles is “nobody can make you feel guilt, if you feel guilt it’s on your own and you must have a reason to.” I hate that attitude because as much as I’d like to believe people’s judgment of me can just roll of my back, the truth is it does hurt. I don’t let it get to me any more but that has taken time and experience and I know that when I’m my most vulnerable it’s easier said than done. Often I feel activists use the “nobody can make you feel guilt” argument as an excuse to say whatever they want to say and permission to be jerks. And I think they must not have ever met my mother.
How we share information matters. Yes, sometimes people will feel guilt over what is really just information. That guilt comes from their own filters and baggage. But those sharing the information have a responsibility to watch their tone. If they communicate judgment and superiority in the process then they are a part of the unsupportive support problem and contribute to the societal sabotage of breastfeeding women.