The comment caught me off guard. I wasn’t offended because I make no apologies for the fact that connecting with mothers is my “sweet spot”. I also don’t believe that I nor my colleagues ever sacrifice one member of the breastfeeding relationship to the exclusion of the other. But it did cause me to think and reflect on how, as a professional, I approach the work I do. Do I miss critical pieces of the puzzle because I’m so focused on the mother’s well being? Do I forget the important role that dads and partners play in the family? Do I miss the most vulnerable person in the whole dynamic…the tiny baby herself? (*Cue dramatic soul searching)
I came to this realization:
Breastfeeding support that doesn’t recognize the family as a whole FAILS.
Breastfeeding is much more than one breast, one baby, one mother, and one belly that needs nutrition. It is also getting to know each other, communicating, finding balance between all parties, and connecting on an intimate and vulnerable level. While I certainly do not claim that these experiences happen only in breastfeeding families, I do believe that breastfeeding imparts benefits that go far beyond calories and weight gain.
For that reason, I think it is critically important that, as those who support breastfeeding, we see the breastfeeding family as a whole. Much of the conversation in breastfeeding support centers around whether someone is doing it the “right way”: no supplements, pacifiers, bottles, cribs, you have to wear your baby, don’t you dare give cereals before 6 months, breastfeed until they are two, breastfeed while you are pregnant, breastfeed, breastfeed, breastfeed, breastfeed…and if you don’t do it this way, you are a failure. It simply breaks my heart because, while each of these recommendations has value and impact in the broader issue of public health, these black and white messages often forget that, when it comes down to it, there are real people making real decisions for real families. We must move away from support that sees only the mother, only the baby, or only the breastfeeding.
Decision Making is Up to the Family
As a clinician, I must take a full health history of both the mother and baby in my care. Inevitably, this becomes what is, for many women, the first telling of their birth story to someone outside of their family. It is an incredibly raw and vulnerable experience. I learn of relationships, of history, of fears and of disappointment. I also hear of how she was proud of herself, of her strength and her tenacity. Every woman’s experience, both before and after birth, is wildly different. Each family is to be respected in their decision making. What is the right decision in birth, in breastfeeding…heck, even in what to do with their Saturday afternoon, is up to them, filtered through the lens of their experience, their history and their knowledge. There are things about the way I live my life that I believe deeply in, but this I believe more: Mothers are smart and incredibly capable of making the decisions that are best for their families. My job is to provide information, help them sort through their options and allow them to space to figure out what is best for them…even if what is best for them is not what I would have chosen.
She is About More than her Breasts
As advocates, sometimes we work so hard on the big picture ideas in regards to improving breastfeeding rates and cultural acceptance that we make the mistake of seeing each woman as one to be “conqured”…wishing only to “win her to our side”. Supporting breastfeeding on a macro level is tough work which takes huge volumes of energy, but what a disservice when we think of women as only check marks in the “initiated breastfeeding” or “exclusive breastfeeding for 6 months” columns.
Often, in an attempt to support breastfeeding, we forget that there is much more going on in this relationship than milk ejections and swallowing. The community supporting those with Insufficient Glandular Tissue and Low Milk Supply do this beautifully. Inspired by Diana West’s groundbreaking book Defining Your Own Success, these women champion the idea that THEY get to be the ones who decide what breastfeeding will look like for them, in light of significant challenges. We must look at breastfeeding women not as simply milk makers, but life makers and relationship makers and confidence makers as well.
Empower Parents for Long Term Impact
I’m absolutely convinced that the early days of of a baby’s life are critical to the formation of parenting confidence. What if, instead of throwing checklists full of things that not even well-rested people could handle, we instill confidence and a “we were made for this” kind of attitude. I’ve long maintained that birth and breastfeeding are the only two biological processes that we, as a culture, assume won’t work the way they were designed to. From the moment we announce our pregnancies, we are bombarded with messages that tell us that we simply aren’t up for the task, that out bodies will fail us, that we won’t be good enough, smart enough, mom enough. Why then are we surprised when those messages continue on into parenthood? For those we encounter as breastfeeding supporters, we can have a significant impact at a critical moment. Reminding a woman that her body was made for breastfeeding, encouraging her to follow her “gut”, and listening closely to her ideas about what could improve her outlook can all be vitally important. Moments like that set her up for future success. Feeling like “I am the most qualified person to care for my child” on Day 3 can often translate into the same feeling on day 5 and month 5 and year 5. Treating parents with respect and care and with the belief that they are wildly capable is critical.
The great Dr. Seuss was quite the philosopher when he penned, “A person’s a person, no matter how small” and I would echo with “A family is a family no matter how young.” As we seek to pour our professional and volunteer lives into these brand new families, we must remember that communicating about their value and worth are important building blocks to their long term confidence as parents. I’m privileged to be able to be one of the first professionals to look them in brand new parent (bleary and bloodshot) eyes and say “You’ve Got This!”