*My Body* On Demand

by Jessica Martin-Weber

Content Note

This piece focuses on sexual assault and includes discussion and detailed description of birth including birth trauma, anxiety, and mention of sexual assault.


The sweet smell of a new baby was more intoxicating than I had imagined. My heart swelled every time I held her, I thought I had known love, this was even more. Joy, relief, peace, total contentment.

It had been a difficult pregnancy and an even more difficult birth. So often, most of the time, I felt completely out of control as though I had no say over my body or what happened to me. Spending hours and hours reading text books, reading personal accounts, absorbing all the literature I could on pregnancy and birth, I had taken advantage of every resources I could to be prepared. Long ago I had found that learning as much as I could about an experience I was facing helped me feel less out of control and more calm. It helped me to think rationally, ask informed questions, and make decisions that didn’t seem desperate. So I managed better than I expected with the sense of lack of control and autonomy. Reading and listening to the stories of others that had traversed the path of parenthood through pregnancy and birth before me, I understood that modesty might fly out the window, that decisions may need to be made quickly, that plans may need to be altered for life saving measures.

As a sexual assault survivor who was still processing and recovering, I saw a therapist regularly, journaled, and read materials on sexual assault survivors giving birth. It was important to me that my birth partner- my husband and my birth team be aware that I was a survivor and that consent was particularly important to me for any touching. We were all prepared.

But in the end it wasn’t the pregnancy and birth that brought anxiety flooding back for me as I became a mother for the first time. It wasn’t the incessant vomiting, multiple hospitalizations for hydration, the numerous failed IV placement attempts, the premature rupture of membranes at 32 weeks and the rushed amniocentesis without anything to numb the insertion of the largest needle ever to enter my body, the diagnosis of asymmetrical IUGR, the weeks of steroids, or the diagnosis of pre-e that made me feel that I had no say over what happened to my body. Even when we had to fight in the hospital for certain accommodations to help me relax in labor I didn’t feel out of control. And when an episiotomy was performed without my consent I was angry but at the time accepted it was necessary (it wasn’t but I made peace with it). Not even when my doctor shoved her arm up inside me to her elbow to manually scrape out my uterus and perform an extraction of my partially retained placenta when I was hemorrhaging, not even then did I feel that my autonomy was threatened.

It wasn’t until a few days later, at home, as my milk flooded my breasts making them hot and swollen and my baby suddenly was desperately and constantly in demand of my breasts that I experienced my first panic attack.

Feed on demand.

sexual assault survivor breastfeeding

I wanted to run away. I wanted to say no. I felt trapped and stuck and completely at the mercy of another human being.

Every time she rooted or fussed, her little mouth searching, I felt it wash over me.

Feed on demand.

Those 3 words were the sentence that thrust me back to when someone else had the control, the say, and all the power over my body. Their hands, their mouth, their fingers, their body probing mine and demanding what they wanted from me. I had no say, I was overpowered. And later, in another context, there was a charade of my own power but if I truly loved them, truly trusted them, I would give my body over to their demands, because that was what love did, even if it hurt. Love meant obligation.

Feed on demand.

But this was my baby. The greatest love I had ever known. And this wasn’t sexual, this was nurturing and caring, this was mothering.

What was wrong with me? Why did I feel like this?

Feed on demand.

This other person outside of myself had all the say over my body. She had the right to demand my body and I had to give it to her or I was failing in loving her fully and in giving her what she deserved. Her right to my milk was so much more important than my right to my body, what kind of mother would I be to deny her demands?

Feed on demand.

I loved her. I was obligated to her. I would do anything for her.

So I would expose my breast to her demanding mouth. I would draw her close through her demanding cries. I would try to control my reaction as her suck demanded my milk. I offered myself to her demands because she mattered more than me.

Feed on demand.

Utilizing breathing exercises I had practiced for labor and staring up at the ceiling as I ran through songs in my head trying to distract myself from the anxiety that clawed at my throat as she suckled at my breast. I got through weeks and weeks of feeds. Months. I was loving her, I told myself. Love required sacrifice, motherhood is full of sacrifices. I would meet her demands for my body because I loved her.

Feed on demand.

Mommy and Arden bfing hand kiss

Eventually it got easier for me. I didn’t stay stuck there and I even found feeding my baby to be a healing experience. As she grew our relationship developed and I could look into her eyes as I fed her, her contented sighs and complete trust helping my anxiety to subside. I’m sure oxytocin helped too. But personally, it was having the option to always say no by instead offering a bottle of breastmilk that helped me find the autonomy I had in saying yes too. It took time but slowly I was able to reframe what was happening.

I wasn’t losing control of my body to a demanding, controlling, abusive person in an imbalanced relationship that was causing me pain. No, my baby was dependent on me and powerless herself as an infant. I was choosing to respond to her and care for her needs.

I no longer saw it as feeding on demand but rather responsive feeding. Responding to her cues and cries for me, the safest person she knew. She was safe for me too.

Love is responsive.

Responsive feeding. Feeding with love.

____________________________________

Drawing from a diverse background in the performing arts and midwifery, Jessica Martin-Weber supports women and families, creating spaces for open dialogue. Writer and speaker, Jessica is the creator of TheLeakyBoob.com, co-creator of BeyondMoi.com, and creator and author of the children’s book and community of What Love Tastes Like, supporter of A Girl With A View, and co-founder of Milk: An Infant Feeding Conference. She co-parents her 6 daughters with her husband of 19 years and is currently writing her first creative non-fiction book.
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Parenting Broken and Finding Joy

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Dear Leakies,

Where are the perfect parents? I mean, where on earth are all those perfect parents?

Because they’re not here.

And I can tell you for certain, they’re not there either.

We’re not perfect parents. How could we be? We’re a mess. And those who say they aren’t either haven’t had kids yet, or haven’t had their second kid yet and still think they somehow mined pure parenting gold from the rich mines of their intellect and wisdom. I know because I was one of them. Turns out it was fool’s gold. I mean no disrespect for you first-timers. If it’s really easy for you, please enjoy it. But please don’t make the mistake of thinking that your experience should be everyone’s experience. Because it can’t be. And it won’t be for you if you decide to give your baby a sibling.

*This is an excerpt from our TLB email, to continue reading, click here.

Jeremy Martin-Weber
Writer, BeyondMoi.com

 

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The Tapestry of Guilt- The Truth About Guilt and Parenting

by Jessica Martin-Weber

Trigger warning- sexual abuse mentioned.

Blooming amongst the hard places

This post is talking about guilt, settle in, it’s a long one because… guilt.

If I had a dollar for every time I hear a mother share her infant feeding story under a thick layer of guilt, I would be a wealthy woman. If I had a dime for every time I hear a mother share her pregnancy story, her birth story, her postpartum/newborn story, her parenting decisions and realities under that stifling wet blanket of guilt that turns so many beautiful stories into a dark, twisted confusing drama, I would be an incredibly wealthy woman. Lots and lots of companies are getting wealthy capitalizing on mothering guilt, it’s big business. Be it for the length of time they breastfed, how involved their partner could be with them breastfeeding, their child’s health issues, how many bottles their child received, if they used formula, how well pumping went for them, or how she feels about breastfeeding, often guilt is a regular theme in these stories. Permeating the pregnancy journey, birth experience, first days, recovery, relationships, the learning curve, sleep experiences, solids, purchases, you name it, guilt underlies even many of the joys. Guilt, regret, and grief. Bittersweetness. Through their tears or defensive tone, guilt and sometime shame underlie their words, a framework on which to hang their tapestry of fear that in reality they are inadequate.

And it hurts.

This guilt upon which their story is spread causes many of them deep yet inescapable pain. For some that pain has made them feel vulnerable to the attacks of others or even what they simply perceive as attacks from others when they share. For some that pain has made them harden, putting up their defenses and adding caveats to the stories of others. For some that pain threatens their very confidence, adding a sinister voice to the question so many find nagging within: am I enough?

I know guilt well. Far too well.

This emotion is triggered when we’ve done something wrong or wonder if we have done something wrong. It can be a very good thing, alerting us when we’ve gone off course or ignored our moral compass, inspiring education to learn how to do better. I’ve been grateful for guilt at times, it has helped me be a better person, a better friend, better worker, better partner, and a better mother. With an important purpose, guilt can help us keep our actions in line with our values. Brene Brown explains that guilt is about what we’ve done whereas shame is about who we believe we are. That’s where things get blurry. Sometimes guilt grows into shame and we question not only our actions but our very worth as a person as a result of those actions. Usually starting with “what kind of person/mother/partner/friend/daughter would DO that?”

Sometimes guilt is legitimate, we’ve done or not done something that doesn’t aline with our values. Sometimes we bring guilt on ourselves unjustly. Either because of the importance we’ve placed on something (i.e. I must have this kind of birth because it is the best and science says my child will have a better life if they are born this way) or because we punish ourselves for what we didn’t know. Sometimes guilt is a result of privilege, easily missed as being artificially manufactured from a culture of expected norms based in privilege. Sometimes guilt is triggered by someone else wanting us to feel guilty in an attempt to control us or make themselves feel superior. Some of us have mothers that are particularly skilled in this manipulation. True, nobody can make you feel anything without your permission but we are social beings who need community and our feelings are a part of that dynamic and they matter. Why else would we even want to be with other people and take that risk?

Guilt has woven in an out of my own mothering stories, still does. I have felt guilt over a great many choices, accidents, ignorances, and situations entirely out of my control in caring for my children; from how I ate during my pregnancies, how their births went, what I have fed them at meal times, car seat mistakes, educational choices, health care decisions, discipline choices, the mess of my house, you name it. In 16.5 years of parenting, my mothering guilt has built up quite a rap sheet. But it all pales in comparison to my greatest grief as a mother. In the shadow of this one thing, I see these other areas for what they really are: mistakes or insignificant variations from my plan that are nothing more than blips on the radar.

I may have wept when breastfeeding my 2nd daughter ended at 4.5 months, 8 months shy of my goal. Guilt accompanied me for a time that I wasn’t strong enough to push through excruciating pain, couldn’t manage her screams from reflux, and wasn’t able to find the bonding promised in breastfeeding and instead found each feeding session a blow to my already fragile mental health in the midst of fighting postpartum depression. It felt real and devastating at the time and I won’t minimize anyone’s struggle through such an experience, it isn’t easy. A few years later though, for me that seemed as small as guilt in having to throw away a ruined meal due to forgetting to set the timer.

No, the guilt I hold and have gone to therapy for years over stems from when I failed to identify someone who would hurt my children and failed to notice they were experiencing ongoing sexual abuse at the hands of someone I loved and trusted. That two of my children were used, their bodies abused and their spirits crushed because of a person, a 13 year old boy I brought into their lives and I couldn’t tell it was happening… that is a guilt and grief I have lacked the words to explain for 10 years. How could any good mother miss that? How could I have missed the warning signs that the perpetrator was a risk? How could I not have known? How could I have failed them and allowed them to experience so much pain?

Maybe I didn’t deserve to be a mother. Maybe my children weren’t safe in my care. Maybe… maybe I wasn’t enough.

I haven’t been alone with this guilt, my husband, their daddy, has battled it too. It has brought out in both of us at times protectiveness, aggressive fury, self loathing, depression, and fear. Oh so much fear. And shame. For a long time that’s really all there was, guilt, fear, and shame.

That was a terrible place to parent from. No confidence, nothing healthy. Nothing to help our children heal and recover. We were trying but it wasn’t working.

The abuse wasn’t really our fault but it kind of was too. Our therapist and friends would try to encourage us by reminding us that the one responsible was the one who did it. That’s true, he is responsible but then, we’re the ones responsible for our children. It could happen to anyone, they would say, and that’s true too, but it happened to our children and we were supposed to stop it. We did as soon as we found out and we fought hard for them, demanding justice, accountability, and help for their abuser. But it still happened. As our eldest fractured before our eyes, splintering into little shards of herself losing her kindergarten year to nightmares, outbursts, and locking herself in the bathroom to cry wracking sobs or worse, sit curled up in the corner without a sound as she picked at her skin, we could only blame the one that did this to a point. When you point one finger out, there are 3 pointing back at you.

Guilt sucks. Shame is an asshole. Fear is crippling.

Our daughters were hurting and they needed us. As much as I didn’t feel like I was the right mother for them, as much as my confidence was shattered, as much as I had already failed them, I was the mother they had. After CPS had investigated and cleared us, our children were stuck with us, failures and all, we were the only parents they had. It became time for guilt to do something positive, it was time for course correcting, time to educate ourselves and learn how to do better, time to grow. We had little confidence in our abilities as parents, just enough to believe that maybe our love for our daughters would be enough and we could learn and grow.

We did. The approach to parenting we had taken was ditched and we started over from scratch after careful analyses of what we had believed and practiced as parents. Not only did we want to change our parenting because we felt our approach had failed our daughters and enabled abuse, we also were creating mindful changes to support their healing. With a critical eye we dismantled it all. Reading sources on child development and parenting that took a different approach than what we had tried before and intensely scrutinizing our parenting that may have contributed to the abuse or made our children more vulnerable, we gradually developed a parenting philosophy we could put into practice that was drastically different. Proactive in getting our daughters help and altering how we parented led to healing and over time, confidence building for all of us.

Guilt, whether it was rightfully placed or not, helped us get to that place. Guilt that broke us.

We could have stayed in that place of guilt, eventually embracing and internalizing shame as parents but that would have been an even greater failure of our daughters. Moving on wasn’t the answer, getting over it, letting it go, wasn’t what helped us, it was moving into and through it that made the real difference. With the help of therapy and the sharing of a few other bold individuals, our family found our way to healing that led to thriving, strength, and confidence.

Guilt hasn’t disappeared from my life, I still make mistakes, still am disappointed with myself from time to time, still hurt when I can’t manage to be the “best” parent I have idolized in my head. From worry and guilt about what I did before I learned differently (car seat safety, sleeping arrangements, etc.) to guilt that we sometimes find ourselves short of the resources to help our children reach their goals (such as our eldest’s dance training- still so far from the funds she needs). It’s still there, still pushing me to learn and grow and sometimes to change and figure out how to do better. But it doesn’t get to stay around for long, my children need me too much to sleep with guilt. Now, as our eldest is 16, she’s taking her sexual abuse experience and turning it into something powerful. From my guilt has come this overwhelming pride confusingly mixed with humility. (Read her story here and listen to her share in her own voice here.) And I’m done wasting time feeling guilty about things like formula feeding my 2nd (never had much guilt there actually, it was necessary and right for us), over guilt for things I didn’t know, past guilt issues out of my control, and moved on from guilt that I am human and make mistakes. Now when guilt pops up, I sit and examine it, question the source, and assess if it is genuine or artificially manufactured. Then I determine what I need to learn from it and dismiss it from my life so I can get on with the growing and learning. There are those that want me to wallow in it and try to throw it in my face from time to time, those that attempt to feel better about themselves by attempting to provoke guilt in me, and even those that try to turn it into shame so I question my very worth. They are powerless over me now because I’m no longer afraid of guilt, I can use it to grow. In the big picture, so much of the guilt we hold onto is for mistakes, wrong-doing, ignorance, or bad choices that are not lasting issues. I’ve survived true guilt for something so terrible, I already know the truth.

Even with my mistakes, even with my failures, I am enough.

And I don’t judge other parents or wish guilt or shame on them. Because now, I know it can happen to anyone. Even accidentally leaving a child in the car on a hot day.

I am a rich woman today, not in material possessions or my bank account. The wealth I treasure today is the intricate tapestry of experience in my family. Guilt has a place but it doesn’t own me or define me and it is my hope that every parent that truly loves their child and is willing to grow and learn as they parent will take the inevitable guilt they will encounter as they care for their children and turn it into something beautiful and enriching. Because when we know we are enough, our children can believe it for themselves too.

 _________________

My eldest, 16 year old Ophélia talks openly about her experience healing from sexual abuse, you can learn more about how she is now working to help others even as she continues to grow and heal by going here. To support her in that journey, see her fundraising video (she’s still a long way from her goal) here.

_________________

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Why I am not passionate about breastfeeding

by Jessica Martin-Weber
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“How did you become so passionate about breastfeeding?”

This question comes up often.  For a while I would hem and haw an answer, stringing together some words that were an attempt at sounding intelligent and reasonable as to why I would have created and continue to run The Leaky Boob.  Awkward and fumbling, I hoped it covered the truth.

I’m not passionate about breastfeeding.

My second daughter received formula starting at 4.5 months and by 5 months was completely formula fed.  The reasons are hardly the point of me sharing this fact.  It was, we believed, the right thing for our family at the time and, like these things are want to be, complicated.

I never felt guilty about it, never even thought about feeling guilty about it.  It just was.  I’d like to say she was perfectly healthy and no issues what so ever but that wasn’t our experience.  Between reflux that took months to resolve, constipation issues that took just as long and several expensive experiments, and then RSV, pneumonia, strep throat, multiple ear infections, and more than I care to recount, her first year was more difficult than I had ever anticipated.  Formula didn’t make it better, much it was exasperated by formula.  Still, through all that, guilt about stopping breastfeeding never occurred to me.  Nor did anger, bitterness, or even hurt.  I was sad, disappointed that it didn’t work for us but that didn’t last long and there wasn’t really anything I could do about it.  Fighting like hell to be able to breastfeed had taken a toll and I was confident that giving it up was actually better for my daughter and I by that point.

I was right.

Later, when I shared my story with someone they comforted me, telling me dealing with that guilt must have been hard.  Strange, I thought, why would I feel guilty?  In that moment and many moments later as I reflected on the guilt I didn’t have, my confidence in my parenting and decision making began to erode a bit.  Already struggling with postpartum depression, this little chink in the foundation of my parenting led to me believing that I was not fit to be a mother.  It wasn’t this person’s fault but I entered a place of shadows and shame, afraid that I couldn’t trust myself to make decisions for my children.

Time, therapy, medication, and some really good friends supporting me by encouraging me to see that I was not, in fact, a horrible mother, helped me turn things around.  Through that though, I began to understand something far more important than breastmilk or formula: confidence isn’t being right, confidence is more than believing in yourself to do the right thing, confidence is having peace with who you are even when you make mistakes.  With my confidence growing again, I moved forward with my husband, embracing that doing the right thing for our family wouldn’t always be an issue of black and white, A and B, or left and right, but rather a sensitivity for all parties involved doing the best we could with whatever circumstances we would face with whatever resources, information, and understanding we had available at the time.

My next baby was breastfed, up until 18 months we had an easy, simple breastfeeding relationship that working full time and caring for 2 other children only complimented, never hindered.  Weaning with her came unexpectedly when the single most difficult and devastating parenting experience we have encountered to date hit us: the sexual abuse of our two eldest by a very dear friend.

It was tempting to unravel in that time and in many ways I did.  But our daughters needed me.  Faking it often, I attempted confidence even as I asked how could I let this happen, how could I not see the signs, how could I… have failed so badly?

More time, therapy, and really incredible friends supporting us, we got through the investigation, trial, and agonizing fragmentation of our family.  Each step was in uncharted and sometimes lonely waters with swells of failure sweeping over me.  There was grief, pain, hurt, bitterness, doubt, and anger, so much anger.  My confidence wavered and so did my husband’s.  We considered a cabin in Montana and cutting off the outside world.

Our daughters didn’t need Montana though, they didn’t need to go off the grid and be isolated.  What our daughters needed most was someone, something to be a safe landing place for them.  That was us.  There was never a moment that I was sure we were doing everything right as we walked the path in search of justice and healing and there were plenty of people telling us how we should be doing it or how we were doing it wrong.  In the midst of the pain, grief, and anger, the truth we had learned before became an anchor along with our faith and love: confidence is having peace with who you are even when you make mistakes.  Our daughters needed us to have confidence to help them land softly.  There was space for us to be honest about our insecurities and fear but the greatest gift we could give our children along with our love was to have peace in our ability to love them well even through this.

Today, 9 years later, I know my husband and I are not perfect parents, we’ve made choices that we would change if we were to have the chance to make them again.  Maybe I would fight harder to be able to breastfeed my second baby longer.  Maybe I would have feed us all with better food.  Maybe I would have done things differently in our relationship with our daughters’ attacker.  Maybe I would handle the abuse another way.  Maybe.  I don’t really know.  But I do know that having peace in who we are, holding on to peace even as it shreds in my hands pounded by guilt, bitterness, and anger, helped our daughters find peace in who they are.  Together, we found healing.

Any more when I am asked why I’m so passionate about breastfeeding I tell the asker the truth: it’s not breastfeeding I’m passionate about.  I support moms in breastfeeding because of the gift of confidence breastfeeding can be.  Maybe it won’t be for everyone but for many it is, it was for me and so this is one way I can offer support.  The science and relationship bonding are compelling on their own but they aren’t why I talk about breastfeeding so much.  By not apologizing for our bodies, not suppressing our bodies, and having peace in who we are and how we are can help mothers find the confidence they are going to need for the really tough parts of parenting.  Feeding their children, be it breastmilk or formula, is one of the very first steps all parents must take, undermining their confidence there is insidious and damaging.  People that are confident are more free to love, learn, and live with joy.  Babies with confident parents have a place to land softly no matter what life throws at them.  I’m not passionate about breastfeeding, I never have been.  People are my passion.  People start out as babies.  Babies are cared for by parents.  Parents are people.

This may not make me popular in some circles, I don’t mind.  But I believe that having a hurt, angry, bitter mother struggling with their own confidence and ability to parent is far, far worse than feeding a baby formula could ever be.  I think breastmilk is great but I think caring for people is even greater.  The benefits of confident parenting far outweigh the risks.

I would never tell a woman, or anyone, what to do with their body nor what to do with their child.  Respecting their ability and responsibility in making the right decision for themselves and their family based on the circumstances they face with the information and resources available to them at that time means I don’t know what they should do.  All I can do is offer support, information, and encourage them to embrace their confidence and move forward with peace.

This is why at The Leaky Boob we believe:

Feed the baby, care for the mother, support the family.

But if you need some help or support to feed your baby how you want: we are here.

If you need help with how to correctly mix and prepare a formula bottle: we are here.

If you need help with breastfeeding: we are here.

If you need help going back to work and continuing to breastfeed: we are here.

If you need help weaning (at any age): we are here.

If you need help starting solids: we are here.

If you just want to talk: we are here.

 

Walk in confidence, live with peace, land softly.

 

Community.  Support.  TLB.

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