Guilt: the great conversation killer.

“Women should not feel guilty if they are unable to nurse their baby, but they should feel guilty if they are unwilling to do so, and they should be intellectually honest enough to know the difference.” ~ Elizabeth Gene

This quote was bouncing around FaceBook on a few pages I “like” last week and I’ve been thinking about it ever since. I recognize that this quote is taken out of context which causes it to be understood differently than originally intended. However, this is exactly how it was presented and commented on though FaceBook often with great passion. It was discussed on The Leaky B@@b forums as well and I am building on some of what I said there, here. Because I couldn’t quiet my thoughts on the matter I decided to explore it freely.

“Women should not feel guilty if the are unable to nurse their baby…”
Here, here! Absolutely, totally agree with this. It happens, sometimes things don’t work right or there are special circumstances or situations make it beyond difficult and a mother can’t breastfeed. Nobody should feel guilty for something they couldn’t control. But sometimes they do. Why is that? Because they think nobody will believe them? Because they are so grieved themselves that things didn’t work out? I would hope that it isn’t because other moms cast guilt on them and that along their parenting journey they find away to let it go. I want to wrap my arms around all the women in the world that wanted to breastfeed but could not and tell them that they are amazing women, loving and caring for their children with all their heart, mind, soul and body. Just like women that are able to breastfeed.

“… but they should feel guilty if they are unwilling to do so, and they should be intellectually honest enough to know the difference.”
Hmmm, well, here I have a problem. First of all, they should feel guilty? Guilt is supposed to be something only we bring on ourselves so why would anyone say someone should feel guilty? When we feel guilt it is because we know we did something wrong, something dishonest. For someone to suggest that we should feel guilt is to be shamed. Shame is an ugly monster, it causes people to hide, to conceal their hurt and to guard and protect it so they don’t hurt more. It does not bring openness. It certainly doesn’t encourage them to “be intellectually honest enough to know the difference.” I want women to own it when they are unwilling to nurse and if at all possible to explore why that is but I don’t wish guilt on them. Honesty with themselves, sure, that would be great but not for me, for themselves! If they can be honest, rather than defensive with themselves then maybe they could even talk about it. Guilt and it’s evil twin Shame are great conversation killers, particularly when delivered by their twisted Uncle Judgment step-child of Pride.

Guilt to change a culture?
I want to change attitudes about breastfeeding, breasts, women and infant/toddler nutrition, these are subjects I am passionate about. BUT, and this is a big huge but, I think that intending to create guilt in people does not bring about change. Guilt is a poor motivator and does not encourage dialogue. There is so much too that can not be seen or understood as to why people make the choices they do. If we are spending our energy trying to incite guilt in them instead of supporting all mothers, we are not going to create an atmosphere that encourages actual change but rather breads resentment and bitterness. Telling a woman she should feel guilty for not breastfeeding by choice is dismissing her personal struggles, invalidating her emotions and intelligence. Yes, we have to make sacrifices for our children but if a sacrifice is made that causes a woman to struggle with resentment and bitterness then surely sacrifice that comes out of obligation, fear of judgment and guilt is not really sacrifice at all but a form of martyrdom and can do more harm than good. Nobody wants a mother to kill herself, emotionally or physically, that would be worse for the baby than 2 years of formula any day. Nor should these women give up having children because they have struggles. I have a problem with saying a woman who isn’t ready to give up her personal struggles and inhibitions and willingly breastfeed shouldn’t be having children. All of us have issues that make us less than perfect parents but in the end what a child needs is love, parents that are present in the child’s life, and their physical and emotional needs met. If a woman can do that then she should not be excluded from having children even if she chooses not to breastfeed. Society (and formula companies) as a whole should bear the burden of guilt. In the end though, guilt will change nothing, education will.

Going deeper than guilt.
This quote has one thing I really love about it, that women that tried to breastfeed but honestly couldn’t shouldn’t feel guilty. That part I stand by wholeheartedly. It’s the flip side that I have a problem with, that women that didn’t even try to breastfeed should feel guilty. I honestly feel sorry for the women that don’t breastfeed because they are afraid of their breasts sagging, because they will feel less sexy or because it is gross or any other reason based on low self-esteem, sexually related concerns, past relationships or abuse, or fear of what others will think. I wish I could figure out how to tell them that their worth, their value is not in their sex appeal, not in their body meeting some standard but rather in who they are. Questions run through my head as to the heart of their reasons to be unwilling. What kind of wound are they trying to band-aid with the belief that their bodies are so valuable only if they are a certain way? What deep hurt prevents them from being able to give further of their bodies to nourish their child? What suffering have they encountered that creates fear and disgust towards the amazing miracle that is their own body’s capabilities? What lies have they believed about themselves and the world that causes them to silence the voice inside their head and leads them to reject what comes naturally to them as mothers? How alone do they feel that embarking into the territory of parenting is something they can face but the landscape of breastfeeding is too much? How overwhelmed are they already feeling to give themselves permission to avoid confronting any or all of these issues and then some in favor of something they know is at the very lest, second best for the child they so love?

And what can I do to help encourage and support them, educating from a place of non-judgment?

I love how Sarah, one of the posters on the forum put it (actually, everybody brought thoughtful and challenging responses that I appreciated): I have never understood the whole “well, the ones who *couldn’t* nurse shouldn’t feel guilty, but those who *wouldn’t* nurse should!” argument. With very few exceptions, moms try to make the best decisions for themselves and their families. I will never judge another mother’s efforts as “not enough” when it comes to infant feeding decisions, because, to me, it is both unfair and impossible to know what is “enough” for every individual or family.