It was a blazing summer evening two years ago and our weekly childbirth class was filled to the brim with parents laughing and talking over their meal. The last session of our six-week birth education course had arrived - it was graduation night (everyone could go have their babies now, we always joked). In celebration we all brought food and shared a meal together before the onset of class.
While all the expectant couples were enjoying their BBQ, lost in conversation and anticipation over how their lives would change, the midwives pulled the other instructor and me aside. They had something they needed to share with us.
There was one expectant mother in our group who was choosing not to breastfeed. The CNMs urged us to keep this mother’s choice in mind as we approached our teaching session on breastfeeding and the nutritional needs of a newborn. We were asked to use the phrase “feeding your baby” when we could instead of “breastfeeding” to help this mother, who already felt guilty and ostracized for her unusual choice in this natural birthing environment, feel included in the conversation.
I bristled at the idea that we were coddling a mother’s poor decision. I thought it was irresponsible of us to not speak openly and directly as we always did on the amazing and overwhelming evidence-based benefits of breastfeeding. Besides, if she’s going to make a choice to deny her newborn the very best nutrients he needs then she should at least face it full-on. My job isn’t to white-wash anything. Breast is best.
But she knew that, I was told, rather sharply. She was well-informed on the benefits of breastfeeding, even so, she had personal reasons not to breastfeed her son. (None of which they shared with me, by the way.) Besides, no one was asking me to shelter her from breastfeeding benefits, only to make room in my conversations for formula use.
I was reminded that my job in that moment was to offer the best education I could to this mother to fit her needs and choices, without judgment. After all, do I support birthing mothers, or do I only support mothers who birth the way I see fit?
After all, do I support birthing mothers, or do I only support mothers who birth the way I see fit?
As we taught our class and covered our material, Sarah (I’ll call her Sarah, but that is not her real name) sat quietly through it all. I tried not to give her eye-contact as I went over warning signs of things that she wouldn’t ever deal with, things like thrush, clogged milk ducts, and mastitis. (Or would she?)
That night, as couples said good-bye and we hugged each round-bellied mother, offering hopeful hearts that the seeds we’d sown would blossom into beautiful birth stories for each family, Sarah stayed behind.
The midwives suggested we spend some personal time after class explaining to Sarah how to dry up her milk and offer further resources to her on bottle-feeding. Sarah and her husband sat in the living room waiting sweetly for us to talk her through it all.
Knowing she could not control birth, knowing she could not control motherhood, but knowing she could control this: the choice to breastfeed.
Hot tea was poured into our mugs and we all sat cross-legged on the floor and began to discuss the best technique for drying up her milk. At some point, after everything had been said, Sarah looked up at us, a circle of women gathered around her, and with an open heart, shared her story.
With brief and sharp details, Sarah explained how she was a survivor of sexual abuse and that it was a dark line that cast a shadow over her body. For this reason, she could not bring herself to breastfeed her baby. The emotional memories connected to certain parts of her body were still all too real.
She loved her son, and she wanted the very best for him, and in her case, she knew the best for him was to allow these memories – which were deeply rooted into her body – to stay quiet. She could do this by keeping (some of) her body to herself.
Knowing she could not control birth, knowing she could not control motherhood, but knowing she could at least control this: the choice to breastfeed. Sarah understood that by making the choice to bottle-feed, she would be in a better place to bond with her son, giving him a love untouched by resentment.
I knew her name, but I did not know her story
I realized something that evening that I feel indebted to always remember in my work with women: after six weeks of classes with Sarah, I knew her name, I knew her due date, I knew the gender of her child, but I did not know her story.
We can never fully know the stories of the mothers we serve. As a doula and a birth educator, I’m privileged only to what a woman shares with me, and often it is simply a picture of her present life, not her past.
And if a woman shares her past with me, it is by comparison, only a tiny glimpse into the story that really occurred - a condensed version that she feels comfortable expressing on that day, at that particular time – there is much left unsaid.
The words left unspoken tell a deeper story than the words that are spoken. And because of this, I must trust that when a woman makes an informed choice not to breastfeed she’s doing so because she knows ultimately what is best for her and her baby.
In return, I must offer the best support I can give without judgement or assumptions – something that every mother is deserving of.
Our birth prejudices get in the way
Too often in the natural childbirth community we reward a woman with our support when she births like we do and breastfeeds like we do. And if she does not birth or breastfeed in ways we feel are best, we turn our back on her with our judgment, proving that we hold our birth ideologies in higher regard than the women we are committed to serving. We allow our birth prejudices to get in the way of our care.
(I hope you’ll read that statement again.)
I understand and support the unequivocal benefits of breastfeeding. I want to see breastfeeding normalized and embraced in our culture. I hope to see access to breastfeeding resources become more readily available. I happily celebrate that milk-banks are becoming slowly more common in the US. I’m a breastfeeding advocate to the core.
But first and foremost, I’m an advocate for women.
When a mother feels fully cared for – equipped with confidence and security in her abilities and choices – she is then enabled to offer better care to her baby.
I see no outcasts. I see no second-class mothers with bottles in hand. I only see mothers with babies who are in need of support and love.
And maybe when I offer her care that is free of judgment or pretense, she’ll tell me her story.
I hope so, because I’m listening.
Something to think about:
Links to explore for Bottle-Feeding Support and Education: