My social feeds are celebrating World Breastfeeding Week with gusto. As a new mom connected with lots of other young mothers, I’m seeing an endless stream of breastfeeding think pieces and stunning images of goddess-like women with flower garlands in their hair, joyfully feeding pudgy babes. There are calls to make breastfeeding easier for working moms, and rage against Instagram for inexplicably banning a photographer’s account that shares photos of breastfeeding women.
I get it. Breastfeeding is an important issue; the think pieces are valid; the suckling baby shots are lovely. And I strongly support the 2015 World Breastfeeding Week campaign to support women at work. But here’s the thing: I couldn’t breastfeed, and all this celebration is giving me a bit of a complex.
Yes, I know that the benefits of breast milk are indisputable. In Canada, where 89 percent of women start breastfeeding after they give birth, how could I not? Trust me, I wanted to breastfeed. I tried. I saw a condescending lactation consultant who yawned through our visit and spoke to me like a child. I sat with my babe at three in the morning, blowing in her little face to keep her awake and alert enough to latch. I pumped and pumped and pumped. But the kiddo just wasn’t interested in breastfeeding and I nearly lost my mind. My whole world became about trying to get enough of my ‘perfectly nutritious’ milk into this new little stranger. I resented it. I felt anxious about it. I felt like I’d already failed my daughter.
Then a compassionate healthcare provider took me by the hands and said, ‘Just stop. You’ll feel so much better.’ So I did. I switched to exclusive bottle-feeding and suddenly, the dark clouds parted. I stopped dreading my baby’s hungry cry and began enjoying feeding time.
I’ve been bottle-feeding my daughter for nine months now and I don’t regret the decision. But when the barrage of breastfeeding goddess images start streaming across my many screens, I can’t help but feel a bit guilty and sad that I’m not in that club. So for me, the most compelling breastfeeding article I’ve seen this week is called ‘Why I’m not celebrating breastfeeding week.’ In it, obstetrician Dr. Amy Tueter writes that far too many women are tormented by the fact that they can’t make breastfeeding work.
‘In industrialized countries in 2015 the ‘bressure’ to breastfeed is extraordinary, despite the fact that the benefits are trivial, a few less colds and diarrheal illnesses across the population in the first year of life,’ she writes. ‘Research on other potential benefits of breastfeeding is weak, conflicted and plagued by confounding variables.’
In Trueter’s opinion, a week promoting breastfeeding education isn’t necessary in North American countries where breastfeeding rates are high and on the rise. The reason we celebrate World Breastfeeding Week in North America, she suggests, is to ‘extol mothers who breastfeed and to shame those who don’t.’
I don’t completely agree with that assertion’breastfeeding awareness and acceptance is still an important issue in the workplace when roughly 64 percent of Canadian women with children under three are employed. (These stats are from 2006, so the number is not likely higher). It’s also important to remember that breastfeeding saves lives, particularly in communities where formula access is scarce and for mothers who can’t afford formula. According to the World Health Organization, ‘optimal breastfeeding is so critical that it could save about 800 000 under 5 child lives every year.’
The idea that breastfeeding has become an issue of morality in North America does resonate with me, however. According to Statistics Canada, 44 percent of women who stop breastfeeding before the suggested six-month mark reported having insufficient breast milk, 18 percent said they had trouble with breastfeeding technique and nine percent had a medical condition that interfered. To assume that all these women are bad mothers is just as silly as asserting that all women who do breastfeed are actual goddesses.
With that in mind, I’d to throw another sort of photo series into the mix this week. It’s called ‘Bottle Feeding is Beautiful Too,’ by photographer Nikki Whitman, and the images beautifully depict the serene joy of feeding a baby from a bottle. Perhaps what we should be celebrating is the privilege of feeding our babies any way we can or choose.