You Don’t Have To Be A Martyr To Be A Good Mother

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Lyla Cicero says bullying moms into breastfeeding isn’t all about health and bonding.

Breastfeeding fanaticism and the bullying of bottle-feeding families typically occurs under the guise of promoting “health” and “bonding” in infants. I believe this is, quite frankly, a load of crap. When it rises to the level of strong-arming and zealotry, and overrides or ignores other crucial factors in infant and maternal health, breastfeeding enforcement is really about promoting a cultural norm of guilt and martyrdom in mothers.  

This Jezebel article is a rare, honest description of the decision to bottle-feed and the reactions one mom got for choosing what was right for her family. Making decisions that truly facilitate physical and psychological health for infants requires weighing pros and cons of a variety of personal choices, including breastfeeding, with one’s specific circumstances in mind.

For example, woman A tries breastfeeding for two weeks, and by that time finds herself associating feeding her baby with excruciating pain and anguish. Woman B knows that sleep deprivation and having singular responsibility for feeding a child every three hours, every single day, day and night, wouldn’t work for her. Woman C is adamant about breastfeeding, determined to do it no matter what. Woman D wants to at least try breastfeeding, but is open to bottles if it doesn’t work out.

How could the same choice be right for all four of these women who also have different personalities, careers, families, resources, and levels of mental and physical health?

The cultural expectation that the right thing for a good, dedicated mother is to breastfeed has dramatically different impacts on different women depending on how breastfeeding goes, and a whole host of other factors. For me, early bonding with my twins was actually more difficult because I was so distracted by the pain and difficulty of breastfeeding. This was further exacerbated by my feelings of guilt and the terror that I wouldn’t be able to bond with my children properly if I couldn’t breastfeed. Rather than promoting health, these types of rigid cultural ideals end up undermining women’s trust in their own instincts, and set up a standard that a mother should martyr herself for her child no matter what her circumstances. I believed the bigger the martyr, the better the mother. This can prove unhealthy for whole families, as it was for mine.

I did not make the right decision for my family when I continued breastfeeding and pumping for three and a half months. It took my husband begging me to stop for the sake of our children for me to question the standards of motherhood that I had internalized. I believed a good mother breastfeeds no matter what. I now believe a good mother does what’s right for her kids and herself no matter what. We should be empowering women to make these decisions, not undermining them and holding up martyrdom as necessary or even beneficial to infant health.

As a therapist, I know that the single best predictor of an infant’s mental and physical health is the mental and physical health of her caregivers. So if we really cared about health, we would be promoting self-care of parents above all else. We would prioritize that at least as much as the benefits of breastfeeding, of which there are many. It killed me to give my kids formula. But I finally came to understand that having a mom whose singular focus in life was getting her breasts to function correctly was worse for my kids than formula. I went to La Leche meetings where formula was referred to as “corn-syrup solids.” I remember wondering how many of those women would be feeding their kids processed foods chock full of genetically modified corn syrup in a year or two.

I have pretty radical views about what my family eats. I don’t believe in “kiddie foods” and I don’t believe denying my kids foods they aren’t even aware of, like cookies and macaroni and cheese, is somehow cruel. Some of my 19-month-old twins’ favorite foods are okra, plums, broccoli, organic flax waffles, and Thai food. I personally believe the way most people feed their kids is way more damaging than formula. But I know that I can’t make those decisions for other parents, just as I can’t decide whether they get help for post-partum depression, whether they address their marital problems in healthy ways, whether they drink too much, or do any number of other things that I believe to be way more harmful to kids than formula.

If we wanted to have a campaign to improve physical health and bonding, and that was the real goal, it would cover a wide range of areas, including encouraging primary caregivers (mostly moms) to take time for themselves, get massages, read, be alone with adults, and find meaning in places including, but not limited to, the caretaker role. Why not promote balanced, shared parenting at least as strongly as breastfeeding? It improves mental health outcomes as well as later achievement in a variety of areas for both boys and girls. Why? Because we don’t really care about that, do we? We seem to care most about the things moms can do to improve achievement while martyring themselves, like spending hours transporting kids to activities and classes and obsessing over providing the right kind of stimulation for their developmental stage.

The health-promoting activities I hear being hoisted on moms the most ferociously are the ones that make it harder for us to have lives outside of motherhood. Why all the focus on activities that restrict our physical movement and privacy like baby-wearing, co-sleeping, and breastfeeding, when for some of us, having sex with our partners, going for a run, or a weekly therapy appointment would actually result in better bonding with our children? If we were that concerned about the antibodies that can be transmitted to infants in a tiny amount of breast-milk, wouldn’t we be educating women more about partial breastfeeding, instead of taking a dire, all or nothing approach?

I believe if we made a list of things that promote physical and mental health among children, and circled the ones most moms feel pressured about, or at least encouraged to do, we would be stunned to see that they are the ones that are the most potentially oppressive to us. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying breastfeeding or any other activity is inherently oppressive. Moms derive great pleasure from things like breastfeeding and baby wearing, and so do their babies. It’s important for moms to be able to make the decision to do them, but it’s also important to be able to decide not to without experiencing crippling guilt and/or questioning one’s worth as a mother. What I’m talking about is having choices. Real choices, rather than choices based on the martyr mommy paradigm like my choice to keep breastfeeding was.

Are we choosing from menu A (mommy activities that keep us inside, tied down, emotionally drained, etc). and list B (those things that nourish us, that make us better able to parent and more fulfilled in general) as well as list C (those things that encourage partners, family, friends and society to take responsibility for nurturing children), or are we being fed a diet from only menu A? Are we buying into the notion that real moms, good moms, not only martyr themselves, but like it? Well, I’m not buying it. I know now what does and doesn’t promote my children’s health and well-being, and it has almost nothing to do with how hard I throw myself on the sword.

Lyla Cicero has a doctorate in clinical psychology, and focuses on relationships, sexual minorities, and sex therapy. Lyla is a feminist, LGBTQIAPK-affirmative, sex-positive blogger at UnderCoverintheSuburbs.com, where she writes about expanding cultural notions of identity, especially those surrounding gender, sexual orientation, motherhood, and sexuality. Follow her on Twitter @UndrCvrNSuburbs.

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