Most mornings I take a few minutes and scroll through my Facebook feed. I enjoy seeing what my friends and family are up to and I usually stop to read a handful of the interesting news and general interest articles that appear on my timeline. As a rule I make an effort to read articles that not only support my particular worldview, but also contradict my thinking. I may not always agree with what is being shared, but I believe it is important to make an attempt to hear dissenting voices. My husband is often entertained by my behaviour when I read any pro-Trump articles.
These days many articles come with trigger warnings. Trigger warnings, of course, inform a reader that the content of the article might be upsetting and for what reason.
Yesterday I was reading an article authored by a self-proclaimed “crunchy mama”. Among the many topics covered in the article was the “breast is best” message preached with particular fervour. By the end of the article, I found myself really wishing there had been a trigger warning. I might have skipped the article if I knew the emotional firestorm reading an article that mixed a heavy dose of guilt and judgment in with the pro-breastfeeding message would precipitate. But articles advocating breast feeding are so mainstream and considered so affirming that the very idea of a trigger warning would seem absurd to most writers covering the topic.
I started my parenting journey equally convinced that breastfeeding was the best. I breastfed my first son. And while I like to think I wasn’t judgmental I am pretty sure I was less than sympathetic toward new moms who chose bottle feeding, or who offered “excuses” for why they didn’t breast feed.
And then life smacked me in the face and I learned a pretty important lesson about judging others and supporting other moms on their particular journeys and with their particular choices.
I really wanted to breastfeed my second born. I loved the bonding I experienced breastfeeding my first son. But as most readers know, my second child suffered a “catastrophic birth injury” and has lived ever since with a range of complex issues.
One of the challenges of parenting a child with disabilities is that you don’t necessarily know the extent of the disabilities early on in life. When Matthew was a newborn he didn’t look profoundly disabled, he looked like a newborn. Since newborns generally don’t sit, walk, talk, and so on, the full extent of his disabilities weren’t yet evident and wouldn’t be for years. Sure, we knew his birth history suggested that he would have disabilities of some sort but hope can blind even those of us who are health professionals and should know better. Yes, the professionals had told me that cerebral palsy was a likely outcome, but at that time my vision of cerebral palsy did not include a child who was non-verbal, living with a feeding tube, and so on. For many years I lived in a form of denial that painted a much more optimistic prognosis for my son. Can you blame me?
The idea that my son could not physically breast feed was not something I even considered. Upon our discharge from the hospital Matthew and I took up residence at the breastfeeding clinic at our local hospital, where, and this is the kicker, the staff had his chart and knew his birth history. The staff that was “supporting” my breastfeeding journey knew that my son was at very high risk for feeding problems. Despite this knowledge I had breast feeding advocates remind me that all babies can breast feed (spoiler alert: not true!). I even had a nurse tell me that breast feeding was so miraculous that it can trigger neural plasticity and possible healing. That comment, in hindsight, bordered on cruel in my current opinion because it became the foundation for all the guilt associated with failing to successfully breastfeed my son. That particular message conveyed that if I could only breastfeed Matthew I could start undoing the brain damage he suffered. As a health professional I should have known better, but I was a new mother blinded by hormones and desperate hope. I would do anything to try to improve my son’s prognosis.
For eight weeks I lived at the breast feeding clinic. All. The. Time. At the clinic I had nurses and breast feeding advocates, all of whom were utterly convinced that every baby could breast feed, try to analyze what I was doing wrong. Because, you know, I must be doing something wrong if breastfeeding wasn’t going well. The breast feeding advocates had me try every trick in the book. I tried every few hours to feed my son and usually these sessions ended with me in tears pumping breast milk I would later feed to Matthew via a bottle. Which, by the way, he would choke down desperately trying not to aspirate. Matthew was losing weight, was hospitalized at least once, and screamed constantly. Things were pretty awful.
Seventeen years later I still mourn the loss of those early baby bonding days that many mothers talk about. They didn’t happen for me. It was all about survival and tamping down my feelings of failure, guilt, and shame about not being able to do something as basic as feed my child. Clearly I wasn’t good at this mothering thing.
After about two months of being told that it was just a matter of time and my son could breast feed I was beginning to reach my breaking point. I hated the nurses and breast feeding advocates that kept spouting the party line of “breast is best” that heaped guilt upon my exhausted shoulders. I was angry that I was constantly told that if I only did this or that my son could breast feed and that breastfeeding would, of course, be in his absolute best interest “given all that has happened”. The several-times-a-week breastfeeding sessions seemed less about trying to assess the problem and more about barraging me with the message the breastfeeding was the only acceptable way to feed one’s child and that “giving up” was failing your child. It started to feel like the team’s commitment to breast feeding somehow compromised their ability to truly assess the situation. Knowing that the team knew my son’s birth history complicated the situation. If the experts were convinced that my son could breastfeed even while knowing his eventful birth history then I felt I had no option but to keep trying.
As it turn out the experts were wrong. Finally, after two months of trying everything that was thrown at me one of the breastfeeding experts finally sorted out that Matthew couldn’t breathe and eat at the same time. His oral motor skills were sufficiently impaired that he couldn’t coordinate the milk in his mouth with a swallow. I was told to abort all attempts at breastfeeding and to bottle feed full-time in a desperate attempt to get Matthew to begin to gain weight. It was only a matter of time until my son was switched to a feeding tube full-time. In short, not only could my son not breastfeed, he does not have the physical ability to eat or drink. To this day I am amazed it took the experts two months of watching me struggle and my son fail to thrive before they could reach such a conclusion.
This all happened 17 years ago and yet I still harbour great anger towards breastfeeding advocates who are so blinded by the “breast is best” message that they fail to see that some babies and/or mothers genuinely cannot breastfeed. The guilt and judgment that was heaped upon me during the two months I attempted to establish breastfeeding were overwhelming. During my attempts to establish breastfeeding there was a clear message that if I switched to bottle feeding I was clearly giving up and failing my already compromised child. There was an absolute expectation that a mother should resort to extreme measures to establish breastfeeding with little sensitivity to, or even awareness of, context.
To this day I cannot read “breast is best” without getting angry because I do not believe it is universally true. I know firsthand that for my second son breastfeeding was physically impossible. Breastfeeding for many mothers is a wonderful experience. It was for me with my firstborn. And yes, there is no doubt about the great benefits of breastfeeding for baby and mom. But what would have been BEST for both me and my son was sensitivity to what was evolving into an overwhelming parenting journey involving a medically complicated child who could not eat. What would have BEST was a team that could dispense with cliches and blind agendas and could truly assess what was going on with my child. What would have been BEST was professionals and a general public that supported my parenting decisions without guilt and judgement even when their parenting decisions differed.
Screw “breast is best”. This mothering thing is hard work. Supporting mothers to be the best parent they can be is BEST.