Let Go of That Breastfeeding Guilt and Get Angry!
I recently attended a breastfeeding education day featuring Dr. Katherine Dettwyler. She’s an anthropology professor, lecturer, author and breastfeeding advocate. She discussed a variety of fascinating topics, including breastfeeding and the media, her research on what the natural age of weaning would be in modern humans if we set aside our cultural beliefs, caring for children and why babies cry. The topic that really caught my eye, however, was addressing guilt around breastfeeding (or, more specifically, not breastfeeding).
Dr. Dettwyler shared a quote from Harriet Lerner, which I immediately fell in love with:
Try to remember that our society encourages mothers to cultivate guilt like a little flower garden, because nothing blocks the awareness and expression of legitimate anger as effectively as this all-consuming emotion.
I found the quote online in the book The Mother Dance, and Dr. Lerner goes on to say:
Guilt keeps mothers narrowly focused on the question “What’s wrong with me?” and prevents us from becoming effective agents of personal and social change.
These ideas resonated with me. When we’re preoccupied with our shortcomings, whether real or imagined, we’re using up all our energy feeling bad when we could be actually doing things to change the situation. This made me think about this quote from Brene Brown’s book, The Gifts of Imperfection:
The majority of shame researchers and clinicians agree that the difference between shame and guilt is best understood as the differences between “I am bad” and “I did something bad.”
Guilt = I did something bad.
Shame = I am bad.
When you do something bad, there’s room for you to choose to do something different next time. When you are bad, there’s not much room for improvement. When Dr. Lerner is talking about focusing on the question “What’s wrong with me?” I read that as a discussion of shame. It’s about believing that you are fundamentally deficient in some way.
During her conversation at the breastfeeding education day, Dr. Dettwyler explained this as the difference between guilt and regret. Guilt can be a positive emotion, because it can encourage us towards continuous improvement. Shame or regret, on the other hand, are paralyzing emotions that result in inaction. Regardless of the wording we choose, however, what Dr. Dettwyler suggested is that rather than feeling guilty, we should feel angry.
If you did not receive adequate support; if you were given misinformation; if someone put pressure on you not to breastfeed, or not to breastfeed in a certain way, in a certain place or at a certain time; if unnecessary barriers were placed in your path that interfered with the successful establishment of breastfeeding, then she suggests that the appropriate response is not guilt, but anger.
I breastfed my daughter Hannah for nearly three years. However, the truth is that I’m still angry about some of the obstacles that were placed in my path. Even though she was very healthy for a baby born at 34 weeks, weighing over five pounds and with Apgar scores of eight and eight, she was removed from the delivery room within minutes of her birth, before we were able to initiate breastfeeding. Once in the NICU, she was given formula in a bottle before I had a chance to try breastfeeding her, and without consulting me. She was given a pacifier, and when I expressed concerns about the artificial nipples and her refusal to latch, I was told that there was no such thing as nipple confusion.
While I managed to overcome our initial difficulties, it wasn’t easy. There were moments that were touch and go, when I almost threw on the towel. Had it not been for a supportive partner and a midwife who came to my house and worked with me while I cried, I may not have made it. On the one hand, there’s no telling how Hannah would have done as a preemie even if I had been allowed to breastfeed her shortly after birth, and we hadn’t been separated. I understand that. On the other hand, we’ll never know. And so, yes, I am angry. In retrospect, I feel that it would have been better for both of us if we had been able to spend the crucial first hour after birth together, as she was as healthy as a baby of her gestational age could possibly be.