As a lactation consultant, I have the honor of working with mothers and babies who journey through some of the most difficult breastfeeding challenges. Rarely do I work with families for whom breastfeeding is going quite well. While I’m able to solve many difficult breastfeeding challenges for my clients, there are still times where we hit a wall of improvement. Other times, the mother recognizes that breastfeeding is something she wishes to stop doing.
I think most people assume that because I’m an IBCLC, I won’t be supportive of those who choose not to breastfeed. But nothing could be further from the truth! In fact, I’ve experienced many of my own breastfeeding challenges with my babies and I very clearly remember wanting to give up on multiple occasions.
When there are times that breastfeeding just doesn’t work out for whatever reason, or it turns out not to be what the mother had hoped it to be, it is normal to experience grief. Many mother picture breastfeeding as something that comes easily because it’s natural. They envision a beautiful bond and happy baby. Perhaps it’s the influence of classical art paintings, or the beautifully filtered and cropped images of Instagram—either way, many breastfeeding mothers end up feeling like their lived experience falls short of their imagined one.
I am here to tell you that it is NORMAL to feel some grief when your birth, breastfeeding, or postpartum experiences don’t go exactly as planned. However, when this grief goes unchecked or gets misinterpreted, I see a lot of mothers end up feeling guilt over the situation. Unfortunately that guilt either leads to internalized self-anger and low self esteem, or it is focused outwardly at women who can successfully breastfeed or the professionals that support them.
I will tell you that breastfeeding isn’t something special that is exempt from all the other rules of life. In all manner of circumstances we often don’t get our way. Think of your last experience driving your car—did you get cut off in traffic? Not get the parking spot you’d hoped for? Stuck behind a slow moving car? Maybe you got upset about these things, or perhaps you even expected it to happen and it didn’t bother you at all. For some reason, our culture has idolized breastfeeding as the “gold standard” in infant nutrition, but it still hasn’t set mothers up for success. So while we place a high value on breastfeeding and breastmilk, we still don’t value the reality of making it happen. This ultimately leads to a high rate of breastfeeding failure, with a correspondingly high rate of “mom guilt”.
What I’d like to say to you now is this: breastfeeding failure is usually a failure of support. I do what I can to educate, support, and treat breastfeeding problems, but my reach only extends so far (and I cannot do it alone). It’s important that you recognize that you’ve done the best you could with the resources you had at the time. It’s important that you accept what is so you can make peace with the outcome.
Perhaps you’re no longer breastfeeding, or perhaps you still are but it’s not picture-perfect. Despite what social media tells us, breastfeeding looks different for everyone. There are major hurdles and obstacles to your success like lack of insurance coverage, little support from employers, cultural support, medical provider education, shortage of IBCLCs, and misinformation from peers and online sources.
If you’ve breastfed even one time, or one day, or for one week, maybe even one month, or if you’ve made it so far as a year—this is something to be celebrated, not mourned. While there’s more support for breastfeeding than there’s ever been, we still have a long way to go. I’m always amazed at the strength, dedication, and resilience of mothers. We’d do anything for our babies. But sometimes we come to a place where there’s nothing more we can do. And that is OKAY.
What I’d like to leave you with is a way to celebrate your breastfeeding journey no matter how it ended. Perhaps you keep a baby book or a journal. If you don’t, you can start one. I suggest writing down any memories you have about breastfeeding; the good, the bad, and the ugly. Then write down the goals you had for breastfeeding, what your motivation was to breastfeed, the things you tried, and any wins or accomplishments throughout your breastfeeding journey. I encourage you to find ways to congratulate yourself on making it as far as you did. It’s important to recognize your efforts in the face of all the hardship you encountered.
If you feel so inclined, share proudly how long you breastfed and celebrate that you did it at all. If you’re still feeling any guilt at this point in time, use that depth of emotion to help other women avoid the same fate by sharing resources with moms-to-be and new moms that you know. You can put together a list of IBCLCs, breastfeeding support groups, online resources such as podcasts or courses, and so much more. Channeling your grief and guilt into something purposeful will ultimately help you transform those feelings into purpose and pride.