Our boobs, Ourselves
by FFF Alison
“Mothering through breastfeeding is the most natural and effective way of understanding and satisfying the needs of the baby.” – La Leche League international
Pregnancy and motherhood is supposed to be a time to transcend and heal all the past little issues and focus on transforming into the new role as a mother and doting on and loving a wonderful child that will finally make you into a real-grown-up (or a mother goddess, take your pick), well that may be true in modern motherhood fairy tales, but in real life there are so many messages out there that can make even the strongest woman feel like a fat, acne ridden teenage girl on the first day of school; and for those of us with body issues and a history of eating disorders put us in that situation with our underwear.
So let’s talk boobs. I was obese (with acne) growing up and in my early 20s lost 100lbs and was very proud of my accomplishment, but being a perfectionist I found many flaws with my body (from my nose to my loose skin) and gained a little weight ( to a healthier weight: I was very thin at my thinnest, but in my mind I was a huge failure for being a size 6-8… I am on the taller side of average and big boned) and kept not feeling good enough which expressed itself in binge eating disorder. Wait I promised some talk on boobs, here is the irony, I was actually okay with my boobs post weight loss. They were tiny and widely spaced, but I actually had a very athletic build. As friends of mine complained about the pain of big breasts, I enjoyed the freedom of not having to wear a bra if I wanted to and when it came to my passion of running I could get away with shelf-bras that came with the running tanks. With padded bras and the fact they weren’t exactly shown to everyone around me, my boob really didn’t bother me at all.
From 2001-2005 a lot happened, I graduated university, I moved to a new city, I got a great job, I bought a house and I got engaged. In October of 2005, just after my 28th birthday I ran a half-marathon and 3 days after that I got two lines on a stick I peed on, yup I was pregnant.
I always wanted to become a mom, so even though this wasn’t planned, I was a little freaked, but very happy. I knew I wanted to be a good involved mother and without even picking up any book, study or lecture knew I was going breastfeed. My mom breastfed me and my brothers during the 70s, and many women I knew breastfed (naively I thought it was the norm, heck my half-marathon instructor would nurse during our talks before the run). I also researched the subject up and down.
Fast forward to the Summer of 2006 after an uneventful except for being overdue pregnancy and a greater than ideal weight gain my daughter was born. Actually the whole birth kind of sucked, I ended up with a csection after pushing for a while. That said she was almost a 9lber and was super alert so she never particularly looked like a newborn. Since I had a section I was put into recovery and 1 hour later was given my daughter to feed. She fed, went back to daddy at the nursery, and they monitored me as I had an infection and slight complication (healed quickly).
Anyway, soon after started the breastfeeding struggle. Anyhoo, G’s weight kept dropping and despite nursing all the time, skin-to-skin contact, seeing LCs, pumping, breast compressions and having tons of support, I started supplementing when G was 2 weeks old.
Then doing all of google research trying to figure out what went wrong, according to most, it wasn’t my body that failed me, it was society, my support network, my lack of education on the matter and well, me. From my perspective every message from what I was reading was making me feel unbelievably inadequate. Making me feel if I did more x,y and z I would have been successful. It added to my core belief that I wasn’t good enough.I made myself crazy reading trying to figure out what I did wrong (later discovered the condition breast hypoplasia and that made a lot of sense to me and fit the look and my bfing experience to a t). I also felt even worse about my body and myself. People would post pictures of their bubs proudly stating that their chubby baby was exclusively breastfed, but I had no sense of that accomplishment. I would read posts, blogs and webpages describing how bad formula: some going even further pushing that line of reasoning that the women behind the bottle were severally misinformed and some even flatly saying these women were bad moms regardless of their reason for Formula feeding. I wanted to defend women like myself who struggled and went to the “vastly inferior artificial milk”. Eventually I needed to sort through my own feelings on the subject.
In retrospect, one thing I found jarring about the whole experience was just how out in the open it was. I had no issues about nursing in public, but suddenly every aspect of the feeding of my daughter became other people’s business, as a private person, that was hard to deal with. People would ask why I went to formula: some people would give me an eye roll or a very skeptical look when I described the experience. I found myself discussing my boobs to everyone and I soon wondered what the hell was I doing. I found the dispareging remarks people would make about their friends who didn’t BF for whatever reason very hard to hear. Reading their remarks seemed like a personal insult, which was a little ironic since I was reading those boards, blogs and articles to learn more to have a better experience the next time. I really felt that I needed to have a second experience to redeem myself from my not so ideal first parenting experience. To show I was a good mom. Even though what I had to do according to my reading would have been a herculian task (pumping, herbs, pharmaceuticals etc), it would prove I was good enough and doing what was best for my hypothetical second child. I even started to look into natural childbirth and homebirth thinking that would also show how committed I was (as that is often cited as a way to establish a good bf relationship). A lot of my thinking in regards to that was eerily similar to why I felt I needed to be a size 4-5, to show I was good enough, motivated, strong-willed with incredible willpower and that I was worth something.
I ended up with severe depression 2 years after G was born and even though I had had a work burn out the first thing I needed to discuss was my breastfeeding experience. It had shaped a lot of what I had felt about myself at the time. I lucked out with a therapist who had issues with that too so we talked and she took what I said seriously (a lot of people kindly dismissed my concerns with don’t worry about it you’re doing your best and it will seem insignificant when they’re older, which is actually true in my case, but hard while you’re going through it).
Like body image relates to our fundamental core beliefs about ourselves, breastfeeding for me reiterated past core beliefs of not being good enough, but worse it seeped into a new core belief that was being formed: the fundamental belief about my mothering skills. Failing at not only childbirth but also the beautiful relationship that was supposed to be solidified through of breastfeeing. It took time and therapy but eventually I gained a better perspective: motherhood is far far more then what and how your child’s food is delivered. Motherhood isn’t a checklist of a perfect scenario but a unique relationship between mother and child. I also think the whole issue of body image and breastfeeding is something that is ignored. If we become a parent we’re supposed to be a mom first and foremost and to dare talk about the insecurities that we may have are almost seen as selfish, as it should have been expelled with the placenta. Breastfeeding failure in my mind exacerbated the other failures and flaws on my body. I have been working hard on my self-esteem and body image and this is something that I had to deal with, especially with a part of the body that has many additional connotations of feminity, fertility and sexuality . Not to mention feeling that my body failed my daughter, that was especially hard, since I wanted to breastfeed so badly.
I am at a place now where yes, I would like to be thinner (I gained a lot of weight over my depression) and would like to do more of the things that made me happy (like distance running again, I was never fast, but always enjoyed the fresh air and was happy with my accomplishments there). I am in out patient treatment for my eating disorder and though I am not fully into recovery, I am learning to be kind to myself again. My husband and I make time for each other and we now have a great routine with our daughter. My daughter is growing, smart and thriving and can make me laugh everyday with some of the things she comes up with and the stories she tells, it is true about when they get older the less significant the infant feeding seems. I don’t know if I will have another child or not, but whatever feeding choices I make will be what works us. I would love to say I am always kind to myself and never berate myself for my physical appearance, but I would be lying, however I am working on it. I am not a perfect mom, but I am a good mom. I look back and now believe that I did what was best for her and for me. I look at things globally and if people don’t understand why I make a particular decision, that is okay. I am even starting to like my boobs again, wearing nice bras and being relieved I don’t struggle with chafing or back pain.
At the end of the day, the lessons I want my daughter to learn are to be kind to herself and to get a strong positive sense of self, learning to sift through and challenge the many messages she will receive either overtly or subtly throughout her life and have the fortitude to choose the messages that enhance her confidence in herself: I am currently learning those lessons myself.