On the private message board I frequent (which branched off from the Pregnancy Loss board of an uber-popular baby website), there have been only a few minor scrapples over breastfeeding/formula feeding. For the most part, whenever someone posts about wanting to throw in the nursing cover, she’ll get a bunch of responses basically stating “happy mom, happy baby” – meaning, of course, that she should make the decision that will make her the happiest and calmest in the long run. It seems like a rational thing to say, a relatively simplistic offering of comfort and support. It’s why I love the women on this particular board; despite differences in geographic location, socioeconomic status, religion and race, we all manage to acknowlege and respect that my choice may not be the same as your choice, but that as long as it’s done in the name of love and survival, it’s all for the best.
Unfortunately, as anyone entrenched in the formula vs breastfeeding skirmish can attest, when it comes to parenting, it is rare to see this philosophy upheld. For many parents, if someone else makes a choice in conflict with their own, it can seem like a challenge; a threat, even – “because I choose something different, I am belittling your choice; deeming it not good enough.” Parenting is an emotional rollercoaster, so I can understand why it could turn perfectly rational people into rigid fanatics – fear, lack of sleep, and a complete change of focus and priorities makes for a potent brew of crazy.
When it comes to matters of postpartum depression, though, I lose some of my patience. One of the things I don’t see discussed enough is the role of breastfeeding in PPD. Other than that blasted study, the reporting of which got me so pissed I publicly flogged another blogger (something I still regret, but those were the balmy days of FFF’s youth, and I plead innocence and ignorance. I’m older and wiser now. Although the basest parts of me still stand by what I said… I just probably should have said it in a more respectful manner), I’ve only found a few articles about the complex relationship between postnatal depression and feeding our children.
For some women suffering from PPD, breastfeeding is the thing that holds them together; the glue that allows them to forge bonds with their infants, to feel needed, to sustain life despite feeling like death inside. But for others, like me, breastfeeding is intricately wound with our feelings of inadequacy, fear and loss. Add breastfeeding difficulties into the mix, and it can be a recipe for disaster. Switching to formula was the first step to my recovery. I wish that hadn’t been the case, but it was what it was. Depression is a jerkface.
I’ve also talked to women who may not have had clinical PPD, but for whom breastfeeding caused a lot of pain and misery. Again, this isn’t the case for most women, although an informal poll of my friends did suggest that the first 3 months of motherhood were severely tainted by endless visits to breastfeeding support groups and lactation consultants, cases of mastitis, and so forth. But the beautiful thing is, after those first few months, they got the hang of the whole nursing thing. I remember one friend confiding in me that she hated breastfeeding and would stop if it weren’t so easy for her…and a few months later, she was the most vocal breastfeeding advocate in our group, announcing that she “loved it”, and I’m happy to say she’s still nursing past her daughter’s 15-month birthday. That was a cool thing to witness, and I do believe that for plenty of women, things do get easier, and breastfeeding can become a highly enjoyable and rewarding experience.
And then, for some, that just isn’t in the cards.
Maybe if my son hadn’t been intolerant of breastmilk, and was able to latch, and I didn’t have nerve damage that made breastfeeding hellishly painful, and if I hadn’t got PPD… well., that’s a lot of maybes. I’d like to think nursing would have been the incredible experience it was for so many others I know, but ultimately, it just wasn’t. Formula feeding, however, has been good to me. It allowed me to regain my sanity, to become healthy again; it also offered my child a life without constant stomach pain, a way to thrive, and for that, I am eternally grateful.
So, I was kind of excited to see someone else talking about the potential emotional toll breastfeeding can take on mothers, in this entry on BlogHer. Granted, I was reading this with my very biased eyes – it seemed like a personal take on the issue, more than a factual article, so I read it with my own emotional lens intact, rather than assessing it for accuracy. It was later brought to my attention that the writer, Molly Baker, may have (inadvertently, I believe, but I like to see the good in people) insulted breastfeeding moms who do enjoy nursing by implying with her inflammatory title that breastfeeding can “cause divorce”. She also made a pretty insensitive comment about how her nursing her child past the age of 10 months was “embarrassing”. I don’t condone either of these things – not in the least. But again, I was reading this as a blog post, not an article; the writer was an accomplished journalist, and I’m sure she chose her venue for a reason, and wanted a place to voice some rather controversial and emotional thoughts. Her remarks suggest, to me, that she simply hasn’t been around enough strong, proud, vocal breastfeeding women; perhaps within her peer group, nursing for 10 months is embarrassing. That would be sad, but if that’s her reality, that’s all she knows. It’s easy to forget that not everyone lives in the mommy blogosphere and knows the intricate rules therein; I’m not excusing her, but I think she could plead ignorance here, rather than outright animosity towards breastfeeding.
I do think Ms. Baker makes some valid points, like the following, save one particular sentence (see if you can guess which one):
I lend full support to the efforts of the study, The Burden of Suboptimal Breastfeeding in the United States: breastfeeding-friendly legislation, more support for nursing mothers in the workplace, and more breastfeeding help for new mothers in our hospitals.
However, a goal of 90% of American mothers to breastfeed exclusively for six months is an effort I cannot rally behind, and nor frankly, as a woman and citizen, do I think it is a very healthy goal. Sure, doctors and researchers have been able to put numbers and dollars on losses due to the nation’s breastfeeding rates. But what they haven’t looked at is what these “suboptimal” rates have prevented or gained for American women, children and families. Where are the statistics on how many marriages have been saved by limiting breastfeeding? Or simply what postpartum independence has meant for women’s mental health, and their confidence and trust in their relevance outside the domestic sphere?
Okay, so, to be fair, she goes on to support that rather bizarre comment about divorce by citing a German study about happiness and divorce rates. Her thesis is basically that if a woman is unhappy breastfeeding, then that could ultimately lead to strife and resentment in her marriage, yadda yadda yadda. It’s a stretch, to be sure.
However, I can’t completely dismiss her point above regarding a woman’s mental health. It makes sense, to me. Because I’ve been there. In the comments section, where Ms. Baker is predictably ripped to shreds (this is unfortunately pretty standard for anyone who says anything that could be slightly construed as negative about breastfeeding, whether it’s an opinion piece or not), one commenter claims that she had PPD, and breastfeeding is what saved her. I was glad that this person shared her experience, because I wouldn’t want women to fear that if they breastfeed, they’ll be at higher risk for PPD, just as much as I wouldn’t want her to think the reverse (ahem).
But the problem is, when you’re speaking about PPD, or even just plain old unhappiness, you can’t make assumptions or sweeping generalizations, in any direction. What makes one person happy might make another miserable. Think about how tastes in music or food vary: it’s the same thing with any type of experience. I hate fireworks, for example; my husband thinks they rock. (And my dog fears them so much that he’s currently shaking like a leaf next to me – July is not a good month for my furry friend, especially in our explosive-happy neighborhood.)
If we are going to consider the mother’s health and happiness in the breastfeeding debate – and I strongly believe we should – we need to respect that all women are going to feel differently about nursing. It’s going to be lovely and magical for some; just something you “do”, neither bad nor good, for others; and emotionally draining for an unlucky few. That’s not to say that breastfeeding advocates need to stop fighting for the normalization of breastfeeding, because that will help everyone, in the long run – but I hope we can start to accept that happy mom, happy baby is a truism worth fighting for, as well.