I am so thrilled to bring you a free preview of Sharon Tjaden-Glass’s new book, Becoming Mother: A Journey of Identity, which came out just today. Becoming Mother is “a reflective memoir that spans from pregnancy through the end of the first year postpartum. It follows the author as she resists, denies, copes with, and ultimately embraces her identity as a mother.” I love how Tjaden-Glass blends introspection with reflection on larger social issues, and I especially enjoyed her chapter on feeding her daughter, which you’ll find below. If you’d like to read more, the book is available on Amazon (Print and Kindle), or you can visit her website.
– The FFF
Why did my inability to breastfeed cause me so much devastation? Was it perhaps because I still felt so connected to Felicity? Certainly, this presented a paradox: How could our needs be in such conflict while we were still so attached? She needed food, and I couldn’t provide it. It seemed impossible.
But there was another, deeper layer to my devastation—the devastation of a wounded identity, one that was still a newborn itself. That fresh identity as a competent mother—hero of my own story, defender of my newborn baby—was now at risk. I was becoming some breed of mother who didn’t neatly fall into one category or another. How could I have had an unmedicated childbirth and now be formula feeding my baby? What kind of mother was that?
Mothers like me didn’t seem to exist in mommy blogs or on-line forums. Mothers who gave birth without medication always breastfed their babies! They endured the pain so their babies would be alert after birth and latch with no problems. If they could stand the pain of childbirth, the pain of nursing cramps and chomped nipples and mastitis would be child’s play.
This is what I thought.
But again, these thoughts emerge from living in a society that emphasizes choice. When our concerns are not simply feeding our children, we can refocus our concerns on how we are feeding them. And when those feeding choices are presented on a continuum of “good, better, and best”, it’s fairly easy to jump to the conclusion of “good, better, and best mother.”
Even after I reassured myself that I was a competent mother, I knew the stereotypes that follow mothers who formula feed today. Our identities are not solely composed of what we think about ourselves. They also include—whether we like it or not—what others think about us. We may not care what some people think about our parenting, but we want those whom we respect to see us at least as good parents, if not great parents. And so this was a major psychological blow at a time when I was already bottoming out because of the fluctuations in my postpartum hormones.
So when I was unable to breastfeed, I had to reconcile many truths. I had to surrender my commitment to breastfeed. I had to accept that my baby wouldn’t be eating what everyone was calling “the best.” I had to reconcile what this decision said about my new identity as a mother. And I had to accept a very definite separation from my baby at a time when I wasn’t ready to let go.
Until I decided to wean Felicity, I had relied on evidence-based research to make decisions about labor, birth, and feeding. And while all of this knowledge helped me to avoid an unnecessary labor induction, it was not the definitive authority that I had imagined it to be during pregnancy. Because I lacked confidence in my own instincts as a woman and a mother, I placed all of my trust in this research, believing that it would provide me the best counsel about how to solve any problem that I could encounter as a new mother.
In fact, Davis-Floyd (2003) explored this tendency of American mothers to grant more authority to scientific knowledge than their own intuitive and bodily knowledge. She asserts that this tendency arises from American cultural beliefs that possessing, “scientific knowledge about medical birth” gives mothers power and control in a culture where, “knowledge… is respected… (and) enables one to be a competent player of our cultural game” (p. 31). Not only does her cultural observation explain my intense desire to read and research during pregnancy, but it helps me understand my own distrust in my body’s signals.
But if I had been able to listen to my body and trust my instincts more, I would have probably stopped breastfeeding around eight days postpartum. It was at this time that I knew my milk supply was not going to increase. My daughter was already eating mostly formula despite my constant pumping and nursing. I had done all of the interventions that I could try and the outcome was the same—one to two ounces of breast milk per day. At this point, I had to start denying what was happening to me in order to keep going. Every time I nursed her, I reminded myself that breastfeeding was best and that I was doing the right thing. I refused to let myself focus on the fact that she could only draw half an ounce of breast milk during a feeding. Instead, I allowed statistics and the results of scientific studies to overshadow my own personal experience.
But it wasn’t just research that fueled my self-denial.
It was also my own pride.
I shared in today’s breastfeeding enthusiasm to the point of sacrificing my own health. I had read about the dangers of infant formula. I didn’t want processed food going into my baby’s body. Unlike women of my mother’s and grandmother’s generations, I live in a time when breastfeeding is now heralded as the best decision that mothers can make for the health of their babies. It supports their immune systems. Breast milk is more easily digested, so babies have fewer cases of constipation and diarrhea. It makes them smarter? It decreases their chances of developing obesity? Okay, those findings seemed like a stretch, but I was willing to believe them—since I was going to breastfeed.
But ultimately, it was my own pride that kept me nursing and pumping until I literally had nothing left to give.
I didn’t want to be criticized. But I also didn’t want to be wrong.
I realize now that in those early months of her life, whenever nursing came up as a topic, I found myself trying to convince people that I didn’t choose to formula feed. Instead, I was forced to formula feed. I thought about all the assumptions that someone might have about me if they thought that I had chosen to formula feed. Assumptions that I had gathered from the hospital’s breastfeeding class, from popular breastfeeding books, and from on-line forums about breastfeeding. Through the postpartum fog, I could almost hear their thoughts.
Maybe you should have pumped more. Nipple shields slow the stream of milk. You should have taken more herbal supplements or tried this medication that I took. If you slept more, your milk would have come in. Are you sure her latch was good?
For the first few months of Felicity’s life, nearly every conversation with another mother started with the presumptive “So how’s the nursing going?” or the kinder “Are you nursing?” I never started these feeding conversations, but they came up in every conversation with a visitor who came to our home in those early months.
“I’m not breastfeeding anymore,” I would say.
The long pause. The nod. The silence, as if waiting for more.
Every time, I tried to figure out how to get out of the conversation without breaking into tears. I found myself answering questions that they hadn’t even asked. I launched into explanations of how hard I tried, how often I nursed her, and the types of interventions we used. The two weeks of devastating insomnia, the miniscule yield from pumping sessions, her weight loss, my descent into hell.
And then I would end with, “But really, medically there’s a problem with me. My milk never really came in. Really, I didn’t have any engorgement. I have thyroid issues, so that’s probably what caused it.”
But no matter how convincing I thought I was, I was embarrassed to even talk about the issue because of an oft-repeated statistic about how nearly every healthy woman can produce enough milk for her baby. Only one to five percent of women are not able to produce enough milk for their babies, I had read over and over again in breastfeeding literature.
And that was how I was asking others to view me—as a person as uncommon as someone who grows scales instead of skin.
Me. The person who believed in the power of her own body. Who had just given birth without medication. Who believed that if she just listened to her body, that it would do what it needed to do.
Me. The person who was convinced that all problems with breastfeeding could be solved with knowledgeable interventions and perseverance.
Me. The person who was disciplined and persistent enough to kickbox and portion-control her way to a size six.
Me. That person.
Suddenly, it seemed that all of those qualities that I had spent a lifetime practicing were not true anymore. That freshly crafted identity as a strong, capable mother was now unraveling fast.
So underneath my explanations for why I wasn’t breastfeeding, my tone was desperate. It screamed: Please, please, everyone! Please just believe that I’m a medical anomaly, defective on the inside. I’m not stupid, or uninformed, or lazy, or selfish. I’m just broken, everyone. That’s why I’m formula feeding, not because I chose it!
When we made the switch, I prepared myself for the worst. A sick baby. A colicky baby. Diarrhea. Constipation. Blood in the stool. But none of that happened.
What did happen was much more positive. Formula feeding helped me expand my understanding of what it means to be a mother. Before I stopped nursing Felicity, almost all of my interactions with her revolved around marathon feedings and pumping sessions. My sole role was nourishment. There was no room in my mind to be anything else to her. When I wasn’t nursing, I just wanted to be alone. I just wanted to sleep. I just wanted to feel better. But I couldn’t sleep and I didn’t feel better. Near the end of my time breastfeeding her, I would tear up at the sound of her hungry cry and think, Not again. I can’t. But then, I would get up and do it.
But once the pumping sessions and the marathon feedings were gone, once the sleep returned in increments of two hours, I started to look at her. Just look and look at her. Listen to her. Talk to her. Play with her. Here was this person whom I felt that I already knew, and yet I still had everything to learn about—what her voice would sound like some day, what activities she would like to do, and how it would feel for her to hug me. For the first time, I started to look into the future a bit and get excited about helping her pack her bag for her first day of kindergarten or helping her learn to tie her shoes. I was finally able to imagine what kind of mother I wanted to be.
And then I started to wonder, Why does it matter how I feed her? And why is this topic open for public discussion?
And finally: So what if I did choose to feed her formula? Does that make me a bad mother? Don’t we value choice in our culture anymore?
All those breastfeeding books had presented formula as a choice for mothers who weren’t dedicated to the sacrifices and challenges of breastfeeding. Was I dedicated? Did I care about the health of my child?
Why, yes, I did. So that meant that I would breastfeed.
The decision to breastfeed wasn’t framed around the starting point of what was healthiest for me. Instead, the decision was framed around what was healthiest for my baby. And breastfeeding can be incredibly healthy for many mothers. But breastfeeding literature never mentions that it can be unhealthy—either physically or emotionally—for others. So the message is clear. I should be more concerned about what is healthiest for my baby because I’m a mother now. And mothers sacrifice. Everything, if need be.
And I did.
But when the herculean attempts to eat enough, pump enough, and nurse enough had worn me down into a sliver of a human being—no longer able to make rational decisions, no longer able to feed myself, no longer able to walk to the bathroom without assistance, no longer able to recognize my own face in the mirror—I started to wonder, How much more do I really have to give before I’m dead?
Still, it was tiring and it hurt to feel the need to defend how I fed Felicity. Feeding is part of the public sphere, a topic suitable for conversation with others. Everyone could figure out how I fed her and, with that knowledge, a host of assumptions were already in place about why I fed her this way. Maybe I thought breastfeeding was repulsive. Maybe I lacked confidence that I could do it. Maybe I had fallen victim to the hospital procedures that often interfere with the breastfeeding relationship. Maybe I didn’t know all the medical studies about the benefits of breastfeeding. Or maybe I was misinformed and thought that breastfeeding would ruin my boobs. Or maybe I was just selfish and wanted someone else to feed her while I got some decent sleep.
How did I know about these assumptions? They belonged to me. They were my thoughts before I gave birth.
In fact, I can attest to the fact that as a first-time mother, I greatly appreciated the cultural divide over breastfeeding because it made my choice much easier. I read books about breastfeeding. Then, I looked within my own educated, upper-middle class, white community and I saw that breastfeeding was valued and widely practiced, and that—as far as I could tell—everyone had been successful at it. I wasn’t looking for a reason to be different from everyone else.
But perhaps the most convincing evidence for my decision to breastfeed was the testimony of the nurse who taught the hospital’s breastfeeding class. As I reflect on that class, I can now see how the nurse’s own personal experiences regarding breastfeeding shaped her response to that question about the possibility of not producing enough milk. From her position as a medical professional, she advised, “Feed your baby.” From her position as a lactation consultant, she stated that, “Ninety-five percent of women can breastfeed their babies.” From her position as an experienced breastfeeding mother, she claimed, “If you stick with it, it will get easier.”
She had given me exactly what I wanted to hear—a positive view of breastfeeding, approved by both a medical professional (to meet my husband’s criteria for credibility) and a mother of four (to meet my criteria).
As a new mother, advice based on personal experience was often compelling to me, even if it varied so much from person to person. I simply listened to the voices whose advice matched what I wanted to hear and ignored or discounted the voices that I didn’t. I didn’t want to hear about women who had epidurals, or C-sections, or formula fed their babies. That wasn’t going to be me. They had made bad decisions that had put them in those positions, so I didn’t want to listen to their stories.
This way of viewing the world didn’t pose a problem until I found myself on the other side of the line that I had drawn. Instead of a breastfeeding mother, I was a formula feeding mother. And all those silent judgments that I had once pronounced in my thoughts—never once out loud—were now heaped upon me. I hadn’t even realized how harshly I had judged formula feeding mothers until I had become one. The pressure was more than I could bear. I was forced to mentally confront each stereotype that I had about formula feeding. I was not lazy. I was not selfish. I was not a quitter. I was not stupid or uninformed. I was not pro-corporate America.
It helped to talk with friends about how difficult breastfeeding had been for me and to read stories of women who had traveled this road before me. It took months of reflection to create a mental space where I could be confident in how I fed Felicity.
I remember the day that I realized that I had this confidence. Felicity was six months old and one of Doug’s cousins was visiting. She was a single woman in her mid-twenties. She had never met Felicity before. When I started mixing a bottle of formula, she asked if I had ever breastfed Felicity. It didn’t sound like an accusation. I doubt she realized how emotional that question could be for a new mother.
I said, “I did. For twelve days. And then we had to switch to formula. I wasn’t making enough milk, so that’s what we had to do.” She didn’t push the issue, and finally I didn’t feel compelled to explain myself further.
– Excerpted from Becoming Mother: A Journey of Identity by Sharon Tjaden-Glass (Lucky Frog Press, August 1, 2015). Reprinted with permission from the author.