I didn’t post an FFF Friday this week, because I was out celebrating FC’s 5th birthday and it totally slipped my mind. I find that a little poetic, because five years into parenting, I’m realizing that we do, ultimately, let go of the newborn insecurities that feed (ha) the breast/bottle debate. That’s the good news. The bad news is that there are always new parenting issues to feel vulnerable and unsure about; new problems that make you question your own choices as well as the choices of others. That said, I definitely think infant feeding is at the top of the mother-guilt food chain – ha. See, there I go again with the puns.
I often wonder if some of this mother guilt has to do with how our identities as women are intertwined with parenting. We are raised thinking that being called “mommy” at some point in our lives is a given. The adjectives that are “feminine” are also seen as “maternal” – soft, nurturing, giving, loving, sweet, caring. Being a good mom isn’t just about being a good mom, it’s about being a good woman. Hell, the way we birth and feed our babies is becoming a gauge of our feminist cred… whether you are old-school or progressive, if you don’t view motherhood as empowering and having a vagina as a superpower, forget about being mom enough, you’re not woman enough.
Melanie Holmes is the author of a forthcoming book that focuses on the cultural assumptions of motherhood, and I was thrilled to receive this submission from her. The post isn’t entirely about infant feeding, but I think it has everything to do with what FFF stands for – that women are not defined by their bodies, and that we deserve choices and options that do not reduce us to biological imperatives. I’ll be reading her book, and I hope it will remind me to raise my little Fearlette in a way that allows her to define her self-worth not by her anatomy or its actions, but by her autonomy and its actions.
Guest Post: Different Flavors of Kool-Aid
by Melanie Holmes
I am a mother of 3, two adult sons and a teenage daughter. My oldest was born in 1984 when breastfeeding was not the norm. My mother, my older sister, nor any of my friends had breastfed. I was totally alone to learn and I turned to La Leche League for support. Without a doubt, I became a La Leche League Zealot. Hear me out! When I read about Suzanne Barston’s campaign (along with Kim Simon and Jamie Lynne Grumet), “I Support You,” I was so inspired by her goal of uniting women that I included the campaign in a book I’ve written about the cultural assumptions of motherhood (more about that later).
I was able to breastfeed all three of my kids, and I drank from the Kool-aid that states that every woman can succeed at breastfeeding. Until the day I read a Wall Street Journal’s article (22 July 1994) titled, “Dying for Milk: Some Mothers, Trying in Vain to Breastfeed, Starve Their Infants.” After reading that article, which I cut out and tucked into my copy of La Leche League’s book, I considered myself “reformed” on the topic of breastfeeding. I’ve held onto that WSJ article for almost 20 years because I never ever wanted to forget the lesson it taught me – to support women who cannot or do not breastfeed.
The WSJ article told 2 heartbreaking stories:
- Pam Floyd gave birth to a son, Chaz, and did what the books and her physician advised her to do – put him to her breast. But he didn’t seem to be getting enough milk. 24 hours after being discharged from the maternity ward, Pam made a frantic call to her doctor and a lactation consultant, who both advised, “Keep breastfeeding; don’t turn to formula.” Six days after his birth, Chaz suffered dehydration-induced permanent brain damage. The neurologist told Pam, “The lack of milk those first few days means that Chaz will never lead a normal life.” A year later, Chaz wasn’t doing the things 1-year-olds should do; he wasn’t sitting up or crawling.
- Under the subheading “Silent Starvation,” lactation educator Mary Wisneski described a breastfeeding mother who told her what a “good and happy baby” she had, only he wasn’t wetting many diapers. Wisneski, knowing that babies should wet 6-8 diapers per day, asked to see the baby immediately. It turned out that the soft spot on his head had sunken – a sign of severe dehydration. Doctors describe this phenomenon as, “content to starve,” such infants suffer in silence which makes it hard to identify them.
The reality: Physicians say that some infants are incapable of learning how to breastfeed. In other cases, certain breasts are structurally incapable of producing enough milk; in addition, women who have had breast surgery are at risk. Physicians point out that cases of breastfeeding failure used to be detected during an infant’s third or fourth day of life by professionals on maternity wards. These days, mothers are discharged 24 hours after birth before some infants are even alert enough to try feeding.
And now my own story: My firstborn child, a son, was born in 1984. At that time, insurance companies let new mothers stay in the hospital 3-4 days, even for a vaginal birth, which mine was. My son had a strong latch, but I was so inexperienced that I wasn’t getting him to latch correctly. He had a strong suckle, however, he was latching onto other parts of my nipple, therefore, he was not getting anything. Maternity ward nurses worked with me, and they gave him some supplemental water when he cried during the night. To this day, I remember when my son latched on for the very first time correctly. It was a moment of, “OH! That’s how it’s supposed to feel!” My son was 4 days old when that happened. To this day, I wonder: what if I’d gone home, convinced that I was doing it right, with no maternity ward nurses to give my son supplemental water? Without continued supervision, might my son have ended up with brain damage such as Pam Floyd’s?
Which brings me back to the book I have written which is designed to unite women around topics that, although we may not agree, what we can agree on is this: We are all women! We all share the same gender history where strong women who came before us fought for our rights as individuals; the right to vote, property rights, the right to advanced education, a wide array of career options, and control over our bodies pertaining to reproduction/procreation. There are so many topics that can divide us if we let it happen.
Most of us have beloved daughters, nieces, or female friends in our lives. I have a teenage daughter. A book I read 10 years ago had a quote that still haunts me; spoken by a woman, “Donna” (not her real name), who grew up assuming she’d be a mother someday, having been told that motherhood was what being a woman was all about. When she found out she was infertile, she thought, “If I can’t have a child, I may as well be dead.” This quote is from Madelyn Cain’s, The Childless Revolution.
I began to imagine what my own daughter would feel like if she were unable to or didn’t want motherhood someday. I began paying attention to how women who are not mothers are viewed; often judged as selfish, dysfunctional or to be pitied. I also noticed how many women pursued motherhood despite extremely challenging circumstances, such as the lack of a strong support system (support systems come in various flavors of “Kool-aid” but they must be strong/full-flavored). And I researched the statistics on unplanned pregnancies (half of all pregnancies in the U.S. are unplanned; and 3 in every 10 females will become pregnant before age 20).
Thus, 2 ½ years ago, I began writing a book about the cultural assumptions of motherhood; to be published in 2014: The Female Experience: How the Assumption of Motherhood Impacts Women’s Lives. While interviewing 200 women across the U.S. (mothers and nonmothers), I found a real-life example of Cain’s “Donna.” Someone who remembers feeling that life was not worth living if she could not become a mother. I also found a startling level of assumptions held by mothers of daughters — that their daughters will follow in their footsteps; and that they would communicate their disappointment if their daughters expressed disinterest in motherhood. What child sets out to disappoint the person(s) who are most important in their lives? Following is an excerpt from my book which quotes Suzanne Barston’s wonderful example of uniting women. I do hope you’ll keep the females you love the most at the forefront of your mind while you read it; and perhaps let the windows of your mind open just a crack with regard to the assumptions of motherhood for the females in your life.
Quote from The Female Experience, book by Melanie Holmes to be published in 2014 (copyrighted material, not to be quoted without permission from the author):
“The vision of women without children that a number of people hold is skewed in large part based upon the assumptions that are held for females’ lives. There are numerous books, articles, and blogs in existence designed to justify or demystify being childless, childfree or “without child,” written mainly by women who are, themselves, not mothers. Some want to get their voices out there in hopes that people will stop pestering them with intrusive questions; others just want to set the record straight on the circumstances or choices that led to the lives they are leading; others just want to be left the hell alone to live the lives they’ve chosen that brings them happiness.
The media is full of “mommy war” stories, describing conflicts between warring factions of mothers on topics from breastfed versus formula-fed, to stay-at-home versus working outside the home, to attachment parenting versus other child-rearing methods. Gathering steam is another type of war, largely fueled by women, a sort of “unmommy war,” if you will; and it has the potential to fracture the inner selves of women who are not mothers due to decisions or circumstances within or outside of their control. Caustic, rude, judgmental comments are being hurled across the demarcation line. One woman I interviewed, Calista (not her real name), who is not a mother and does not want children, said to me during our interview, “I’m so glad there are people on our side.” Which makes me wonder, why must there be a demarcation line? As women, shouldn’t we seek to understand each other? Even when agreement is not found, can we agree to disagree and show respect and support?
In a wonderful show of compassion and support between women, in honor of August 2013 being National Breastfeeding Awareness Month, Suzanne Barston spearheaded a social media campaign designed to tear down the barriers separating women who breastfeed their babies from those who formula-feed.2 In a picture posted on the Internet, we see a woman with her baby and she’s holding a sign that says, “I Support You.” Isn’t this what all women should do — support and respect each other?”
My book gives voice to both sides of motherhood. I do not advocate for or against a woman’s choice to choose the path she feels will lead to an authentic, happy life. My teenage daughter knows that the assumptions I hold for her are that she’ll be kind, independent, and live a happy life following whatever path she chooses. We, as mothers, know how hard it is to do what we do. We may complain about it to each other, especially on anonymous websites, but the true tales of our challenges escape our brood because we don’t want them to feel guilty, and we certainly don’t want anything we say to sound like regret. We love our children! But not every woman wants to be a mother. In the only industrialized nation without paid maternity leave, with inflexible workplaces, and homes where the bulk of the load is still carried by mothers (with or without partners); and with more doors open to women than ever before to follow goals that our mothers and grandmothers never dreamed of, many women want to live their lives differently, sometimes to the exclusion of motherhood. How open you are with your daughter will determine how she views her life options. If your daughter (or niece or BFF) happens to express disinterest in motherhood, what will you say? As mothers, do we feel that motherhood trumps all other experiences, such becoming a brain surgeon or biomedical engineer? If you take a look at the list of brain surgeons at the University of Pittsburgh Schools of Health, you will find 31 neurosurgeons listed, two are female. There are women throughout history who have done magnificent things to the exclusion of motherhood. Are we teaching our daughters about how high our horizons are as women? If not us, their mothers, who gives our daughters “permission” to truly choose the path that will make them happy? Life is not perfect. In fact, it gets downright messy. Something we can do for our daughters is to educate them about women’s history, and help them to know that, no matter what they choose, we support them! It’s the old, “I’m OK, You’re OK” mindset. We’re all okay, no matter what flavor of Kool-aid we prefer.