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Apr 12 2013

You Can’t Shame a Woman into Breastfeeding

By at 9:47 am

tamara reese nursing“I want to be a part of the sisterhood of women who use their breasts to give life. I want to redeem myself. I want to try again. I want to know that I am not broken.” Kim Simon’s story over at the Huffington Post yesterday brought me to my knees. But her planning and hope for a second chance made me want to stand up and change the way we talk to mothers about nursing.

Parts of her story were my story, the screaming, the hungry baby, the misinformation. The nurses and lactation consultants with blue gloves manipulating my sore breasts into my tiny son’s mouth muttering words like: jaundice. Failure to thrive. Dehydrated. I didn’t know what a “good latch” looked like and I couldn’t hear a soft “ka” swallowing sound amidst my crying or his crying or doctors or criticism. All those things swirling around in my head became the perfect storm when my own family told me that I was a horrible mother for trying relentlessly to nurse my son.

Nothing has ever made me feel more inadequate as a mother or as a woman than my nursing challenges.

But by chance, or coincidence or sheer luck–my story was different.

After 11 weeks of shame and tears I called the health department as my final Hail Mary pass. They sent to my home, free of charge, a lactation consultant who just so happened to be a La Leche League leader.

She wasn’t afraid to look into my bloodshot eyes. She saw my desperation and how much being able to nurse my baby meant to me. The first thing out of her mouth, I will never forget, was:

You are a wonderful Mama and you’ve done a beautiful job with him.

I went on to nurse my firstborn for 25 months.

I successfully breastfed a toddler and yet I was terrified to nurse my second baby.

At a La Leche League meeting a few months ago a woman told a story that sent chills down my spine. After legitimately not being able to produce enough milk (and all of the painstaking effort that goes along with it) she was supplementing with formula in addition to nursing. During a shopping trip with her infant she placed a few cans of formula in the front of her cart. She passed another mother carrying a baby and immediately grabbed for a blanket to cover the formula, “I was ashamed, and I broke into tears right there because covering those cans proved that I wasn’t okay.”

But by being at that meeting and telling other women her story as we nodded in solidarity, this mother, like Kim Simon, was doing everything in her power to prepare to nurse again. Despite all of the heartache, they want another chance.

This is why shaming women into breastfeeding doesn’t work and is never okay. They’ve had “breast is best” messages shoved down their throats more times than a bulky prenatal. “Breast is best” isn’t what brought Kim Simon into a store to buy nursing bras. There is no public health campaign that can possibly capture the vulnerability of a pregnant woman standing bare breasted in front of a mirror reliving every painful detail of her nursing experiences while letting a glimpse of hope peak through for another chance. She is brave. She is every mother I’ve ever met who has ever wanted to nurse her baby.

She’s wondered what it would be like to have breasts full to the brim with milk. She has read the books, she knows it isn’t easy. Her dreams and wonder will drown out your best practice guidelines and letting herself down is harder and more painful than the American cademy of Pediatrics, The World Health Organization, and the Centers for Disease Control combined can ever imagine.

Every mother deserves a second chance, or a first chance, or a fifth chance to look down and see her baby nursing, thriving, on milk that she produced.

To know that they are not broken.

Society is broken when it is easier to repeat facts and statistics over and over again than to look a desperate mother in her tear-stained face, amidst her baby’s screams, and say, “I can see how much you want to nurse your baby. Things aren’t going very smoothly right now and that feels defeating. This is important to you so let’s work together to figure it out.”

We need to look women in the eyes and tell them that they are good mothers.

Listen to how much nursing means to them. Listen still if she tells you that nursing isn’t something that matters at all.

Show women that if used correctly formula can be a bridge to breastfeeding, not a scarlet letter sitting in her cart robbing her of her dignity.

Nursing isn’t black and white; all or nothing. No two mother-baby pairs have ever been the same.

You can take the free formula out of the hospitals, but if mothers don’t walk out those doors with a number for someone who will listen and help her with patience and understanding–she won’t succeed in breastfeeding.

Feeding with love can only be done if those who are doing the feeding are loved and understood by others. Success should only be measured by happy Mamas and growing babies. You cannot shame a woman into breastfeeding, she will push to nurse her baby until either she is successful or she’s broken inside from trying. Shame on us for not holding her hand and helping her to succeed.

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