Is not breastfeeding a failure?

In coffee shops, yoga classes or activities for mom and babies, they’re easy to identify. Who? The mothers who feel guilty for not being able to breastfeed (either not breastfeeding at all or having stopped before they had had to). Breastfeeding has now become a challenge: do it for the longest time possible! Can we really blame women? That’s the message that is being repeated over and over by the government. Breastfeeding is what is best for the baby, so what kind of mother would deny her child of such an essential aspect? So even if it’s hard, even if the baby doesn’t gain enough weight, even if the mother is breastfeeding 20 hours a day and her breasts are extremely sore, even then, women persevere. They feel pressured every day because that’s the message everyone is sending them, so they do it even when it feels impossible.

When they finally realize that the situation is hard on them, not only physically but also emotionally, some women decide to stop. However, as soon as they make the decision, they are overwhelmed by feelings of failure and guilt. Why? Because they’re under the impression that they have failed in their first role as a mother. They think of themselves as bad mothers only because they haven’t been able to breastfeed for as long as they had hoped for.

"In our meetings or activities, we notice them immediately. They somehow feel obligated to tell us that they don’t breastfeed when nobody even asked the question. It goes to show that there is such a social judgment that they feel the need to defend themselves", explains Gaétane Tremblay, Relevailles de Québec’s Executive Director.

Doctor Jack Newman, a renowned breastfeeding specialist, has long questioned the guilt surrounding breastfeeding and not breastfeeding. In the document Breastfeeding and Guilt, he asks himself which women feel guilty the most. “It’s not the woman who makes an informed choice to bottle feed that feels guilty. It is the woman who wanted to breastfeed, who tried but was unable, who feels guilty. In order to prevent women from feeling guilty about not breastfeeding, what is required is not avoiding the promotion of breastfeeding, but promoting breastfeeding coupled with good, knowledgeable and skillful support. This is not happening in most North American or European societies."

"The mainstream message insists on breastfeeding’s benefits and stresses that it’s the best choice for the baby. It’s been said so many times that women now feel guilty if they can’t do it. They think that not being able to breastfeed means that they won’t be able to fulfill their role as mother as they should. It’s terrible! ", notes Gaétane Tremblay.

Being a mom: a performance?

Today’s mothers are bombarded with information, and it’s not always a good thing. With so much information thrown their way, they start to feel anxious. They don’t allow themselves to make any mistakes. Women “enter” maternity in a spirit of performance, which is completely normal for them since they’re used to perform at work and be goal oriented. In that sense, they “program” their pregnancy and maternity. They do pre and postnatal yoga, give birth naturally, breastfeed, use washable diapers, make all the purees, exercise, etc. The list goes on and on, and the pressure is huge. "Some women tell us: 'I failed the delivery' or 'breastfeeding was a failure', even if they have a perfectly healthy baby. In fact, as soon as something doesn’t go exactly as planned, mothers feel guilty", says Gaétane Tremblay. Their self-esteem takes a hard hit, and it shouldn’t.

The problem doesn’t lie in not being able to breastfeed or wanting to stop; the problem is that breastfeeding is often – with giving birth – the mother’s first big test. It’s the first thing we want to succeed in. It is not acknowledged enough that having a baby means learning to let go of the "perfection" ideal. Not everything will go as planned, and that is perfectly okay! It’s a journey filled with trials, errors, new beginnings, wavering, progress, changes, etc. Even if we have the best intentions in the world, want to do everything according to what is advocated in books and studies, having a baby is stepping into the unknown. We’ll never be able to predict how we will react, how our baby will be, how or if we’ll embrace our new role as a mother, etc.

Breastfeeding: it's hard work!

Mothers aren’t taught that breastfeeding doesn’t always go as planned. A baby can have difficulty suckling on the breast, milk production can be insufficient, or the mother can simply be too exhausted and decide to bottle-feed her baby to recharge her batteries a little. It is almost never said that using both techniques at the same time is possible. The message women hear is usually that “breastfeeding is a natural thing”, when in fact some mothers would like to say that “Breastfeeding is hard work”. But would they dare say it out loud? Even if they spend 20 hours a day breastfeeding?

Although breastfeeding is important, it’s not really helping if it brings on health problems to the mother”, says Gaétane Tremblay. Many moms wait until they’re completely exhausted to switch to the bottle. Fathers are also in a difficult position. They take their role as supporter very seriously and don’t even think about asking their spouse if she needs a break, knowing how important breastfeeding is for them. They don’t suggest switching to the bottle because they don’t want to offend their spouse or make her feel guilty. Yet it’s often these men who have to make the mother of their child understand that bottle-feeding will be beneficial to both mommy and baby.

"There are many alternatives, but they are mostly seen as “if all else fails” options instead of real possibilities." The choices increase gradually: first choice is exclusive and on-demand breastfeeding. And if you’re not too good at it, you move on to the next choice, and then the next, until the last choice, which is not breastfeeding at all. Breastfeeding should not be seen as a competition or the only and best way to take care of a child. Like Tremblay says in the book, “better a happy and healthy bottle-feeding mommy than a stressed out and exhausted breastfeeding one.” The only thing that matters is that baby is healthy and happy.

From pressure to guilt to depression…

The bigger the gap is between the ideal mother you would like to be and the real mom that you are, the bigger the risks of depression are. And the same goes to the gap between the dreamed about baby and the real baby”, says Gaétane Tremblay. This means that the risks of suffering from postpartum depression also exist during pregnancy especially if we think that we’ll need to perform at all costs in our new role as a mother. It’s a vicious circle. No one wants to be a bad mother. Making choices for herself, her baby and her family that are a bit different from the main social discourse doesn’t make her a bad mother. Not at all in fact! Making informed decisions means that the mother knows and respects herself, accepts that she can’t do everything by herself, understands that she has to give up some of the things she dreamed of to better adapt to her new life and acknowledges that she can make mistakes! And in the process, she is keeping the risks of depression away.

A mother with a very strong feeling of failure when she stops breastfeeding can have difficulty facing others and isolate herself. Staying alone when you’re going through a tough time is never a good idea. “Not being able to breastfeed is a big deal for mothers, and it’s another thing, among many, that could lead to depression”, notes Gaétane Tremblay.

Two great ways to keep the feeling of failure at bay

Play it down

Not breastfeeding your baby: is he or she really suffering from it, or am I just making a big deal out of it? Try to see the positive sides: does your baby seem more satisfied? Does he or she sleep better? Does he or she look calmer? What can I do now that I couldn’t do when I was breastfeeding?

In front of disapproving stares and inappropriate comments from people who judge you for not breastfeeding, tell them that it’s a personal choice and that it is what is the best for both you and your baby. It may not be easy to say, but you have to know that you don’t owe anyone an explanation. Every mother makes her own choices. End of discussion!

Put things into perspective

Every woman has the Super Mom power, whether she breastfeeds or not. Being there for the child is what matters. From there, we all do our best. And in spite of all our efforts, some things will always remain out of our control. Some kids walk at 10 months, others at 16 months. Some are breastfed, others are bottle-fed. And in the end, none is better than the other.

Don’t compete with others in terms of how long you breastfed your baby. If someone acts that way and asks you the question, just use humor to put things perspective. "I’ve been taking care of my baby since they took their first breath.” After all, that’s what we all do.

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