Janice D’Arcy is off this week. Guest blogger Jennifer Kogan is a clinical social worker who works with parents in Northwest D.C.
As a mom who meets lots of new moms, I have noticed something lately. In my conversations with new mothers who breastfeed, there is an almost universal belief that breast milk is akin to the nectar of the gods. I hear words like “lazy” and “selfish” to describe mothers who choose to bottle-feed. Not surprisingly, women who choose to bottle-feed tell me that they feel judged, guilty, and not supported. Is breast milk better for babies? Maybe. But is bottle-feeding such a sin?
DC-area postpartum support advocates, Lynne McIntyre and Adrienne Griffin, have long believed that there may be a connection between a mother having difficulty breastfeeding and the onset of postpartum mood and anxiety disorders (PMADS). Their pilot data based on interviews with women who have PMADS revealed that external pressure in deciding whether or not to breastfeed largely came from other new mothers and pressure from society.
Why does this matter? Katherine Stone, founder, editor and writer at postpartumprogress.com, says that, on average, 20 percent of new mothers experience perinatal mood and anxiety disorders. This would mean around 1.3 million women are affected annually. While national statistics range and reflect only women who have actually sought help for PMADS, that is still a lot of people.
Some of the women from McIntyre and Griffin’s study commented, “I felt SO guilty for having to stop, but I realized that my son was going to be without a mother if I didn't do something to help myself.”
“I wanted to NOT breastfeed. But I felt so much pressure that I continued despite my feelings,” said another.
It is heartbreaking to hear how hard some new mothers will work at breast-feeding. Stories of marathon pumping sessions, which yield little results, are common. One woman I know relayed the relief she felt when a lactation consultant finally told her, “Honey, it sounds like you tried hard but maybe you should stop now.”
Joan B. Wolf’s book, “Is Breast Best?” sparked a widespread national debate recently. In it, she makes the case that breastfeeding advocacy is a lot of hype. Whether she is right or wrong seems beside the point to me. I am dismayed that how we feed our babies has become a kind of moral issue where mothers are grading other mothers on if and how long they are breastfeeding. As if you are not a good mother if you don’t breast-feed your baby.
When I meet with women who are struggling with breastfeeding and/or PMADS, I ask them to take some of the energy they are focusing on their baby and try to shift it to themselves. This is harder to do then it sounds. It means a new mother has to try to see herself with kinder eyes even though she is feeling inadequate and depressed. It means that in order to recover, this new mother must breathe from the oxygen mask first so she can survive.
How can we, as mothers, and we, as part of society, not support that?