Guilt and Emotional Baggage (present and future)

continued from here

The email came from a very kind person that I do not know. She had read of some of our breastfeeding and supply issues here on Accident and wanted to help. I sent her a reply thanking her for her interest, but that Kristin has a medical condition that was making it impossible for her to make enough milk and that Julia was weaning and we were calling it quits. And then she sent an email back that was full of suggestions on how to increase Kristin’s milk. Most of the suggestions were things that we had been trying for the last month, but one of them was something that had NEVER occurred to us. She suggested that I suckle Kristin. Like I said, I had to keep from retching on the keyboard.

(Dear person who wrote me that email: if you are reading this, I hope you understand why I never responded to you. I am sorry. I just couldn’t. I meant to, I really did. But I couldn’t bring myself even to pull up your email again to write you back. But I know that your advice was heart-felt and not meant to be so damaging, so I don’t harbor any ill will.)

Now, normally the thought of sucking (note the change of terms) on Kristin’s breast would fill me with happiness. But to put my mouth to her to recreate what a baby would do, and with intent to stimulate milk flow, filled me with such aversion that I can’t even describe my distress. I focused on the bodily fluid revulsion which is easily strong enough to justify strong repulsion of the suggestion. It was also the easiest concept for me to handle at the time, and so dismissed my excess of feelings as being all related to the fact that I find breast milk extremely disgusting and the thought of willingly taking it into my mouth vomit-inducing. I even intellectualized it enough to recognize it for what it was: abjection. A violent rejection of something that I feel is threatening to my identity. After all, I’ve spent years defending myself and my sexuality against those who would say that I’m a lesbian because I’m overly attached to my mom and want a lover who can mother me as well. Ha ha ha ha ha… classic example of feminist theory in action in real life. And I sighed and attempted to move on.

But it was more than that. And I found myself growing extremely sensitive to any mention of breastfeeding. Forgive me, my breastfeeding friends, but the stories of your struggles were often more than I could read. There was a growing disturbance and revulsion there that I was ignoring and just hoping would go away. I told myself that I would not breastfeed and I grew defensive when I imagined the reactions I would get from people once I had a child and formula fed from birth.
So, here I am, developing this huge complex, and cognizant of the fact that I’m developing a huge complex, but not really wanting to look at it. Wishing, in fact, that breastfeeding would just disappear forever and people would stop TALKING about it ALL THE DAMN TIME. (of course I knew people weren’t talking about it all the time, I knew it was just my sensitivity and stubbornness, stop looking at me like that, I’m sorry, all right? Sheesh!)

Guilt. Guilt is my problem. And I haven’t felt this riddled with guilt for years. Especially this riddled with guilt over something I hadn’t done or hadn’t yet done. A little thought niggled into my brain that what I was feeling was feeling very close to the way I felt about sex and my sexual abuse. But I dismissed it. Because. Just because. I didn’t think about it too clearly. I didn’t WANT to think about it too clearly.

But even though I wasn’t ready to consider that my sexual abuse and my patterns of thought that stem from that abuse might have something to do with my reactions to our situation, and the email, and the way I was feeling. I was ready to start looking a bit at guilt. And that’s how I came across those posts by Jamie and Navalgazing Midwife that I linked in my earlier installment .

(please humor me while I digress a bit)
Now, while I agree with Jamie and NgM that women who try their hardest to breastfeed and simply can’t aren’t the targets of those ads and the other social pressures to breastfeed (particularly in the natural/holistic/organic mothering arenas that Kristin and I like to think we’re part of) and thus shouldn’t feel guilty because they have nothing to feel guilty about, I tend to agree more with what Emily was saying in Jamie’s comment threads. For women who tried and failed to breastfeed, guilt can’t be dismissed that easily. Especially by women who were abused (either sexually or otherwise) as children. Now, I’m not trying to say something global about every woman who has been abused, but I do think that women who were abused as children are more likely to be conditioned, through their abuse, to accept guilt upon themselves. Whether or not that guilt is justifiable. The neural pathways in our brains that run from observance of something bad to assuming guilt are wide and well used. They collect things like a gigantic black hole. I feel guilty for stuff there’s no way in hell I’m really guilty for. It’s habit. You show me an ad of a pregnant woman log-rolling and compare that to not breastfeeding, I’m going to feel guilty for not breastfeeding, even if I try everything and can’t. Even if I have very good reasons for not trying. Even if I know about the risks and have decided that in my case the risks of breastfeeding outweigh the risks of not breastfeeding. Thus, even if I’m not the person that ad is aimed towards.

There’s a difference between inducing a productive guilt that creates a laudable change in behavior and thought patterns and one that simply triggers old guilt reflexes in the people who already know that “breast is best”. I wonder if those commercials will even register with the people who simply don’t care and/or have already made up their minds that they will bottle feed for convenience (let’s not get into an argument over which is more convenient here, there are people who are convinced that bottle feeding is more convenient and they aren’t going to be convinced by you) or some other reason.

And if they do? If they succeed in guilting women who wouldn’t normally breastfeed? Is that necessarily a good thing?

If a big part of the benefits of breastfeeding are actually in the emotional connection with the mother that the baby receives, if the emotional connections made during infancy set patterns for the rest of a person’s life, then what are the possible results of forcing breastfeeding upon mothers who don’t want to feed that way?

Which would you rather have:

A) Macaroni and Cheese. From a box. Broccoli florettes mixed in, maybe some chicken. It’s from a box, but spiffed up some. Served with love, humor, and caring. Laughter, eye contact, conversation.
B) An exquisitely prepared, beautifully presented meal of your favorite food perfectly nutritionally balanced. Served reluctantly, with great resentment. Little eye contact. No laughter. Stilted conversation. Stress and anger thickening the air.

Which situation do you think has more serious ramifications for a child’s emotional development? Because, as I sit now, there is a good chance that if I force myself to breastfeed, I’ll be putting my baby in situation b. But I’ll be able to say I breastfed. I’ll be able to claim that badge of motherhood. I’ll be able to say with pride how many months I did it.

Which is the selfish choice?

To be continued*… (I swear to god I am getting closer to finishing this thing. Maybe 2 more posts max!)

*Did you notice how yet again I managed to veer off sexuality and breastfeeding? I'll get to that tomorrow, I promise!

Posted by Trista @ 1:26 PM

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You hit the nail on the head of what I think is WRONG about that breastfeeding initiative.

Blah blah that you and my other friends who can't for various reasons are not the targets. Who the hell do they think will see them? Guilt ridden moms who are doing their best, or people who haven't been paying that much attention to their and their babies' health in the first place?

IMO, both moms and their doctors or other health care providers have to be hiding under rocks to have not heard by now that breastfeeding is good for babies. If moms can't breastfeed, they should NOT be made to feel bad about it.

For gods sake formula isn't poison. Let's do some real research controling for education, economics, etc before declaring that it's the milk vs the forumla accounting for all the blah blah blah benefits.

Here's my original rant on the subject, and BTW, I'm lucky enough to love nursing Noah and to be having a fairly easy time of it. http://lizawashere.typepad.com/liza_was_here/2006/06/nursing_isnt_ju.html

Posted by Anonymous Liza @ 7:34 AM #

While I was on bed rest, the March of Dimes began running a campaign about giving your baby the best gift: the entire nine months. Well, to a mom who wants nothing more than to give her baby the entire 9 months of pregnancy, but knows that the baby will come early or die, these ads just added a thick layer of guilt that I already felt/still feel. I called the March of Dimes. I asked them if they had run this campaign by women who had high risk pregnancies and had premies. She said no, the ads are aimed at low income women, trying to get them to prentatal care. I let her know that I had enough prenatal care for at least 3 pregnancies, and this was not preventing my baby being born early. Anyway, is anyone seriously asking to be delivered at 34 weeks? Well other than me, because I was worried about my baby dying in Utero. (Which would have happened had she not been delivered.)

I agree with you. I don't think guilting women into breast feeding is in any way a positive thing. I would feel an educational not accusatory campaign would work so much better. Also, way to guilt all the moms who log rolled while pregnant.

There are no awards in motherhood. You don't get a badge because you had a non-medicated labor. I did not get a badge for having a c-section. I could have puched for "natural" labor but I decided that my baby's and my health were more important.

While the fact that I am breastfeeding successfully works for me, I know it does not work for everyone. I'd rather see a happy mom, rather than a guilted unhappy one. What I think matters is the relationship between the parents and the baby. I made choices and walked out of the hospital healthy, and 48 days after she was born, we took Sydeny home, healthy as well. Others make different choices, and these should be respected. What matters is the physical and emotional health of the mom. If breast feeding adds to your emotional un-wellness, I don't think the gains your baby gets will benefit them at all, with one exception. If the baby is premature, even a little colostroum and breast milk will help prevent "nec", which kills off the intestines. In that case, pumping off a little to give to the baby seems so worth it. You don't have to keep it up, but just get what you can.

I'm not meaning that last comment as an accusation against anyone, I just wanted to say that I feel there is one circumstance where I think the mom should just put up with their own issues, for the sake of the child. They don't have to keep this up, but I think they should pump off the engorgement, or whatever so they can provide this life saving substance for the baby.

ExUtero, a neonatologist discusses this issue on his blog http://talesfromthewomb.blogspot.com/2006/07/cutting-edge-in-neonatology.html

Posted by Blogger WendyLou @ 10:00 AM #

When Wes lived in the same state as GMB and his father, he was depressed. Suicidally depressed. Should he have stayed there and been a crappy, depressed parent or should he (she, then) have moved to NYC and left his kiddo? Yeah, it's better for kids to be in the same states as their moms 12 months out of the year, but what if the mom is one big ball of bitterness?

I hope you see my point. I am soooooo pro mom-happiness. I think it trumps almost everything else.

Posted by Anonymous bri @ 11:30 AM #
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