Lately, it seems that everyone is debating the choice to breastfeed. Reading various blog posts and opinion pieces, got me thinking about why I breastfed my two children.
Health campaigns having been making it clear that there are major health benefits including lower rates of asthma and diabetes in children and lower rates of breast cancer in mothers. The oft-cited lifestyle benefits include convenience (always having baby’s food with me no matter where we are, never having to heat bottles, never running out, not having to bring a lot of extra gear on outtings – besides a couple of diapers), cost-savings (not having to buy bottles or formula), better sleep, ability to soothe a baby who is hurt, getting a vaccination or whose ears are bothered by the pressure on an airplane. These are all great reasons to decide to breastfeed, but for me, they were like bonuses, icing on the cake. They weren’t the reason I breastfed my children.
To be honest, I didn’t consider breastfeeding a choice. I suppose I could say that I thought it was my responsibility in a way but even that doesn’t really describe my feelings. I didn’t do it out of a sense of duty. I did it because that is what is involved in my role as a mother.
For me, breastfeeding was just part of the package of childbearing. Just as I didn’t really have a choice about how to conceive, just as I didn’t really have a choice about growing and carrying a baby inside my body, just as I didn’t really have a choice about when and how I would push that baby out of my body, I didn’t feel I had a choice about how I feed that baby.
Sure, in this day and age, we have things like IVF for conception, surrogates for pregnancy, cesareans for birth and formula for feeding. But in my mind, those wonders of science are available to make childbearing possible in spite of insurmountable challenges. For me, they are not choices.
For me, the choice I had was whether or not I wanted to have children at all. Once I made the decision to have children, I embarked on a path that included pregnancy, birth and breastfeeding because that is what is involved in having children. Along the way, I had choices regarding my prenatal care, my place of birth and the length of time I breastfed my children, but I didn’t really have a choice about the steps in human procreation.
Of course, all those steps involve some pretty big downsides like cankles and heartburn, contractions and the Ring of Fire, thrush and mastitis. But all three are also the most amazing privileges. We get to feel the wonder of the baby moving and growing inside of us, we get to experience the transformative power of childbirth, and we get to nourish and bond with our babies in a very primal physical way.
Nothing about parenting is easy. Some of us will experience challenges with almost every aspect, from the moment we start trying to conceive. But we do it anyway because that’s what it takes to parent. We do what our children need us to do because it’s just a part of the deal.
I guess one of the major differences is that all things considered our culture is supportive of pregnancy and birth (barring for now major ideological differences regarding what childbirth should look like). But breastfeeding is another story. Our culture does not support breastfeeding. The average North American woman is not living in an environment that makes breastfeeding something that feels normal, or even possible. The average woman is not supported by extended family to breastfeed. The average woman receives conflicting and erroneous advice about breastfeeding from the hospital, her friends and her health care providers. The average woman feels that breastfeeding in public is offensive or imprudent. The average woman is sent messages every day from society, from the media that tell her that breastfeeding is either creepy or too intimate to occur outside of her home. Faced with all of this, it is not surprising that in the face of normal challenges, a woman will make the choice to discontinue breastfeeding. Essentially, she isn’t even making that choice. Our culture makes that choice for her.
If I had to cite the reasons I was successful breastfeeding my children, they would be having supportive family role models, being lucky enough to experience few physical challenges and having the good fortune to be living in Canada where we have a full year of maternity leave. Without any one of those factors, I may have chosen not to breastfeed. I understand why mothers make that choice. But I am thankful that breastfeeding never became a choice I had to make.