7 Ways Breastfeeding Actually Helped Me Heal As A Sexual Assault Survivor
I'm going to be quite honest and admit that I've been avoiding writing about this experience for, well, as long as I've been writing about parenting. However, it's always been in the back of my mind. It's always been in my heart and body, waiting to be written. So, I think it's about time I rip that band-aid off and tell the world about the ways breastfeeding helped me heal as a sexual assault survivor.
I'd be remiss if I didn't note that this is only my experience. I in no way mean to hold up my experience to other sexual assault survivors as proof that they can, or should, breastfeed in order to heal. I give a resounding and passionate "No!" to that line of thinking. Anybody who ever uses my experience toward that end is wielding a form of violence over a survivor and that is decidedly not why I am sharing my story. I am a sexual trauma therapist so I know firsthand, and beyond my own experience, how different people find different things healing while those same things can be triggering to others. There is no right or wrong when it comes to your body and how, or if and in what ways, you choose to share that body with your baby.
My breastfeeding journey hasn't all been roses and sunshine, that's for sure. However, as I near the end of my breastfeeding days with my last baby, I can say with certainty that, for me, breastfeeding was pivotal in my healing from sexual abuse. So, with that in mind, here's a glimpse of the ways the long journey of breastfeeding helped me heal from sexual trauma:
When I Endured Failure
I was torn in 2009 when I was pregnant for the first time. I wanted to breastfeed because at the time I truly believed that breastfeeding was what was best for babies. (Side note: I've since grown in my thinking and believe fed is best for babies.) However, my breasts remained a source of severe triggers. I had never been comfortable with them, and the sexual abuse I endured began just as my body was developing. As a result, I had always been forced to view them with disdain or detachment as a target for unwanted sexual advances. That did not change during pregnancy, even though my love for the rest of my body grew.
Despite my increasing anxiety, I vowed to use all the support available to me and learn to breastfeed my child. Even if that meant I had to spend a year dissociated from that piece of my body.
My child's first five days were spent in the NICU, which complicated the beginning of our breastfeeding relationship. By the time the hospital staff allowed me to feed her two days after birth, my milk still hadn't come in. I was stressed, sleep deprived, and so disconnected from my body. I couldn't even comprehend what the nurses, lactation consultants, and my mother were trying to tell me when they encouraged me to listen to my body's cues.
My baby continued to lose weight after we took her home. She refused the breast and would scream for hours on end. Every time I tried to feed her from these hated breasts I would clench my jaw or cry. Every touch made me jump, every suckle made me flinch. Looking back, I'm saddened by the violence with which I treated myself. My negative self-talk had grown to such a fevered pitch I was barely sleeping. "You're a failure. The only thing these breasts were supposed to be able to do, the only thing that would've redeemed them for causing such suffering for so long, you can't even do. You're pathetic."
And I thought about him all the time.
My step-father, also known as my primary perpetrator, was in my dreams and in my mind all the time. I could feel his skin on mine every time I took my breast out to try and feed my child. His dripping narcissistic and hateful sarcasm was palatable in the air I breathed. Every horrible thing he had ever said or did to me was in my face all the time in the form of my failure to give my child the bare minimum of what she needed. He had died four years ago, and I hadn't seen him for eight years prior to his death, but when I'd try to breastfeed he was still in complete control.
When I Forgave Myself
Eventually, with the help of a supportive partner and handful of mama-friends, I gave myself permission to transition to feeding expressed breast milk and formula. I tried to forgive myself for what I perceived as a last deep betrayal of my body and, instead, focused on building attachment with my traumatized little baby.
My inability to nourish her from my breast would not be our defining moment. My hatred of my body had to shift. I had to forgive myself in order to be who my child needed me to be. I had to teach her how to love herself and other women. I knew that having a mother who held such hatred for her body, and other perceived shortcomings, would directly impact how my child saw the world. It was a biological imperative to forgive myself.
When I Accepted Imperfection
By the time I became pregnant with my second child I was mostly resigned to the fact that I would likely not be able to breastfeed this baby either. I knew the re-experiencing symptoms of my trauma had negative effects on my preliminary ability to bond with my first baby. I didn't want to recreate that dynamic with my second.
At the 22 week anatomy ultrasound we found out that the new little bean had a cleft lip. We wouldn't know if there was palate involvement until birth, so the cleft team at Children's Hospital encouraged us to research all the possible complications. This, of course, included feeding challenges.
Once I realized this birth defect was not life-threatening, I knew that I could give up the dream of having a healthy breastfeeding relationship in return for a thriving child. I knew I wouldn't subject myself, or my second child, to the constant struggle that was my first two months with my oldest.
When my second baby was born, they put him on my belly and he latched immediately. It was jarring and unexpected. However, in that moment I was filled with awe and gratitude. I hadn't expected it, I'd already excused myself from it, yet it happened anyway. A seamless, beautiful, physical connection with a baby who, because of his cleft, was not supposed to be able to latch. I didn't have time to think about anything else. I just held onto my second born for dear life and with tremendous gratitude that he, and perhaps I, was going to be OK.
When I Let It Be
In being prepared not to breastfeed, and forgiving myself ahead of time, I had taken away the significant pressure to perform or fail. I just let feeding my baby be whatever it was.
This was a lesson I had been learning since my graduate school days at a Buddhist institution. The lesson of non-attachment.
When I Allowed Goodness
My second baby didn't unlatch for 18 months and, during that time, I had a few triggering moments of body memories. But, overwhelmingly, our breastfeeding relationship was positive, nurturing, and bonding. One of the things that can be hard for survivors is to allow ourselves to tolerate good feelings again. I know that can be hard to wrap your mind around, but for a myriad of reasons good feelings can foreshadow danger in the nervous system of a survivor of childhood sexual abuse. I was able to bring my years of therapeutic work and intentional, conscious individual practice to my breastfeeding relationship with my second child. I finally relaxed into the pure goodness of my emotional connection to another human being. For the first time in my life, that connection didn't feel dangerous. It felt, well, good.
When I Let Myself Be Needed
Let's face it, babies need so much from you. With my first baby, I don't think I was prepared for the intensity of that need, so it felt like an uncontrollable trigger. With my second child, however, I allowed that need. Even when I got scared and the instinct was to run away or shut down emotionally, I started an intention practice of opening my heart back up. I even enlisted my partner in the latter days of this practice. With my consent and encouragement, he began to notice my closing off cues and he would put his hand on my heart and say, "Breathe. Are you open?" This little reminder to drop back into myself, and what was true in connection to my child, was immensely difficult but incredibly worth it.
When I Reclaimed My Body
With my third and final child, I was prepared. Before my Reiki Rainbow baby was born, I actively and consciously sought that sacred (to me) relationship that I knew was possible with breastfeeding. I no longer have any hint of resentment at having my body taken over. Rather, it's now an active process of giving a gift to my child.
This is an important place to say, again, this is only my experience. I'm sharing my experience with you with no intention to say all survivors should be able to heal with breastfeeding. In fact, as I hope my story shows, breastfeeding can be horribly triggering and re-traumatizing. The process for me to get to this place was a long, hard, and often sad journey. There was no guarantee that I would get to where I am. The fact that I got here with my third baby does not change the grief of the tormented breastfeeding relationship I had with my first child, primarily because of my survivor-hood.
I also can't tell you if it's worth it. I can't say whether everything it took me to get to this place, where the actual act of feeding them fills me with a heretofore incomprehensible sense of joy and peace, was worth the relationship rift I had with my firstborn.
What I can say is that I am so grateful for this process and so grateful for the opportunity that breastfeeding gave me to break this part of me open. Counter-intuitively, what began as one more way my body wasn't mine became a profoundly healing reconnection to and reclamation of my body.