The ways in which motherhood has changed me, or at least altered my perception, are endless. Most of those changes were to be expected, and I'm not surprised that I can't, say, watch certain movies anymore or sit through certain commercials without balling my eyes out. Other chances, however, have been pretty surprising, and it takes me a while to realize that I'm thinking differently because I'm a mom. How I talk about breastfeeding is one of those surprising changes, and I've realized there are so many reasons why you should never say a woman was "successful" at breastfeeding; reasons I didn't truly understand until I experienced breastfeeding for myself, and watched so many amazing women experience breastfeeding for themselves, too.
I had a relatively easy time breastfeeding, certain things considered. My son latched with ease and my milk supply was never an issue, so from a purely physical standpoint, I could breastfeed without really trying. I did, however, experience some mental roadblocks that made the act of breastfeeding really difficult. As a sexual assault survivor, I didn't realize that breastfeeding would act as a Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) trigger, so while breastfeeding was physically "easy," it was mentally and emotionally difficult. I then paid attention to the breastfeeding women around me, and realized that while they didn't have any mental blocks keeping them from breastfeeding, they physically weren't able to produce enough milk. I watched some women try everything under the sun to either increase their milk production, to no avail. I witnessed other women battle infections and painful, clogged milk ducts, and more women who had their babies too early and, as a result, couldn't breastfeed their baby because he or she was in the NICU. So many women who had made the choice to breastfeed, but were either physically or mentally unable to do so.
As a result, it didn't take me long to realize that how we talk about breastfeeding and breastfeeding mothers, needs to change. While I am all for celebrating breastfeeding and the women who do it (especially the women who have to work so hard and put in so much effort) I think we need to be aware of all the women who want to breastfeed and try to breastfeed and give breastfeeding everything they have, but are simply unable to breastfeed. I think it's worth it to watch what we say, and how we say it, if it means that we are more inclusive and more women feel empowered and supported. For that reason, and so many more including the following, I won't say a woman is "successful" at breastfeeding. Honestly, you shouldn't either.
So Much Of It Is Out Of A Mom's Control...
There are so many aspects of breastfeeding that are completely out of a mother's control. Yes, sometimes there are things you can do to help assist you in breastfeeding but, for the most part, you're dealt the hand you're dealt.
If you have low milk supply, you can eat all the lactation cookies you can get your hands on but, sometimes, they just don't help. You can pump for hours on end and, sometimes, it won't make a difference. You can prepare for breastfeeding to the best of your ability, only to have your baby born early and, as a result, be unable to breastfeed (although there are some alternatives in place and/or ways you can continue to breastfeed a NICU baby, or at least feed a NICU baby breast milk). You can do absolutely everything under the sun, but sometimes your body just doesn't "cooperate" the way you had hoped it would. It's not a failure, it's just a reality.
...No Matter How Hard She Tries
I was able to breastfeed relatively easily and didn't have to try very hard to produce enough milk to sustain my son. My dear friend, however, had a very different breastfeeding experience. I watched in awe (of her strength and determination) as she attached herself to a pump for hours at a time, multiple times a day. I watched as she changed her diet and tried supplements and researched other ways to increase her milk supply. I let her lean on my shoulder when none of her efforts were working, and she was exhausted and emotional and so very sad when she realized that using formula was her only option.
If trying to breastfeed was the only thing you needed to do in order to be able to breastfeed, my amazing friend would have been able to breastfeed her child for as long as she wanted and I would have been the one using formula. It didn't work that way, though, because trying has nothing to do with it. Yes, sometimes breastfeeding does require additional effort, but that doesn't mean someone giving that effort will automatically be able to breastfeed for as long or as easily as they like. Sometimes, trying just isn't enough.
It Makes So Many Women Feel Like They've Failed...
I didn't realize how I was hurting a fellow mom's feelings, until I said I was "successful" at breastfeeding one too many times around her. Her baby was born two months too early, and spent the first few months of her life in the NICU. My dear friend was unable to breastfeed her daughter, so it wasn't a matter of trying or doing, failure or success, it was a matter of necessity and the reality of a situation my dear friend didn't choose. Her daughter had to be in the NICU, otherwise she would have died, so my friend had to endure the painstaking reality of watching her daughter fight for her life.
I had, with one little word and completely inadvertently, hurt my dear friend by equating the act of breastfeeding to a success of motherhood. I had made her feel like she had failed her child by saying that I had been successful at feeding mine with nothing but my body. I had, although accidentally, made her feel like a situation that was completely out of her control, was still her fault. It was by pure happenstance that her baby came early and mine came "on time," and I was able to breastfeed my son and she was unable to breastfeed her daughter. We could have easily switched places so, really, I hadn't succeeded at anything. I was just able to do something she wasn't able — or even given the opportunity — to do.
...Or That Their Bodies Have Failed
I remember how I felt the moment a doctor told me that one of my twin sons' heart had stopped beating and he was dead, inside my body. Once the initial shock wore off, I felt like my body had failed. I felt like my body wasn't made to be the body of a mom, and my dead baby had suffered for something I was fundamentally not made to do.
Of course, that just isn't true.
Sometimes, our bodies go rogue and it's not that they've failed us or anyone else, it's that things just happen. It took me a long time to realize that and, when I did, I had to stop equating my pregnancy to failure. I had to stop looking at other moms who were able to grow and birth twins, and see successes. I have since applied this same train of thought to breastfeeding. It's not about failure or success, it's about chance. Some women are able to breastfeed, and some women aren't, and it's just the way of the world. Does it make sense? No. Is it far? Definitely not. Is it easy to understand or accept, even though you know there's very little you can do? Not at all. I still have moments when I get angry that one of my twin sons died, and it's been over two years.
Sometimes, It's Not A Choice
Whenever I talk about my choice to breastfeed my son, I make it a point to say I "choose and was able to" breastfeed, because simply choosing to breastfeed isn't enough.
I know so many women who made the choice to breastfeed, but couldn't. Sometimes, that choice is already made for you, and there's nothing you can do about it. You literally don't have a say in what your body can or cannot do, which is why we shouldn't say someone has succeeded or failed at breastfeeding. After all, you can't succeed or fail at something that was never in your control in the first place.
It Continues To Fan The "Mommy Wars" Flame
I don't think it hurts us in any way to take a few moments to be more cognizant of what we say, especially if it is going to end this "me vs you" mom culture. The "mommy wars," a term I really despise, do nothing but hurt mothers who really just need to be accepted and supported. There's no one way to parent, so instead of making us all feel alienated or guilty or like we've failed, we need to work to empower mothers, regardless of their choices and regardless of what their bodies end up doing. As long as a mother isn't physically, emotionally or verbally abusing her child -— and her child is happy, healthy, and thriving -— we need to do what we can to make that mother feel like she's part of a sisterhood that will help her, encourage her and support her.
So, if me using another word besides "successful" when I talk about breastfeeding will make even one woman feel more understood, so be it. It's just a word, and I'm all about leaving it out of my breastfeeding lexicon if it helps someone else.
There Are Better, More Inclusive Ways To Talk About Breastfeeding...
There are so many alternatives that don't take anymore time or energy to use, that will make all women feel more included in breastfeeding discussions. Instead of saying "successful," and attaching a feeling of failure to the conversation, you can simply say "able." I was able to breastfeed. See? Super easy. In fact, the word "able" has less syllables, so you're not only being more inclusive, you're saving yourself some precious time. You're welcome.
...And Supporting One Another Should Be The Name Of The Motherhood Game
I know there will be more than a few women out there who think I'm just splitting metaphorical hairs. I know that urging women not to use the world "successful" when talking about breastfeeding might come off as "over-sensitive" or "policing other people's experiences" or something of the like. I know that so many women put a lot of time and effort into being able to breastfeed, so they want to be acknowledge for their efforts (and rightfully so).
I think that we can acknowledge how difficult breastfeeding can be, how hard so many women work in order to do it, how amazing those women are and how empowered those women should feel, while simultaneously taking into account all the women who have tried so tirelessly to breastfeed, but couldn't. I think that we can create an inclusive community of mothers to that every mom — regardless of her unique experience — feels empowered and supported and understood. Sure, it's just a word, but words matter and if women are telling us that equating the ability to breastfeed as either a success or a failure is hurtful, we need to start listening.