Even the best of us can feel a strange kind of heat from other people's parenting decisions. Why? Who knows. The reaction to the news that a transgender woman successfully — in a medically documented capacity — breastfed her child to 6 weeks of age was proof of this recently. The comments around the internet ranged from positive to, well, very negative. This was a story with virtually no downsides — transgender women have been DIYing their own induced lactation for years, and here was an opportunity for the medical establishment to support them, to make it safer and easier for transgender mothers to nurse their children. Here was an opportunity for the armies of pro-breastfeeding soldiers to support transgender mothers; to prove their conviction, and throw their support behind those battling to breastfeed. And yet.
Unfortunately, it's not uncommon for people to belittle the experiences of transgender mothers, much like it's not uncommon for them to belittle the experiences of transgender women in general. Even among relatively progressive circles of parents, microaggressions can be observed when someone raises an eyebrow after a trans mom expresses her exhaustion or struggles in learning to balance personhood and parenthood (struggles every parent, regardless of gender identity or sexuality, no doubt face). "At least she didn't have to carry and deliver the baby," they might remark. "She should be grateful she doesn't have to deal with the pressure to breastfeed," another will unfortunately suggest.
If we define motherhood by the acts of carrying and nursing our children, we undoubtedly do a disservice to the many moms who haven't done either.
When it comes to nursing, in particular, debates typically abound. As with so many topics pertinent to motherhood, those debates can quickly spiral into shaming. These are debates that will no doubt re-surface with the news that Dr. Tamar Reisman and nurse practitioner and program manager Zil Goldstein at the Mt. Sinai Center for Transgender Medicine and Surgery have successfully induced lactation in a transgender woman.
For some pro-breastfeeding mothers, not giving an infant the tit is practically a mortal sin. Others often take their roles so seriously that they ultimately perpetuate the flawed notion that nursing is the make-or-break of being a good mom. Ideologies such as these only further contribute to the stigmatization and oppression of transgender mothers, who, historically, have not had the ability to lactate.
If we define motherhood by the acts of carrying and nursing our children, however, we undoubtedly do a disservice to the many moms who haven't done either. Whether the choice was made for them because of infertility, a lack of supply, or anatomical predisposition, or whether they made such choices by themselves for themselves, parenthood is not a neatly-packageable, one-size-fits-all kind of deal. Motherhood certainly isn't. This is why pro-breastfeeding moms (and all moms in general, TBH) should be supporting transgender mothers every step of the way.
Of course, not every transgender mother will want to breastfeed if given the opportunity, much like not every cis mother will want to, either. What the recent efforts at Mt. Sinai are doing is getting the medical community one step closer to offering transgender mothers a choice. And freedom of choice is undoubtedly something all women need more of in a world that is often seemingly hellbent on eradicating their autonomy.
As Madeleine Bair, an undergraduate at UCLA and a trans woman, told Romper, "I find that studies like [that of Mt. Sinai] are the exception to the rule [...] Medical issues that affect trans people are often understudied or ignored completely."
This reality might mean that the work of Dr. Reisman and Goldstein isn't immediately replicated cross-country, but it's still a start for transgender mothers who would like to breastfeed.
Transgender mother are doing everything cis mothers are doing, while facing added oppression and marginalization for the bodies and identities they inhabit.
The thing to remember, whether we see more immediate advancements in induced lactation or otherwise (and hopefully we will), is that there is much more to motherhood than breastfeeding. Not only are the nursing years microscopic in terms of the full landscape that is raising a child, but even the experience of nursing itself can wholly vary mother to mother.
Some children are born knowing how to latch. Others are not. Some mothers cry themselves to sleep over a lack of supply. Others have so much over-supply that they can actually donate their excess milk. Some mothers find pumping and feeding hugely restricting. Others call it the most joyous, fulfilling of occasions.
The truth of motherhood is that it's never easy, whether that's because your infant wants to nurse for three hours at a time, doesn't sleep through the night, cannot stand being around other kids, has a major attitude problem, or refuses to let themselves be picked up by any adult besides mama.
Transgender mothers are going through all of this and more. They will need our support with breastfeeding. Even if they aren't breastfeeding, they are finding a formula and a routine that best works for their families. They are teaching their children to walk, and talk, and play, and be functioning humans. They are doing everything cis mothers are doing, while facing added oppression and marginalization for the bodies and identities they inhabit. As privileged mothers, we have the opportunity to stand beside them. We have the opportunity to remind those around us that transgender mothers are mothers. Full stop.
Check out Romper's new video series, Bearing The Motherload, where disagreeing parents from different sides of an issue sit down with a mediator and talk about how to support (and not judge) each other’s parenting perspectives. New episodes air Mondays on Facebook.