Considering that the average American is far more likely to see breasts selling beer on a TV commercial than feeding an infant, it's understandable that a lot of us approach breastfeeding with a degree of trepidation and uncertainty. Often, we don't know what to make of it because it's shrouded in mystery (or at least a nursing cover) and spoken of in conflicting terms. As such, choosing to nurse or not to nurse can be a decision couched in a lot of fear. So what's the one thing you should know if you're scared of breastfeeding your baby? Shhh. Patience, friends. First, we have to discuss where this fear is coming from.
In case you hadn't heard, there's a social weirdness about breastfeeding. We should have been clued in there would be weirdness because the first part of the word "breastfeeding" is "breast." Because let's be honest here: Very loud, angry, conflicting, even contradictory opinions about women's bodies aren't anything new for us, right? What you should and shouldn't do with it, who should and shouldn't have access to it, how you should and shouldn't present it. Breastfeeding is just another layer of that, and as with any topic pertaining to a woman's body, the overwhelming theme is that her person is a source of public discussion, debate, and consumption.
Some people will say "Breast is best, and your own physical and mental well-being doesn't matter because if you don't nurse your baby you're dooming them to a life of obesity, allergies, depression, and criminal deviance." Others, will tell you that nursing a baby past two weeks is creepy. (No, really, a friend of mine was told this by her boss... in a meeting... in front of her colleagues.) Some will say, "I was formula-fed and I turned out fine. Are you telling me that my mother was a bad person? All you nursing moms are so sanctimonious!" That alone would be enough to situate a new parent in a bad place when it comes to the decision to breastfeed. Who wants to deal with more of that crap? Though, spoilers: It doesn't matter whether you choose to breastfeed or not. Someone is going to try to make you feel like sh*t about it regardless. You and you and even yooooooooooou!
But it gets even better (#allthesarcasm), because unlike a lot of other body issues, breastfeeding has the unique distinction of falling into another sociological complicated category: food and eating. It's like hitting a double in the fun (not fun) game of judgmental dumbassery.
There aren't too many phenomenons that wind up at this ignominious intersection. Some of the only ones I could think of are female fatness (which deserves more time and ink than I've room for here), those sushi restaurants where you eat off a naked model, and, like, edible underwear. But just as the female body is an incredibly complicated, often frustrating political topic in and of itself, so too is food. Yes, food is and has always been political. The specifics and intensity, of course, depend on the society, but even wolves have hierarchies of who eats what and when.
There's something primal about it. Breastfeeding is an extension of that cultural discussion as well. Lucky us, the conversation that involves other people being creepily invested in what we're eating starts before we're even born.
Speaking of being born, there's another aspect of this topic that comes into play: how to have and raise children. Oh snap! Did I say we hit a double with this? We're sliding into third now, people.
I suppose there's a virtue among small, homogeneous societies in raising children in an incredibly structured, prescribed way to ensure survival and promote necessary unity. But most of us do not live in small societies anymore, and even if we do we're almost all part of a larger, interconnected societies which will have an affect on our lives. So whatever the benefits of this model, it has largely outlived its usefulness.
Guys. This is just the backdrop. The confusing, scary, often angry, guilt-ridden, ridiculous backdrop. Now let's talk about common concerns about breastfeeding.
It comes to many new parents as a revelation that for something that's supposed to be natural, breastfeeding doesn't necessarily come naturally. Well, no! It's natural for your pet Mr. Whiskers to bring you a dead mouse, but killing for food does not come naturally to cats. Despite being known for swimming, baby otters are taught how to swim by their mothers.
Just because an animal is naturally adept or predisposed to be able to do something doesn't mean it isn't a learned behavior that takes practice and patience. For thousands of years, women not only grew up watching their family members and peers nursing, they had those same individuals helping them out. We don't really get to experience that so much anymore. On top of that, there are a lot of annoying, difficult, sometimes painful things that can happen while breastfeeding: Plugged ducts, mastitis, improper latch, overactive letdown, thrush, milk blisters — the list goes on. But don't be too concerned. After all, we do have some nifty adaptations to learn how to do this, and so do our babies, and those features largely seem to deliver: data shows that most women who want to breastfeed are able to for at least some period. (Whether or not many new parents continue often has as much to do with personal goals or insufficient maternity leave policy in the US as anything else.)
"But I'm still really scared," you say. "Can you please tell me the one thing I should know about all this?"
No matter what your fear of breastfeeding is based on (fear of the unknown, fear of pain, fear of capability, fear of social stigma) you're going to hear a lot of those aforementioned contradictory voices telling you what you should and shouldn't be doing. Step back, take a breath, and hit the imaginary mute button. Most of them are noise. Useless, probably stupid noise. Listen to your own voice.
Think about what you want, why you want it, and its level of importance in your life. Shame should never, ever be a motivator, either for or against breastfeeding. Filter that out straight away. Once that's done, unmute the voices that are speaking from a desire to help you achieve your goals, who have your best interests in mind. There are lots of resources to help nursing parents. See what they have to say and if that helps you out.
Whether or not to breastfeed or to continue to breastfeed is an intensely personal decision. The only person you have to answer to is yourself.
Images: UNICEF Ukraine/Flickr; Giphy (6)