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No, breast feeding research is not making you feel guilty

When I was sixteen years old, I had long bleached blonde hair. Becoming a bit of a punky thing, in a fit of angst and anger I put it half up, shaved everything on the bottom half and dyed the rest bright blue. I’d been thinking of doing it for a while, and the emotion from some argument gave me the courage to go for it. Lucky for me, my mother’s parenting style was ‘barely involved’ so I got away with things like that. My parents divorced when I was three and once my father saw my hair he was so embarrassed he said he didn’t want to take me on a ski trip he’d been thinking about. I convinced myself I didn’t care anyway.

A few years later, my mother had a boyfriend who wasn’t very suited to her at all. He liked to dress in suits so that people would think he was important; she liked to hang in biker bars. One day, all dressed up, he visited the bar where she was spending time with some friends. My mother was mortified. Apparently he looked like a narcotics officer and she was convinced that he was intentionally trying to embarrass her. By wearing a suit. I tried to explain to her that he was just being himself and that her emotional response was her own, much the same way I dyed my hair for myself with no intention of embarrassing my father. It was just an unfortunate consequence.

More than ten years after that I found out through an email conversation that she blames me for our appalling lack of relationship by moving too far away, while at the same time considering it admission that I must think she was a horrible mother. The truth is I moved away to live with my husband; it had nothing to do with her.

I can’t help but to think of these stories after having seen recent discussions about the breast feeding research out of Brazil which shows that breast feeding is linked with higher IQ. The responses range from exclamations that the study’s only intention is to shame formula feeding mothers, to studies like this are “worse than pointless.” There was the obligatory comment about how we should all be supporting each other regardless of our choices instead of judging. One mother worried that it puts the child’s entire future on the shoulders of its mother. I completely disagree and think that a large reason there’s always an outcry when these research reports come out is a lack of scientific literacy all around. Everything we do with our children has some effect on them, seeing it in the form of statistics should not make you feel stuck but free.

As in, only the truth will set you free!

But really, why all the guilt? Women seem to live with an inordinate amount of guilt for everything they do or don’t do every single day. Why? Dr Marlo Archer says:

When a child makes a mistake, parents can teach children how to admit mistakes by describing the mistake simply and without being overly punitive or critical. If a kid is pouring milk and he spills it, he’ll automatically feel bad. You don’t have to make them feel worse, there’s no point to that. For example, you can smile and say, “Oops, that milk was too heavy and you spilled it,” instead of snapping out something like, “Hey, what are you doing with that milk, look at that big mess you made!” If you respond to mistakes as if they are just normal things that happen, your children will have the courage to admit when they have made one. If mistakes are horrible, terrible things that make everyone upset, kids have a hard time admitting when they’ve screwed up. If a kid is always afraid to admit his mistakes, he’s doomed to a life of guilt as an adult.

So authoritarian and overly harsh parenting strikes again. In my opinion its this kind of parenting together with patriarchal expectations of women that cause them to internalise problems. They blame themselves for everything that goes wrong and then when this gets to be too much guilt to deal with anymore they start to blame the messenger.

Blame the messenger. This is what’s happening when someone exclaims that the research is only serving to make mothers feel guilty. That’s rubbish. Research is a rigorous, scientific, peer-reviewed process that is striving to learn the truth about the world we live in. If you care about the human race your children are a part of you should be pro-scientific research. If you would stop making everything about yourself for a moment you would realise that with enough research proving the importance of breast milk could come the structural breastfeeding support you so desperately needed when you tried and failed. If you could forgive yourself for failing to breastfeed, you would see that maybe with the right information from the right person at the right time someone else might be able to do it even in the situation you found yourself. You could fight for her by welcoming this information and using it to insist that the support be put into place. You could use it to insist that all medical professionals know and disseminate correct information about breast feeding. You could use it to insist that other women have a better chance than you had.

That would really be mothers supporting each other.

Featured Image courtesy Paul Mison

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  1. 42fortytwo42 42fortytwo42

    absolutely. mothers who choose formula over breastfeeding are not bad mothers because of it, it’s an individual choice, based on individual circumstances. the research in favour of breastfeeding is not an indictment, it’s the basic facts removed from individual circumstances.
    more support and education on breastfeeding might change some mothers circumstances to where they can see breastfeeding as a viable option in their lives,and that would be a good thing. breast is best, scientifically, for baby, but formula feeding is a better choice for some families, there needn’t be guilt about it.

  2. Anna Anna

    As someone who failed to breastfeed both my children, reading research on the benefits of breast feeding DOES make me feel guilty; someone telling me it shouldn’t isnt going to change that. I understand that this is not the aim of the research but guilt is an emotional reaction and when you know you haven’t managed to do the best for your children makes you feel bad; being told you shouldn’t feel that way isn’t going to change anything. The benefits of breast feeding are well established – perhaps more research should be done on why women can’t or don’t breast feed and the best ways they can be supported in achieving this. In my experience there was a lot of ‘support’ but the advice I was given was contradictory and did not take into account my personal circumstances.

  3. Renegade Feminist Renegade Feminist

    Anna, you misunderstood my point. I didn’t mean just stop feeling guilty, though I do wish a lot of mothers would stop torturing themselves. What I really meant was that the research may be a trigger but it’s not the source of the guilty feeling. As you said, guilt is an emotion, so it comes from inside ourselves not outside ourselves. I tried to make the point that it’s partially patriarchy and partially the way we grew up as kids that make us feel guilty unnecessarily all the time.

    I know that a lot of people think that the benefits of breastfeeding are well established but that’s not necessarily true. It was only just over a week ago that I was part of a conversation where people were arguing that the ONLY benefit was fewer stomach bugs for the duration of breastfeeding. There is still debate and where there is still debate research will continue.

    Your account of a lot of contradictory advice is exactly part of what I was talking about in the last paragraph. If there was enough evidence that would convince everyone that we need to take it seriously then maybe that wouldn’t happen. Or at least we would be insisting that it stop happening. Doctors and nurses that don’t think it’s important and don’t know anything about it should be retrained and told to take it seriously. That won’t happen without a serious amount of research. I assure you it is never done to make anyone feel guilty.

    I’m sorry that it makes you feel guilty. And I understand too. Because I let my kids watch way too much TV and I feel guilty whenever I read about the studies that say my kids brains are rotting. But I do the best I can, just like most other parents. That’s all we can do.

  4. Renegade Feminist Renegade Feminist

    This. Yes.

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