When the going gets tough…

At LLL meetings mothers often talk about what kept them breastfeeding, even when they were experiencing problems.  Some say it was an inner determination, others say it was the loving support of a partner, friend or breastfeeding supporter, still others comment that a particular phrase or something they read in a book helped to spur them on.

I didn’t really know anyone else who was breastfeeding when I had Iona nearly 9 years ago.  I had to rely on books and a telephone helpline to get support.  I had multiple problems: a poor latch, oversupply, engorgement and mastitis.  At the time I was baffled and couldn’t understand why I was having so many problems.  The health professionals around me were convinced that I should stop breastfeeding, but I was desperate to carry on.

I look back now and wonder what kept me going.  I got my head down and just plodded on like an explorer in an Arctic snowstorm. On reflection, I wish that I had more help that spoke to the deepest part of me: friends to talk to who would help me tap into my own instincts, without the need to insert their own views and advice.

Without support, many mothers stop breastfeeding long before they had ever thought they would.  Not meeting one’s breastfeeding goals can be a source of great sadness for a mother.  How many of us have heard the words, “Oh I wanted to breastfeed my baby but…”?  And it’s not just our generation, but our mothers and their mothers who live with this sense of loss.

If breastfeeding is the most natural way to meet our babies’ needs, why is it so darned difficult for so many women?  Part of the answer is that we have lost touch with our mammalian instincts (see my last post).  But also, we have lost something else in our culture– our breastfeeding lineage.  Every baby’s birthright is to breastfeed.  And in some cultures where husbands and wives still live with their extended families, there is always another woman around to help with breastfeeding, prepare a meal, get the other children dressed and ready for the day, do the housework… basically everything but feed the baby.  Breastfeeding mothers are valued simply because they are breastfeeding.  Instead of making suggestions that undermine breastfeeding (“Let me give the baby a bottle so you can rest.” “Why don’t you use a pacifier?” “She’s just using you for comfort, let me have her.”), if a mother has herself breastfed a baby (or several) it is far more likely that she will make helpful comments (“You just lie down with the baby, I’ll take care of the other children.” “Can I drop a meal off for you later?” “I’m sure it will work out if you persevere; maybe it’s a growth spurt.”).  This is not to say that mothers who haven’t breastfed are unhelpful.  What I am saying is that if breastfeeding was part of our culture, it is likely that more women would breastfeed without problems.

Because we lack an essential connection with our instincts (or perhaps we blanket them over with culture) and live in a culture that sees breastfeeding as the same as artificial feeding, women who experience breastfeeding problems are often left hopelessly alone or surrounded by helpers who don’t necessarily know what to do.  And if they stop breastfeeding because of those problems, they carry the guilt and mourning that go with the loss of a relationship and experience that should have been theirs.

Breastfeeding is an art, but for many mothers it is like learning a new skill.  I often say to mothers that if they were learning to play the piano, they wouldn’t expect to sit down and play a Chopin concerto on the first try.  Rather, there’s a lot of repetition, frustration with making mistakes and sometimes not a lot of feedback that it’s going well.  It’s normal for newly-breastfeeding mothers to feel frustrated at times.  It can be a shell-shocking experience to become a new mother! And mothers who are struggling may feel downright desperate.  As with any new skill, practice makes perfect and sometimes, with persistence or the support of a skilled helper, it will just click.  One breakthrough, and frustration gives way to elation and problems seem to melt away.

Fortunately for breastfeeding mothers, there are lots of opportunities for practice and our babies give us instant feedback of success.  For those who are desperate, it is essential to find those people, either in reality or online, who will listen with compassion, offer to help in practical ways that support breastfeeding and enable the mother to connect with her own instincts. There is always light at the end of the tunnel and sometimes it takes the loving support of another person to help us see it.

Lisa Hassan Scott

About Lisa Hassan Scott

Lisa Hassan Scott is a stay at home mother of three little ones, age 2, 6 and 9. An American living in Great Britain for over 15 years, Lisa is a Yoga teacher certified by the British Wheel of Yoga, and a La Leche League Leader. She blogs about mothering, breastfeeding, Yoga and the mind at http://www.lisahassanscott.co.uk. Follow her on Twitter: @lisahassanscott

6 thoughts on “When the going gets tough…”

  1. I agree that a breastfeeding lineage makes all the difference. I’ve often wondered, why has it been so easy for me to breastfeed my son – now 23 months and showing no signs of stopping any time soon! It’s not that we haven’t had issues – I’ve contracted mastitis twice, and we passed thrush back and forth for awhile – those were ROUGH times! But I wouldn’t say that breastfeeding has been “hard”, it’s never been “hard” – and I think you hit the nail on the head with lineage. I grew up seeing my mom and aunts breastfeed their babies; I had help from my own mom from the very first night with my newborn son, teaching me how to breastfeed in side-lying position. “You’ll be able to sleep, and he can eat as much and as long as he needs,” she said. All around me was support and encouragement to prioritize breastfeeding over pretty much everything. I believe that made all the difference.

  2. I personally felt like breastfeeding was difficult for me because the people who were closest to me were completely unsupportive. No one trusted that I had ‘enough milk’ and they begged me to use formula. Luckily I work in the maternal health field so I knew what was best for me, but their comments nearly got the best of me in a delicate time!

  3. I completely agree that we have lost our breastfeeding linage. I wish I could say that I loved breastfeeding. I wish I could say that my daughter (now almost 4)and I shared a beautiful thing. But I admit that I can’t. I am pretty proud that despite all the struggles we both persevered and we lasted as long as we did. In the end I finally had to ween her at 39 months old (for those who don’t want to count it up that’s 3 yrs and 3 months). I had an IBCLC tell me that I should feel good the few weeks into it because I had, “given it the ol’ college try”. (I can not tell you how hurt and angry I was at that statement.) My own mother told me that it was no big deal and that I should just give in and feed her formula, and my inlaws didn’t understand or agree with my desire to continue breastfeeding. If it hadn’t been for an amazing midwife, a fantastic husband, a very generous mom who donated her own milk to help us out, and a fantastic LLL group who believe in “I am woman! Hear me roar!” I would have been more likely to give it up. Though I do lament that it wasn’t the beautiful thing that I had hoped and dreamed for I am so thankful that I do not have to live with the regret that I had given up early on. Perhaps someday I will write the whole story down.

  4. Another issue women face today is a barrage of negative programming about breastfeeding. Every video, book and most articles I’ve read mention that it can be difficult, it takes practice, there will be problems, but you can do it if you persevere. Friends, family members and strangers share their horror stories about the difficulties they (or someone they know) had with nursing. This is the same sort of negativity mothers hear all of their lives about giving birth. Women begin pregnancy expecting labor, birth and breastfeeding to be fraught with problems, and I believe that is often a self-fulfilling prophecy.

  5. Kathie, great point!! I totally agree with you but never knew quite how to express it…it’s important to have support for women who encounter challenges during pregnancy/birth/breastfeeding, but the main point is that (statistically speaking!) these are all normal, natural things that the majority of women have no problem with. We should all focus more effort on spreading that knowledge to make more women comfortable with themselves and their innate abilities, rather than focusing on every bad thing that could possibly happen along the way.

  6. I couldn’t agree with this more! i was fortunate enough to come from a long line of breastfeeding and to have been surrounded by it as a child. i was also blessed with a son who knew exactly what to do with a breast (even though he spent his first few days in the NICU and they refused to let me nurse him for over 48 hours). since my son was born, several of my friends have had babies and have not had the support of their mothers, husbands or other family members. i made it my personal mission to be their support and their cheerleader. one friend has even told me that if it hadn’t been for me, she would have given up breastfeeding. the funny thing is that i didn’t feel that i was doing much at the time. i would simply go to her house, sit and nurse my baby while she nursed hers and reassure her that her child will not starve and that it will get easier as they get better at it. i guess just being there and normalizing the process can make all the difference in the world.

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