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