Wednesday, July 20, 2011

The Real Reason Not to Cover Up Nursing Mothers (By Martha Neovard)

I was browsing the internet last night at about 3 am, while lying in bed and listening to the crashing of a distant storm, when I came across a recent blogpost, by a woman named loralee (See the blog). The blog itself was fantastic. The author openly admitted she has a level of discomfort when confronted with the sight of an openly nursing mom and baby. Her first reaction is kneejerk, a "cover that up" level of discomfort. Her second reaction is to check herself, take some deep calming breaths, assure herself it is well within the dyad's rights to eat wherever, whenever, no matter what implement they are using to do so. Yes, the article was fantastic, level-headed, pensive, and provoking. A very well-written piece, and after I read it I was left with a sense of relief and satisfaction. So then, stupidly, I moved on to the comments section.

Oy vey.

"I support any mom who wants to breastfeed, and anywhere she wants to, but my old-school upbringing about ‘good girls’ don’t show their boobs in public keeps getting in the way."

"I read your friends’ posts Loralee and I’m sorry, but their posts just made me feel angry. I do NOT agree with what these women feel is their motherly right. Fine, breast feed, go ahead, but cover up first! I feel sorry for the children, who are not theirs, subjected to quite honestly, a traumatic and disgusting event! NO ONE should EVER be subjected to having to see that. I agree, women should NOT have to go to a bathroom, or leave the room, or do it in private. BUT I do feel absolutely, they they CANNOT and SHOULD NEVER be LEGALLY allowed to whip out their tits..." (There is more to this shocking quote, but I will omit the rest, as it would certainly distract from the point of this post.)

"I never comment on anything that can be controversial. Ever. That being said…I nursed all my children and when necessary I did so in public however, it was never obvious. It doesn’t have to be. Nursing our babies is a natural thing but we can be discreet. My youngest child is 29 years old so that was quite a while ago. My daughter-in-law nursed all the grands and she too was discreet. There’s nothing wrong with not putting “it” out for all to see. Just saying…discreet."

I repeat. Oy vey.

For the record, I would never criticize or look down on a woman who wants or needs to use a nursing canopy to feel comfortable nursing her baby out in a public place. In fact, if that is what a mother needs in order to breastfeed when her baby wants/needs to, then I am right behind her, holding the straps (figuratively of course, otherwise I'd be breathing down her neck). They are a useful device, and certainly they are valuable to mothers everywhere. But I digress. The real point of this article is to explain WHY nursing uncovered is so important to breastfeeding moms everywhere, and why they should defend their blanketless state with emphatic arm-waving and raised voices. I repeat, I am NOT opposed to the option of covering whilst nursing, however I am opposed to the idea that some sort of cover is a NECESSITY for breastfeeding in public, and that all moms should use some kind of object to cover themselves so no one can see what they are doing.

Now you are thinking, oh brother here we go. Entereth the raging feminist with her trident of women's rights! No, actually. My concern is not the comfort of wee babies, or overheating, or woman and child rights, or even the reckless abandonment of muted colours in nursing covers (although these do factor in as well). No, instead my concern has to do with brain function and future generations.


You see, as Kathleen Kendall Tackett points out in this 2009 article, breastfeeding is a right-brained activity. That means that no matter how many times we discuss it, how much we read about it, and how much we study pictures of it, we cannot teach our bodies how to do it. We need to be in close proximity to breastfeeding in order to understand the concepts associated with positioning, latch, swallowing, and multiple other small factors that go into breastfeeding successfully. It is something that Nature designed us to learn from our mothers, or from the community of women we interact with daily. Nature intended us to see other women breastfeeding their babies, and to internalize that knowledge to use with our own children. It is not something we can comprehend from the pages of a book, or from staring blearily at a nurse lecturing on the importance of breast milk.

As Kendall-Tackett states in her article, learning to breastfeed is much like learning to ride a bike. So, picture this. You have never seen a bike up close in your life. Maybe you saw it in a movie, but the bike was turned so you could only see the wheel, or the person riding it was mostly offscreen, or they just cracked weird bike jokes the whole time. You know that in 10 months time, you will be in a bike race. This bike race will be one of the most important events of your life. For months, people talk at you about riding a bike. Some people tell you to make sure to put your weight in the back, others say the front. Some say peddle swiftly, others say peddle backwards. Some say grip the handlebars just so, others say don't touch the handlebars, because that didn't work for them. You watch a couple videos about bike-riding, but they seem overly technical, and a lot of the jargon flies right over your head. You ask your parents, but their only reply is "We never rode a bicycle, just give it a try and hope it works for you." You go out in public to garner some information, but almost everyone who rides a bicycle rides them behind very tall hedges that you cannot see through. You feel a bit panicky, and a lot apprehensive. At last, the day of the race arrives. You wobble up to the starting line, someone hands you a bike, you climb on hesitantly, and they give you a good shove down a very steep hill and yell "YOU'LL FIGURE IT OUT!!!"

Metaphor much? Yes, breastfeeding these days is a lot like that. We don't see it done. We get some bits and bites of information in the months leading up to birth, then when the moment arrives, someone puts the baby on you and says "Okay, go!" How are you to know what this should all look like? What should it feel like? And really, how are we to know?

The thing is, most of us can't learn this from our mothers. We lost generations of right-brained hereditary knowledge to aggressive marketing and bottle-feeding. For those moms who do come from a family where breastfeeding was the norm, is it still enough to internalize the breastfeeding knowledge we need? How old were you when your youngest sibling was weaned?

Now what if everywhere we went, we saw moms nursing their babies, comfortably and openly? Every time we witness a friend, relative, or complete stranger breastfeeding their baby, our brains subconsciously make notes. So when it comes to our turn, our brain gathers up what we know, and we remember that the baby went THIS WAY, and mother held him just so. We may have even had the opportunity to ask questions. This is how we learn, and how we will know.

I think there is no better illustration for the necessity of seeing breastfeeding than this story, found in The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding:

"In a zoo in Ohio, a female gorilla was born and raised in captivity, got pregnant and had a baby gorilla. On the day she had her baby, she didn't know what to do. She had never seen another gorilla nurse, and she had no concept of breastfeeding. Sadly, the baby gorilla died.

When she became pregnant again the gorilla's keeper called The La Leche League and had volunteer nursing moms come down to the zoo and nurse their own babies in front of the pregnant momma gorilla. At first the gorilla ignored them, but as her delivery date grew closer she became very interested. When the baby gorilla was born the momma gorilla forgot all that she'd learned and started to freak out. The keeper quickly called the La Leche League and another volunteer rushed over and slowly showed the momma gorilla what to do. "She brought her baby's chest to her chest, slowly cradled the baby's head in her left arm, held her breast with her right hand, and tickled the baby's lips with the nipple to get the baby to open his mouth. Then she pulled the open-mouthed baby toward her breast and with one rapid arm motion, got the cooperative baby quickly onto her breast. The gorilla watched, mimicking the moves step by step until, with a nearly audible sigh of relief, the gorilla looked down at her chest and saw her baby feeding happily for the first time."(p 29).

So I ask of you, when next you see a mother breastfeeding her baby without some sort of covering implement, please give her a big smile and bring yourself and your child closer to see. I can guarantee she will smile back, and most will comfortably explain to your child what they are doing. You are doing your child a favour, so that when she has her own baby, the imprint of this encounter will rise in her brain, and assist her instincts in learning to breastfeed your grandchild. If your child is male, he will internalize how to assist and support his partner in her breastfeeding journey. Please, no more calls to "cover up". Anyone who cries for a cover over the beautiful sight of a nursing mother and child is unwittingly and devastatingly calling for the destruction of womanly knowledge, and the handicap of the next generation of breastfeeders.

(Blogger's notes: We are not yet to the point where we see breastfeeding moms everywhere and anywhere, where we are able to internalize by watching. But luckily for us, Nature always has a back-up system where one system fails. Please check out Biological Nurturing and Kathleen Kendall-Tackett's article here to learn about instinctual breastfeeding, and how best to trigger both mom and baby's instincts to achieve a strong latch. Also please consider attending a breastfeeding support group meeting, like La Leche League during your pregnancy. Many women breastfeed openly at these meetings, and they are a great resource both for right-brained knowledge garnering, and for creating a support network, and meeting new mommy friends!)

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Guilt As A Chimera (Written by Martha Neovard)

I’m a mother. My baby girl has been around 19 months now. She is boisterous, beautiful, funny, and healthy. I have made mistakes. I am not perfect. No mother is. What would a perfect mother look like anyways? Would she have bright red lipstick, a bright smile, a clean house, a perfect body, children whose noses are never snotty, who never go two days wearing washable marker on their cheek? Would her 6 month old never roll off the change table and plummet a foot and a half? Would her dishes always be done, her forks and spoons always polished, her dogs eternally unshedding? Would her kids eat all-organic free-range chicken, pork, and beef? Would formula ever touch her baby’s lips?

The problem is, the idea of a perfect mom is subjective. We know that. Part of being a mom is staving off annoying criticisms of well-meaning strangers, while simultaneously inwardly cussing all the helpful old ladies who are sure your baby would do better THIS way, because their baby did. When someone approaches me and assures me my child is slowly dying of frostbite because I did not sufficiently clothe her for a balmy 20 degrees Celsius June day, I thank them politely, chuckle inwardly, roll my eyes, and go on my merry way. 98% of the mothers I know react the same way. We’re mature, intelligent women, and we know how to raise our own kids, thanks. We can handle criticism and questioning, we handle it every day.
What I want to know then, is why can’t we feel the same way about infant feeding? Anytime an article expressing the merits of breastfeeding or the demerits of formula feeding arises, there is an almighty chorus of “Don’t make me feel guilty!” Huh? We can take the hard-of-hearing perfume-laden granny up in our faces yelling about whether or not our child is too fat or too skinny, but we can’t take a scientific article from some faceless guy in a white coat, telling us what our baby is consuming may or may not be good for them? Where did this guilt thing come from anyway? Because ladies, it is tripping us up on the road to successful breastfeeding. That’s right. Decrying breastfeeding information because of an onset of guilt is actually stalling the breastfeeding information. Moreover, it is increasingly leading doctors and other health providers to make decisions FOR us, while withholding information, in order to spare us from GASP! Guilt!

I don’t mean to undermine the emotional intensity that accompanies the decisions made about these precious beings in our lives. Our new lives with them are fraught with emotions, love, fear, anxiety, longing, joy, and yes, guilt. When we feel anxious, or fearful, or joyous, or loving, we dissect these feelings endlessly. We run them through in our minds again and again, trying to find the source of them, the reasoning behind them, the likelihood that they are truthful and will reappear in the near-future, whether they will help or cripple us. So, when did guilt become a bad word? It is another emotion; it has a source, a reason, and a truth. It has smaller underlying emotions that make it up. It is not the large, terrifying beast that it has become in the mothering and medical worlds. It is okay to feel guilty. It is a natural reaction, and the emotion will not cripple us. It is not dirty. It is not horrifying. It is not taboo. It is just an emotional reaction to an event or experience. Guilt is designed to make us deal with our feelings. It returns again and again in order to force our minds to dwell on an experience, to dissect it, and to accept it. That is the physiological purpose of guilt. It’s nature’s way of helping us evolve, of forcing us to do things differently next time, and of ensuring that we don’t cripple ourselves emotionally the next time a similar situation comes around, that we do not suffer post-traumatic recollections. It is an important and valid emotion, made from the roots of fear, anger, hurt, and pain. It is necessary, and we need to listen to our bodies and work through it.

The problem is that blocking guilt cripples us. It stops us from making level-headed decisions, because when the time comes to make the decision, if we have not examined, dissected, and accepted our guilt, it rears its ugly head once again and affects our ability to see clearly and to make our decisions based on logic and facts rather than overwhelming emotional intensities. That’s why whenever the choruses of “Don’t tell me this, it makes me feel guilty!” and “Mothers should not be MADE to feel guilty!” arises, whatever the source, I wince and then rage at the conceptions that guilt is an evil, terrible thing that should be avoided at all costs. I believe women should not feel guilty, but for different reasons. I believe they should not feel guilty because they should allow their feelings to come to the surface without holding or restraining them, then those emotions should be examined, explored, dissected and eventually accepted. Only through this process comes healing. This holds true to all aspects of life, and is something I learned at an early age when recovering from a traumatic childhood event. Our feelings, emotions, and reactions define us, and when we block them, we deny ourselves the chance to heal, and to release our anger, hurt, and guilt. As a mom who has formula-fed and breastfed both, I feel this healing is something we do not grant ourselves often enough.

I no longer feel guilty about formula-feeding my daughter early on, but I am still angry, and occasionally I fill up with rage so intense that I desperately want to scream at the next white-coated, stethoscope-touting, smug doctor that I see. I deplore my daughter’s hospital paediatrician, who denied me information essential to recovering our breastfeeding journey, and instead gave me sappy, cliché drivel about “not feeling guilty” because she felt that preventing the horror of guilt was more important than doing her damn job and GIVING ME THE INFORMATION I NEEDED. In her eyes I was no longer a mature, intelligent, capable woman and feminist, but instead a snivelling, emotional mess that needed decisions made for her. She undermined my rights, my capability, and my right to informed choice. She, an almost complete stranger, made a flash decision about me and my ability to handle myself, and took away almost all chance I had of doing something desperately important to me. She determined that I had an emotional fragility that was more important to protect than the health and wellbeing of myself and my baby. She stereotyped me, she prejudged me, she made me into something I am not, and was not. Her fear of guilt tripped up my breastfeeding journey. It is not right. We cannot and should not withhold information from women because we judge them incapable of handling guilt. It is decidedly chauvinist and misogynistic. It is anti-feminist. It is WRONG.

No, instead when a woman has an experience that alters her life, that hurts and sorrows her, we need to support her in her journey of mourning and healing. Don’t tell her not to feel guilty. Don’t assume she is incapable of handling emotion. Don’t shelter her from her own self. Guilt is a tool of sorrow and of mourning. It is an essential ingredient to healing. She needs support, not belittlement and judgements about her strength of character. She needs the tools and the support to examine her guilt, however raw and sore it may be, and to move on to a place of peace. We are crippling ourselves by making guilt into a mythical chimera, an all-encompassing hungry dragon, and a troll under the bridge, lurking to snatch us from our place of safety when we least expect it. Only by facing our fear, our hurt, our sorrow, our rage, and our guilt can we tame them and have peace. We need peace. Be peaceful. You are a woman, you are an incredible creation, a beautiful goddess, an earth mother, an equal being, and a strong vibrant person. Make peace with yourself, let yourself be.