Your breasts are in the middle of a battle. An expert tells you why.
Dr. Wendy Walsh: There is probably no more powerful force than the love between a mother and her newborn. It is a close, symbiotic relationship where the very survival of a tiny bundle of flesh is entirely dependent on another person. And Mommy is hormonally wired to respond to her baby's needs in an intuitive way. Her child's survival is so crucial, she might even die for him or her. Indeed, mothers have sacrificed their own vital organs so their infant could live. If this relationship were left alone -- and Mommy's needs for food and shelter were met -- only the tiniest percentage of sane mothers would fail to breastfeed.
But the mother/infant dyad is far from alone. That precious couple is precariously perched in a sea of cultural messages and pressures telling a woman to be more than a mother. These messages and pressures unknowingly sway mothers to veer from nature's plan, by feeding convenient, manufactured formula to their child, something that pediatricians and countless studies have proven to be less beneficial. Perhaps most injurious, entwined in our subtle cultural programming is the message that women are independent and entirely responsible for their choices. There is a war against breastfeeding in America -- and mothers are being blamed for decisions they aren't actually making.
To understand how we got to this place, let's start at the beginning. From the dawn of human existence (and that point in human evolution is arguable), all babies were breastfed. A newborn without mother's milk -- or milk from an auntie or yes, even Grandma -- was sure to die. And babies received the nutrient-rich fluid for years. Long before electric blenders and Gerber baby food, infants got most of their protein from human breast milk until their 2-year-old molars allowed them to chomp on animal tissue. The village supported this phenomenon. Our hunter/gatherer ancestors knew how to create a comfortable nest for a postpartum mother. She was supported by a circle of women who fed and cared for her until she was ready to return to work. When she did return to gathering food, she wore her baby to the "office," and rarely worked more than 20 hours per week. And there were other breasts available when she was ill or absent. Historically, wet nurses continued to make breast milk long after menopause.
Breastfeeding also evolved as one component in human psychological development. Our complicated social organization is independent of an ability to trust others and form healthy attachments. Attachment behaviors such as skin-to-skin contact, eye contact, and caressing are all part of the breastfeeding experience that help shape an ability to love.
Today, our culture puts a lot of pressure on mothers. We are expected to pop out a baby, get a Victoria's Secret body back in record time, earn our half of the mortgage payment right away, and, oh yes, be in a good mood about it all. Is it surprising that postpartum depression is the darling diagnosis of psychologists these days?
When I wrote my psychological dissertation, I staged a research study that looked at a woman's own attachment organization and her ability to breastfeed. One of the fascinating results of the study was the reliability of a breastfeeding questionnaire that asked about a woman's barriers to nursing. When new mothers were asked to cite the reasons they quit nursing, many factors showed up. Those factors include pressure to return to work, a lack of breastfeeding support in the workplace, media pressure to look sexy quickly, influence by manufacturers of formula, a lack of support from the husband, lack of a breastfeeding community, lack of breastfeeding education, a lack of support from the family, and a mistrust of their body to provide enough milk. How can women who choose to feed formula ever believe that they are making an isolated decision when the deck is so stacked against them?
Kudos to those who manage to do it. It is the lucky American woman who has enough support today to create a breastfed family. I know I would not have succeeded had it not been for a synchronistic collision of factors that are unavailable to most women. A) I had my first child at the age of 36, and with a successful career behind me, I owned two pieces of real estate. I sold one so that I would not have to return to an office quickly; and B) My baby daddy was lactose intolerant and refused to allow one drop of cow product to enter his child's body. In a way, I had the opposite experience of most women. I was pressured to breastfeed. I remember one dramatic evening when I lay exhausted on the sofa with bleeding nipples and a breast infection, while my newborn went on a nursing "marathon" to increase my milk production. I cried and begged her father to go to the store and buy formula. Instead, that vegetarian man bought me a steak, fried it up, and fed it to me forkful by forkful to bring my strength back. I was nursed by him so I could nurse his child. Few women have that gift.
My advice to pregnant women: be aware of the silent war against your body's natural talents. The art of breastfeeding is under assault because of a capitalist society that ranks economic success above relationship success. Be aware of the factors and plan ahead. Talk to your company about their breastfeeding policies before you have your baby. States vary on breastfeeding laws -- but in California, all companies must provide a private room with a locked door that is not a toilet stall, and unpaid breaks to pump or nurse your baby. Find a doula (a woman who mothers the mother) before you give birth. Contact La Leche League International or other breastfeeding support groups and attend local meetings to make friends before the baby comes. Plan for resistance from the world. And above all, never judge a woman who "couldn't" breastfeed until you have walked in her shoes. May the force be with you.
|Dr. Wendy Walsh holds a Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology and her area of interest is Attachment Theory, a psychological, evolutionary and ethological theory that provides a descriptive and explanatory framework for understanding interpersonal relationships between human beings. As a psychological assistant registered with the California Board of Psychology, Dr. Walsh has treated individuals, couples and families for a variety of mental health concerns including personality disorders, anger management, eating and substance disorders, and depression.|