Marcella Kelson on Shame and Breastfeeding
- Written By
- Marcella Kelson
Every year during World Breastfeeding Week I feel compelled to acknowledge the moms who emotionally fell through the “feeding” cracks. The moms who may have felt like their feeding choices were beyond their control, resulting in the feeling that, as a mom making feeding choices for your child, you are often damned-if-you-do and damned-if-you-don’t. In many ways, I identify as one of those moms.
Though I had high hopes of breastfeeding my son for his first months of life, my decision to have a much-needed breast reduction at the age of 18 almost entirely eliminated my milk production. I met with lactation consultants, pumped around the clock, ate the cookies, drank the tea, took warm baths- I tried it all. But my results never reflected my effort and I was never able to produce more than .5 oz of breast milk at a time.
I felt so ashamed, which took me by surprise because as a practitioner I certainly never judged formula feeding mothers. Why did I feel so differently about myself? In those first few weeks postpartum, I fixated on a completely unrealistic and unhealthy mental image of “good mothering” - and it clearly depicted a woman with a beautiful little baby attached to her breast. My image was everything except a mother scooping out formula.
Truthfully, the narrative around formula feeding often casts it as a cop-out, an unnatural result of ineptitude or selfishness. I resented the baselessness of this narrative, but I also internalized and operated from it. There are so many mothers who chose to formula feed for reasons beyond their control, and yet I felt this immense sense of failure which was largely fueled by cultural pressure.
At six weeks, I decided to put my pump parts away indefinitely when my husband sat me down and told me he felt like I was getting increasingly more anxious and depressed after each failed pumping session. I was both desperate and terrified to let go of my breastfeeding dream. My body wanted me to stop, but my conscience weighed heavily.
So if you, Mama, also fell through the feeding cracks, I want to say that I’ve been there. There are so many incredibly valid and personal reasons why we choose to formula feed- baby’s health, mental health, NICU restrictions, work conditions, time constraints, financial constraints. The list goes on and on.
Two-and-a-half years later, I can see clearly that I did what was best for my mental health and my son’s health at the time, even though it was the harder decision. I relied heavily on a few boundaries that helped me tremendously as I navigated this intensely emotional and confusing experience.
- 1. Social media boundaries - It goes without saying that picturesque images of mothers breastfeeding in those early weeks, talking about their deep connection to their child, inevitably made me feel less than. I want to celebrate these women, and now I can, but when you’re in it, exposing yourself to those images can be really triggering. I recommend limiting accounts or social media as a way of protecting your energy.
- 2. Community boundaries - We all have those mom friends in our lives that mean well, but somehow end up making us feel insecure or like we are doing it all wrong. Steer clear of these friends in challenging times. The anxiety of their reaction or advice will just add insult to injury. Conversely, identify and lean in to those friendships that nurture you and help you know you’re not alone.
- 3. Judgement = Fear - Remember that judgement stems from ignorance and fear. When we feel an intense amount of judgement coming from another person, especially as it relates to our choices, we are experiencing a projection of the other person’s fear. Anyone who is requiring that you justify your feeding decisions is probably not prioritizing your best interest.
- 4. Verbal Boundaries - Last but not least, if you feel you are constantly having to explain your feeding decisions, find a sentence or verbal boundary you can recite and call upon without using up any more of your emotional energy. Align and memorize it. Here are some quick ideas:
- I know you care, but we’ve got this. I will let you know if I need anything as it relates to this.
- This is one of those things that my baby and I have to figure out together.
- I know there are so many different thoughts about the best way to feed your child. I am figuring out what works for us.
- I know you mean well, but there are so many other things I’d rather talk about than this.
If you’re experiencing disappointment, shame, loss, or guilt around breastfeeding or not, just know you are not alone, Mama. Wherever you fall on the breastfeeding to formula feeding spectrum, just know that there is nothing wrong with your decision, or your reasons. There is something wrong with the conversation- with the environment in which we make these decisions. Align yourself with judgement-free Mamas or a therapist who understands your anxiety and take it one day at a time.
Marcella Kelson is a parental wellness expert with a background in maternal mental health and developmental psychology. She has a weekly newsletter, "Just One Thing" which provides parenting education and actionable solutions in the form of three-minute-reads.