This past Saturday I attended a breastfeeding education day, featuring Dr. Katherine Dettwyler. She’s an anthropology professor, lecturer, author and breastfeeding advocate. She discussed a variety of fascinating topics, including breastfeeding and the media, her research on what the natural age of weaning would be in modern humans if we set aside our cultural beliefs, and caring for children and why babies cry. The topic that really caught my eye, however, was addressing guilt around breastfeeding (or, more specifically, not breastfeeding).
Dr. Dettwyler shared a quote from Harriet Lerner, which I immediately fell in love with:
Try to remember that our society encourages mothers to cultivate guilt like a little flower garden, because nothing blocks the awareness and expression of legitimate anger as effectively as this all-consuming emotion.
I found the quote online in the book The Mother Dance, and Dr. Lerner goes on to say:
Guilt keeps mothers narrowly focused on the question “What’s wrong with me?” and prevents us from becoming effective agents of personal and social change.
These ideas resonated with me. When we’re preoccupied with our shortcomings, whether real or imagined, we’re using up all our energy feeling bad when we could be actually doing things to change the situation. This made me think about this quote from Brene Brown’s book, The Gifts of Imperfection:
The majority of shame researchers and clinicians agree that the difference between shame and guilt is best understood as the differences between “I am bad” and “I did something bad.”
Guilt = I did something bad.
Shame = I am bad.
When you do something bad, there’s room for you to choose to do something different next time. When you are bad, there’s not much room for improvement. When Dr. Lerner is talking about focusing on the question “What’s wrong with me?” I read that as a discussion of shame. It’s about believing that you are fundamentally deficient in some way.
During her conversation at the breastfeeding education day, Dr. Dettwyler explained this as the difference between guilt and regret. Guilt can be a positive emotion, because it can encourage us towards continuous improvement. Shame or regret, on the other hand, are paralyzing emotions that result in inaction. Regardless of the phraseology we choose, however, what Dr. Dettwyler suggested is that rather than feeling guilty, we should feel angry.
If you did not receive adequate support; if you were given misinformation; if someone put pressure on you not to breastfeed, or not to breastfeed in a certain way, in a certain place or at a certain time; if unnecessary barriers were placed in your path that interfered with the successful establishment of breastfeeding, then she suggests that the appropriate response is not guilt, but anger.
I breastfed my daughter Hannah for nearly three years, however, the truth is that I’m still angry about some of the obstacles that were placed in my path. Even though she was very healthy for a baby born at 34 weeks, weighing over five pounds and with Apgar scores of eight and eight, she was removed from the delivery room within minutes of her birth, before we were able to initiate breastfeeding. Once in the NICU, she was given formula in a bottle before I had a chance to try breastfeeding her, and without consulting me. She was given a pacifier, and when I expressed concerns about her refusal to latch, I was told that there was ‘no such thing as nipple confusion’.
While I managed to overcome our initial difficulties, it wasn’t easy. There were moments that were touch and go, when I almost threw on the towel. Had it not been for a supportive spouse and a midwife who came to my house and worked with me while I cried, I may not have made it. On the one hand, there’s no telling how Hannah would have done as a preemie even if I had been allowed to breastfeed her shortly after birth, and we hadn’t been separated. I understand that. On the other hand, we’ll never know. And so, yes, I am angry. In retrospect, I feel that it would have been better for both of us if we had been able to spend the crucial first hour after birth together, as she was as healthy as a baby of her gestational age could possibly be.
If I hadn’t managed to pull through and breastfeed, I do wonder how I would feel. Would I feel angry, or would I feel guilt and shame? Would I be beating myself up, or would I be pointing the finger at a system that conspired against us? To be honest, I suspect that I would probably be focused on my own shortcomings. I feel anger, in large part, because I know that I did all that I could to make it work. If it hadn’t worked, I think I may always wonder what I could have done differently – what I should have done differently. I’m not saying that I should feel that way, but knowing myself as I do I’m saying it’s likely this is what would happen.
Knowing that I have my own confused dance of guilt vs. shame vs. anger, I try very hard to be sensitive of the way that other mothers feel. Because I know that all too often mothers are told what they should do, while receiving very little actual support towards achieving those goals. We’re told to breastfeed at all costs, and then sent home with a tiny baby and a bag of formula samples. Is it any wonder that we struggle?
Breastfeeding is just one instance of how a mother can fall short of the societal ideal. There are no shortage of examples of how the wider culture likes to weigh in on our parenting – no shortage of ways we can “fail” as mothers. If we’re too permissive or too strict, we fail. If our babies are too big or too small, we fail. If our children don’t sleep the right amount of time or refuse to sleep in a crib, we fail. If our children sleep better in a crib than in the family bed, we fail. If we don’t get every vaccination on time, we fail. If we vaccinate at all, we fail.
I’m drawn back to the Harriet Lerner quotes. Maybe what we really need to do is stop focusing on the ways that things haven’t gone well, worrying over our own failings. Maybe they’re not really our failings at all. Maybe the real problem is a culture that holds mothers to high standards, but fails to provide adequate support. Because if we can move beyond the shame and regret to become effective agents of personal and social change, we can make a difference.
This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t strive to be better parents. Of course, there’s always room for improvement, which is where Brene Brown’s distinction between guilt and shame comes in. If we learn better, we can do better. But the truth is most of the mothers I know are already doing the best they can with what they have, every single day. So let’s cut ourselves some slack, and work for better social supports, so that no one else has to feel the same shame, guilt or regret that we have. Because, truthfully, much of it wasn’t ours to begin with.