Thursday, July 22, 2010

Guilt: the great conversation killer.

"Women should not feel guilty if they are unable to nurse their baby, but they should feel guilty if they are unwilling to do so, and they should be intellectually honest enough to know the difference." ~ Elizabeth Gene

This quote was bouncing around FaceBook on a few pages I "like" last week and I've been thinking about it ever since. I recognize that this quote is taken out of context which causes it to be understood differently than originally intended. However, this is exactly how it was presented and commented on though FaceBook often with great passion. It was discussed on The Leaky B@@b forums as well and I am building on some of what I said there, here. Because I couldn't quiet my thoughts on the matter I decided to explore it freely.

"Women should not feel guilty if the are unable to nurse their baby..."
Here, here! Absolutely, totally agree with this. It happens, sometimes things don't work right or there are special circumstances or situations make it beyond difficult and a mother can't breastfeed. Nobody should feel guilty for something they couldn't control. But sometimes they do. Why is that? Because they think nobody will believe them? Because they are so grieved themselves that things didn't work out? I would hope that it isn't because other moms cast guilt on them and that along their parenting journey they find away to let it go. I want to wrap my arms around all the women in the world that wanted to breastfeed but could not and tell them that they are amazing women, loving and caring for their children with all their heart, mind, soul and body. Just like women that are able to breastfeed.

"... but they should feel guilty if they are unwilling to do so, and they should be intellectually honest enough to know the difference."
Hmmm, well, here I have a problem. First of all, they should feel guilty? Guilt is supposed to be something only we bring on ourselves so why would anyone say someone should feel guilty? When we feel guilt it is because we know we did something wrong, something dishonest. For someone to suggest that we should feel guilt is to be shamed. Shame is an ugly monster, it causes people to hide, to conceal their hurt and to guard and protect it so they don't hurt more. It does not bring openness. It certainly doesn't encourage them to "be intellectually honest enough to know the difference." I want women to own it when they are unwilling to nurse and if at all possible to explore why that is but I don't wish guilt on them. Honesty with themselves, sure, that would be great but not for me, for themselves! If they can be honest, rather than defensive with themselves then maybe they could even talk about it. Guilt and it's evil twin Shame are great conversation killers, particularly when delivered by their twisted Uncle Judgment step-child of Pride.

Guilt to change a culture?
I want to change attitudes about breastfeeding, breasts, women and infant/toddler nutrition, these are subjects I am passionate about. BUT, and this is a big huge but, I think that intending to create guilt in people does not bring about change. Guilt is a poor motivator and does not encourage dialogue. There is so much too that can not be seen or understood as to why people make the choices they do. If we are spending our energy trying to incite guilt in them instead of supporting all mothers, we are not going to create an atmosphere that encourages actual change but rather breads resentment and bitterness. Telling a woman she should feel guilty for not breastfeeding by choice is dismissing her personal struggles, invalidating her emotions and intelligence. Yes, we have to make sacrifices for our children but if a sacrifice is made that causes a woman to struggle with resentment and bitterness then surely sacrifice that comes out of obligation, fear of judgment and guilt is not really sacrifice at all but a form of martyrdom and can do more harm than good. Nobody wants a mother to kill herself, emotionally or physically, that would be worse for the baby than 2 years of formula any day. Nor should these women give up having children because they have struggles. I have a problem with saying a woman who isn't ready to give up her personal struggles and inhibitions and willingly breastfeed shouldn't be having children. All of us have issues that make us less than perfect parents but in the end what a child needs is love, parents that are present in the child's life, and their physical and emotional needs met. If a woman can do that then she should not be excluded from having children even if she chooses not to breastfeed. Society (and formula companies) as a whole should bear the burden of guilt. In the end though, guilt will change nothing, education will.

Going deeper than guilt.
This quote has one thing I really love about it, that women that tried to breastfeed but honestly couldn't shouldn't feel guilty. That part I stand by wholeheartedly. It's the flip side that I have a problem with, that women that didn't even try to breastfeed should feel guilty. I honestly feel sorry for the women that don't breastfeed because they are afraid of their breasts sagging, because they will feel less sexy or because it is gross or any other reason based on low self-esteem, sexually related concerns, past relationships or abuse, or fear of what others will think. I wish I could figure out how to tell them that their worth, their value is not in their sex appeal, not in their body meeting some standard but rather in who they are. Questions run through my head as to the heart of their reasons to be unwilling. What kind of wound are they trying to band-aid with the belief that their bodies are so valuable only if they are a certain way? What deep hurt prevents them from being able to give further of their bodies to nourish their child? What suffering have they encountered that creates fear and disgust towards the amazing miracle that is their own body's capabilities? What lies have they believed about themselves and the world that causes them to silence the voice inside their head and leads them to reject what comes naturally to them as mothers? How alone do they feel that embarking into the territory of parenting is something they can face but the landscape of breastfeeding is too much? How overwhelmed are they already feeling to give themselves permission to avoid confronting any or all of these issues and then some in favor of something they know is at the very lest, second best for the child they so love?

And what can I do to help encourage and support them, educating from a place of non-judgment?

I love how Sarah, one of the posters on the forum put it (actually, everybody brought thoughtful and challenging responses that I appreciated): I have never understood the whole "well, the ones who *couldn't* nurse shouldn't feel guilty, but those who *wouldn't* nurse should!" argument. With very few exceptions, moms try to make the best decisions for themselves and their families. I will never judge another mother's efforts as "not enough" when it comes to infant feeding decisions, because, to me, it is both unfair and impossible to know what is "enough" for every individual or family.


  1. As a new mom, I've found it really difficult to be "intellectual" about anything, much less breastfeeding. The urge to feed my twins from my body was instinctual. Luckily, I had the support I needed both before and after their birth to create a safe space in which I could follow my instincts without succumbing to society's hangups regarding infant feeding. I wish that could be true for every mother.

  2. Wonderful, wonderful post. Thank you.

  3. I just happened upon this blog and really like what you have to say about the quote.

    22 years after the birth of preemie twins, and 16 years after the birth of a "normal" baby, I have some perspective. I had to pump for my one of my twins because he was so sick that his kidneys couldn't handle the formula. I was grateful that I was able to pump. All I did for 2 1/2 months was pump and go to the hospital to visit them. Those babies never did breastfeed. Once they finally got off the vent, they still were on oxygen and had very weak suck reflexes. It was a disappointment but with all their problems I was just happy to have them. Oddly, the one who got the breastmilk was the one who had all the upper resp. infections later, and the one that got the formula rarely ever had any of those issues.

    Then I had the "normal" baby. He was 4 days past due date, weighed 8 lbs. 4 oz.. I was thrilled to be able to BF but ran into BF difficulties with him. It took about 2 months to get us straightened out. If it hadn't been for 2 very supportive friends I would certainly have dropped it. If those friends had made me feel at all guilty, instead of loving me, I would have cut them off. People that are having problems already don't need that.

    I BF him for a year, after which time HE made the decision the stop...he walked at 8 mos. and was just too busy to sit still for it!

    BF is wonderful and I'm glad I could do it, but looking back, it is just such a tiny little blip on the screen. What has preoccupied me in the years since is homeschooling. I think it is one of THE most difficult, yet important things I have done for my kids. Yet, some people who COULD homeschool DON'T. Some homeschoolers want non-homeschoolers to feel guilty for NOT doing it, and some non-homeschoolers want homeschoolers to feel guilty for not participating in the community, or not socializing their kids, or whatever their particular issue is. Then we have the stay-at-home moms vs. the employed moms...sigh.

    Surely everyone has enough to deal with in their own lives without needing to judge and meddle in other peoples' very personal decisions. Life is hard, and most people make the best choices they can for their own families. Respect that.

  4. This is why I love this blog. I'm not pregnant, nor did I have children yet, but I enjoy reading these stories and input so when I do have children, I am better educated about how breastfeeding really is. My sister- and mother-in-law are huge into LLL (group leaders) and I sometimes hear them give judgmental remarks about those who could not breastfeed. I think loving understanding and nonjudgmental discussion is really what would help best. New mothers and even second and third time mothers are overwhelmed and there is often a lack of support, or rather there is support for something else (formula feeding). If there were more people understanding and sympathizing, which I get from this blog, then I think there would be fewer formula fed children who by the way do grow up to be intelligent and healthy children. Thanks, I absolutely love this post!

  5. I'm an OB nurse, and that quote made me a little angry! To be fair I don't know the context it was meant to be in. I am a firm believer that all babies were born to breast feed, but, what if mom doesn't want to? Its easy to sit on our (yeah its mine too) soap box and judge. If mom doesn't want to, how will she feel while doing it? If she doesn't fall in love with breast feeding and does it any way, what emotion is passing from her to baby? I encourage everyone to breast feed until it no longer makes sense for them. And I have gently convinced many women to try it, who had planned on bottle feeding. My 4 nursed until they were close to 2 y/o, in my circle of friends thats early weaning, but I didn't want to after that and my kids weren't all that interested. I NEVER denied them a boob, I think thats cruel, but at 20-22 months I didn't wrestle them down to take it either. But I am extremely impressed (and a little envious) of moms that nurse through toddlerhood. Should I feel guilty for this? IMO NO mother should ever feel guilty for making the best decision for HER and HER child.

    Thanks for your well balanced post. I just found you on face book and I already <3 you!

  6. Maureen, that's a great point. When you're a new mom and faced with all that entails, being intellectual is a challenging goal indeed.

    Jackie and both Anonymouses, thank you. I agree, heaping the guilt on mother's simply trying to do the best they can isn't productive, in fact, it is damaging. Healing should be our goal, not hurting. Jackie, thank you for all that you do as a L&D nurse and supporting families whatever they choose.

    Anonymous #2 this: "If there were more people understanding and sympathizing, which I get from this blog, then I think there would be fewer formula fed children..." is exactly what I believe and part of why I refuse to bash moms that do not breastfeed whatever their reason.

    I love this: "Surely everyone has enough to deal with in their own lives without needing to judge and meddle in other peoples' very personal decisions. Life is hard, and most people make the best choices they can for their own families. Respect that." Thank you so much, that is beautifully expressed.

  7. "...but they should feel guilty if they are unwilling to do so..."

    I understand what everyone is saying here. That we should not wish guilt onto another person. How guilt is a negative emotion and who are we to pin it on someone else? I thank everyone for their thoughts and will continue to think about this. However, I am in agreement with this comment. Maybe it's because of my feelings, personal experience, and the way I read it.

    I will risk sharing my thoughts.

    I think the anger of this section of the comment is mostly coming from the side of 'the mothers who were failed' and not the later 'the mothers who just was not going to'. In my thoughts these mothers who don't do it, think its disgusting and believe the myths. These are the very things that prevented the support for the 'the mothers who were failed'.

    Most of the hateful issues I have endured are from this group of mothers who did not even try to breastfeed. It's the ignorance to breastfeeding that making nursing in public and nursing in general ok for my daughter. It's this group that nearly broke my husband and I up because they made him believe such awful lies about breastfeeding, in result, my mothering. I have ever walked up to a formula feeding mother and condemned them, I respected their choice. Yet I was given this treatment, mainly from those who never latched a child to their breast. I was gross, and enabling my daughter to grow up, I was also doing harm to her, ect. In this I think they should not only feel guilty for but also ashamed.

    I find more support from the women who were failed then the women who just would not. Women who were failed, know that it's hard and know what I am going through. Although they have their fair share of continuing the cycle of myths. I would rather have friends and support from those who tried to breastfeed, then from those who do not know and belittle me.

    NOTE: I would never consider anyone who was brutally abused sexually/physically/emotionally apart of this group of those who just didn't. I would consider them to be in the first group. Only because I feel in my heart they would have, if they could.

  8. I havent been reading your blog long... but for all of the reasons I was scared to join a breastfeeding group, forum, fb page, etc... was changed by this post. I have always felt that as women who may know more or be really passionate about something we should be uplifting, encouraging,kind, and loving to other women. How helpful could we possibly be if we are slamming, judging, and berating others. I hate that we as women tend to fit the stereotype that "women attack women" instead of standing together. It makes me sad in my soul. Love thy neighbor

    So anyway thank you for this post and by the way... i breastfeed!


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