I have been looking back quite a bit on my “breastfeeding” journey of late. The word breastfeeding is in quotation marks because Noah stopped latching in the second week of his life and because of my low supply, I supplemented his feeds with formula. So by definition, I cannot be considered an exclusively breastfeeding mom. I was far from it because not only was I giving my son another form of milk (formula) to supplement my low supply, the method in which I was providing breast milk (pumping) didn’t fit either.
The week I figured I was a low supply mom, I was crushed. I cried for days and even pushed myself to go through two back to back sessions of power pumping a day for that week or two. For those who are not familiar with power pumping, it is when mothers pump for an hour each time but with 10 minute intervals in between each 20 minutes of pumping. I called the hospital, called a masseuse, drank lactation tea, ate lactation cookies, ate leaves (seriously), etc. I tried the whole lot but was only able to produce an average of 10-15ml for each pumping session. By the time my son turned 4 months old, I had to pump an average of 3 times just to provide him with one full feed.
Perhaps I set myself up for it because I harbored the same ideal as probably every other mother. I was going to breastfeed for at least a year and thought my body would just ease into it without much difficulty. Pretty much like everything else post-pregnancy. Boy, was I very wrong.
But this ideal, where did it come from? As Time magazine puts it
“Call it the Goddess Myth, spun with a little help from basically everyone – doctors, activists, other moms. It tells us that breast is best; that if there is a choice between a vaginal birth and major surgery, you should want to push; that your body is a temple and what you put in it should be holy; that sending your baby to the hospital nursery for a few hours after giving birth is a dereliction of duty. Oh, and that you will feel – and look – radiant. The myth impacts all moms.”
More often than not, the very assumption and expectation that mothers are built to successfully grow a tiny human to its full term, deliver it safely with minimal medicinal intervention, right up to getting back their pre-pregnancy bodies and going back to work in tip-top condition, is what damages mothers the most. That is a ridiculous amount of pressure for someone who has just pushed another human out a really tiny hole.
I know of mothers who have been told “what a waste” when they shared they succumbed to epidural. As if to say their very first act as a mother was to wrongfully and selfishly take a painkiller. I know of mothers who have been called lazy just because they chose not to breastfeed their child. In fact, during Noah’s first month celebration, I was asked by an appalled guest why I wasn’t breastfeeding him but was feeding him with a bottle instead. An innocent question loaded with an immense amount of judgmental “why are you not doing it the right way?” The goddess myth is so rampant that mothers speak of themselves negatively when they fail to be perfect. Let me just say that again – when they fail TO. BE. PERFECT. It is no wonder that postpartum depression affects 1 in every 12 to 16 Singaporean women. That is one too many and some even lead to suicide and infant deaths.
Social media played a huge role in the guilt that manifested in me when I wasn’t producing enough for Noah. I see pictures of friends or strangers happily (and easily) latching their babies. Followed by pictures of the same babies with full and happy faces right after. That seemed to be the right way to be a mother because it was coherent with the perfection expected of them. And there I was failing at the very fundamental act of providing my child with sustenance.
That’s the thing with social media. We document the good and happy times but hardly ever document the rougher side of motherhood. The cracked and bleeding nipples, the blocked ducts, the constant middle-of-the-night pumping sessions, the constant crying because you worry it just isn’t enough. All this isn’t what mothers see of others, but it ought to be. Mothers need to know that their struggles are not unique to themselves but experienced by many across the world. That while social media captures the goddess at work, we mothers will falter and struggle outside the lens of a camera and that is more than okay.
I wanted Noah to have breast milk because I understood its benefits. But I have to admit that it was the pressure to breastfeed that made me pull through the first 6 months, when initially I wanted very much to give up (see the negativity?) at 2 weeks. I am still trying to come to terms with the fact that while I was producing pathetic amounts of breast milk, it was in no way a reflection of my capacity as a mother or the immense amount of love I have for my son.
So encourage, don’t shame. Choose your words kindly. Every mother is trying her best. Shouldn’t that be the new perfect?