Stories are written by people who don’t necessarily work or study in fields related to sexology. They convey emotions, perceptions, and subjective perspectives. Opinions voiced in the stories are those of their authors, and in no way represent the position of Les 3 sex*.
☛ Ce témoignage est aussi disponible en français [➦].
Translated by Florence Bois-Villeneuve.
In the street, a big sign draws my attention. It showcases a beautiful young woman, clean and neat, her hair done, not a dark circle in sight, breastfeeding a baby, smiling. The sign reads “We’re all born organic,” as if this idyllic representation of motherhood was not far enough removed from the reality of young mothers. The woman is well put together, nicely groomed and looking energized—please pinch me. While the image of this young mother breastfeeding her child brings me back to my own dismaying (but realistic) experience of motherhood and the days spent in my pajamas with unruly hair taking care of my three-month-old, it’s the catchphrase that really gets to me. “We’re all born organic.” It seems to me that breastfeeding is portrayed as the healthy choice for one’s child, and therefore the only sensible choice for a mother who wants the best for her baby. It makes me think about all the mothers who choose not to breastfeed, equally exhausted, also in their pajamas, the same as me. My heart breaks a little.
In my opinion, the new Rachelle Béry food store campaign, while aiming to promote healthy eating, may offend (and by that I really mean guilt trip) many people.
I strongly feel that publicizing breastfeeding as the only healthy choice for your child pressures us—mothers who have given birth—to give into breastfeeding without empowering us to make our own choices. I don’t mean to put this advertising campaign on trial (my irritable bowel syndrome and my daughter compel me to eat gluten-free and dairy-free anyway, so I have Rachelle Béry to thank for feeding me). Rather, it triggered a personal reflection that I thought I should share. First of all, I’m thinking of the mothers juggling concerns (and dark circles) that seem to stem much more from social standards than from their own loving hearts. I breastfed my oldest for 22 months and I’m currently breastfeeding my 3-month-old daughter, by choice. At least, I like to think I was free to make my own choices without being influenced by societal expectations. But there is a “but.” A “but” that makes me doubt whether I really had any true freedom of choice in that matter.
Of course, breastfeeding is recognized worldwide as the best feeding method for babies—it provides better growth, better cognitive development, better immunity, etc. (We know, we can read). Not to mention the fact that they say breastfeeding is the “equivalent of working out once a day” for women who want to get back into shape quickly (a dubious argument, if you ask me, to incentivize mothers to breastfeed, but nonetheless so very effective). However, breastfeeding is more than just a personal choice based on knowledge.
The statement “We’re all born organic” next to the image of a breastfeeding mother sends a negative message to those who don’t want to or can’t breastfeed their child.
I believe the problem lies in the way the message is being conveyed.
What about women who don’t breastfeed? Those who have tried to breastfeed, but whose fear of not being able to produce enough milk or the technical difficulties of it have discouraged or forced them to stop? Or women from more marginalized communities, such as those living with HIV? I know some loving, devoted mothers who had to stop breastfeeding after just a few weeks. All of them, at one time or another, felt the need to justify why they weren’t breastfeeding their child. Heartbreak number two. Let me tell you, the decision to breastfeed is a personal one. It concerns the mother, the father and the child. Period. Not the neighbour, the grandmother or even Rachelle Béry’s customers.
So we—women confronted with peer pressure and media campaigns positioning us as bad moms because we’ve chosen to focus on our physical and mental well-being—are forced to carry one more layer of guilt on our motherhood learning curve. And when I think about the pressure we feel to breastfeed, I almost want to throw up a little, just like my three-month-old (yes, she still spits up, even despite the “organic” breast milk).
Most of the time, whether women are good mothers or not is determined by other people’s judgment.
In fact, I’ve observed that motherhood is subjected to social scrutiny, with breastfeeding being one of the most harshly judged aspects of it. Flipping through the popular (and so entertaining) From Tiny Tot to Toddler guide, it’s hard to just say, “Screw it, I’m bottle-feeding!” The risks of choosing not to breastfeed are emphasized by the experts, as if this was the only rational choice to make. So instead of saying, “Screw it!”, mothers create Facebook groups or write blogs to talk about how they feel like awful mothers for choosing not to breastfeed. Statements as poignant as “When I bottle-feed, I feel like I’m giving my child rat poison” can sometimes be read. Heartbreak number three. I strongly believe these women shouldn’t feel the need to justify themselves when they’re caught bottle in hand. They should not be stigmatized. Especially if the feeding is being lovingly carried out. Maternal love is not limited to extending a breast.
Breastfeeding is no simple feat. Not by a long shot. I have often felt that I had just a tiny drop of freedom left in a sea of responsibilities and obligations, a sea filled with chapped nipples, the need to go anywhere but the drugstore for thirty minutes, and three hours of (interrupted!) sleep every night.Help me out here. Because breastfeeding is natural, many people expect it to be easy. According to a professional I had the pleasure of meeting at Ste-Justine hospital, the real challenge of motherhood is not giving birth, but rather breastfeeding successfully, despite physical pain, fatigue, technical difficulties and so on. The shock of the breastfeeding experience proves to be significant— it was certainly my greatest challenge of motherhood. This is a far cry from the perfect solution promoted by governments (and by signs for organic food stores). We don’t really talk about the stress involved in breastfeeding. I’ve witnessed so many women doubt their mothering ability (and maternal love!) when faced with their inability to breastfeed. Heartbreak number four. We keep quiet instead of acknowledging these women’s concerns. We look into a camera, a smile on our face, concealer under our eyes, a baby latched onto our breast. Following Mahée Paiement’s display of glamorous breastfeeding, we’ve had the breastfeeding-is-healthy-and-you-don’t-really-have-a-choice-if-you-love-your-child-and-want-to-be-a-good-mother-so-please-shut-up-and-deal-with-it thrown in our faces.
Breastfeeding includes physical and social aspects—an enormous pressure is put on us, the women who give birth, to give the best to our child. And this pressure comes, in my opinion, from a form of unwritten societal need to control.
Formal standards do exist, of course. However, to me these standards seem to be less insidious than the informal ones we find on a billboard or in the words of someone close to us. Comments, judgments, round eyes and tongue-lashings all promote the internalization of the need to breastfeed. Who hasn’t heard a derogatory comment about a mother who doesn’t breastfeed? Many people also feel free to comment about breastfeeding, either about the length of time a child is breastfed, or about breastfeeding in public, and so on. I experienced this myself with my first-born, whom I breastfed for almost two years. Paradoxes. Is breastfeeding good? Is breastfeeding bad? Heads or tails. “When will you stop breastfeeding? Before elementary school, I hope.” Ha! Ha! Ha!. I’d love to give these people a piece of my mind and tell them to just “Fuck off.” However, despite my “tough girl” act, my heart breaks yet again when I think that, yes, maybe my son is now too old for me to feed him some of my love.
And the icing on the cake? Stylish clothes, expensive breast pumps, nipple balms, herbal teas, diet changes, etc.—breastfeeding is a growing industry. WOW. Women, myself included, will do anything to breastfeed for as long as possible. But at what cost? My diet is proof of my total commitment to breastfeeding, even if it means not being able to eat a piece of chocolate from time to time. And is the stress that accompanies these expectations really worth more than a bottle of formula fed peacefully and lovingly? I’m not so sure. In fact, pediatrician Jean-François Chicoine made an important point recently while being featured on a television show. He stated that mothers should never text while breastfeeding their child since these are their baby’s first interpersonal experiences and, when babies look at you, they need to receive feedback (a concrete caring response from you). And not every fourth time. And not three minutes later. I have rarely seen a mom texting while bottle-feeding. That sounds like a Cirque du Soleil feat to me. On the other hand, I have seen mothers who breastfeed and text. Frequently. I was one of them before I heard what dear Dr. Chicoine had to say. Mea culpa and thank you for bringing us back to reality, doctor. We, women who breastfeed, are not necessarily better mothers.
I think the best thing for them is to have mothers who are at peace with their choice to breastfeed or not. I want all mothers to be able to make a free and informed choice about breastfeeding, ideally one that isn’t dictated by society or self-imposed in order to meet certain established societal standards. Maybe then our burden of maternal guilt could be alleviated a little.I’m an optimist by nature... is this at all realistic?
The best thing for a baby might be dark circles under a loving mother’s eyes or a radiant, rested face, with or without a baby on a breast. The “best” can look different for each individual, each family, each mother, each life story.
On that note, me and my not-so-glamorous-glow-that-will-probably-never-end-up-on-a-breastfeeding-sign-but-still-feel-empowered-by-my-freedom-of-choice will go back to breastfeeding my three-month-old.