I’d always dreamed of being a mom, but I never really saw myself being a breastfeeding mom. It wasn't that I was against it, but, rather, I was just completely oblivious to it. I had never seen it done and, honestly, had never even thought about how babies were fed. It sounds crazy, I know! I mean, there I was, an educated woman with a Bachelor's in biology, and I literally never considered how I would feed my future kids.
My husband and I struggled with infertility for about five years, followed by two years of recurring miscarriages, before I was finally able to sustain a healthy pregnancy. During that time we attended a nondenominational church in Houston and became really close to a few families in our small group. One mom had two children and was pregnant with her third, another mom was pregnant with her first, and they were both due a few weeks from each other. I watched their bellies grow and listened into their conversations about childbirth, breastfeeding, and raising kids. Once they had their babies, I was lucky enough to be welcomed into their homes and to simply do life with them. They would nurse using the "two shirt" method (wearing a nursing tank under your shirt to minimize skin exposure), and nothing about it felt weird or wrong to me. In fact, it all made sense, biologically speaking, and I decided that I would do my best to breastfeed my children as well. One of those friends jokes now that she should've covered more and apologizes for any boobs my husband might have seen, but it was good for me and my husband to be around women openly breastfeeding; I don't think we would've committed to it for our own children had we not seen it done. Additionally, I am glad my husband witnessed it, as well as how my friends' husbands supported their wives; because of that, he grew to value breastfeeding as much as I did. There would be moments later in my breastfeeding journey when I wanted to give up, or was simply too exhausted to think rationally, and my husband was always right there, by my side at midnight feedings, encouraging me, praying for me, and reminding me of the many benefits breastfeeding provides for our babies and for me. Our community in Houston quietly and consistently normalized breastfeeding for us, which laid the foundation for my success and my husband’s unwavering support.
Fast forward to January 2014, when I welcomed my first child. I delivered my son naturally in a St. Louis-area hospital (we moved there in 2011). Due to an extremely long and exhausting birth, I struggled to get him to latch. Those first 24 hours were a revolving door of doctors, nurses, lactation consultants, medical assistants, and visitors, but I didn't feel equipped to nurse my child. Because he wasn’t latching well, my lactation consultants and doctor quickly began pushing me to use formula, rather than exhausting every resource to support my breastfeeding goals. Even my family members were asking when they would get to feed my baby, assuming that bottles (either from pumping or formula) would be my solution. We found out much later that my son had an upper lip tie that went undiagnosed; had someone taken the time to properly diagnose it and refer me to an expert in my area who could revise it, my newborn baby and I likely would not have suffered as much physical and emotional distress in those first few days. All this to say, it was infuriating to me as a first-time mom that no one seemed to believe in my innate ability to nourish my child. It was evident that at that hospital and in my local circle, breastfeeding was not normal.
However, with the support of my husband and my friends in Houston (800 miles away!), I was able to breastfeed my son for 13 months; I was pregnant with my daughter for 6 of those months, which is the only reason I stopped when I did. When my daughter was born in May of 2015, I breastfed her from day one and went 19 months, again, only stopping because of another pregnancy. I am currently nursing my third child, who is 17 months, with no end in sight. If you do the math, I have been nursing for 49 of the last 57 months, and, while it has been very natural and normal for me, I have continued to face criticism and resistance from the world around me.
The World Health Organization (WHO) defines breastfeeding as “the normal way of providing young infants with the nutrients they need for healthy growth and development” (http://www.who.int/topics/breastfeeding/en/). I find it ironic that the world normal is used, because if breastfeeding were normal in the U.S.:
More than 57% of mothers would initiate it after birth (https://kellymom.com/fun/trivia/bf-numbers/).
The average age of weaning here would be closer to the global age of 3 to 4 years (see Nancy Mohrbacher’s book Breastfeeding Answers Made Simple).
More than 3 states would report a percentage of mothers breastfeeding past 6 months to be greater than or equal to 70% (https://www.cdc.gov/breastfeeding/data/facts.html).
Socioeconomic status and race would not be a contributing factor to breastfeeding success rates, and women across all races and income levels would have the support and education necessary to meet their breastfeeding goals (https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/databriefs/db05.htm).
If breastfeeding were normal in the U.S., I wouldn’t have personally experienced hurtful, ignorant comments from both random strangers and close family members about how I choose to feed my children. But it is clear that breastfeeding is not normal in this country, so today I'm sharing a few tips for what to do when you encounter naysayers. If my struggles resonate with you, then I hope my story will inspire you to persevere through your own challenges.
1. Be confident.
We all have that one family member that is known for not using a filter, right? That grandparent who tells you you’re still beautiful even though you haven’t yet lost the baby weight, or that aunt who famously ruined Thanksgiving by prematurely announcing YOUR pregnancy news? Well, while attending a family gathering a few months after my son was born, my filter-less family member told me to "put my goons away" while I openly breastfed my baby in my mom's living room. Completely taken aback by the comment, I froze, unable to challenge the ignorance (or at least provide a sassy comeback). Admittedly, I wasn’t confident in that moment. I was a first-time mom and a nervous wreck about taking my newborn to the family event. However, I’ve grown in confidence over the years, and I have found that people are less likely to say anything to me if they just see me doing my thing. Like dogs, people will smell your fear and uncertainty; if you seem overly self-conscious while breastfeeding, they will sense an invitation to say something. On the other hand, if you act confident in your choice and treat it as normal, more than likely so will everyone around you.
I hear you asking, “But what about when they say something anyway?” That’s a great question! Because it does happen! So, on to my next tip.
2. Keep your eyes on the prize.
Did anyone else register for one of those “hooter hiders”? I did and received two super cute patterns that I assumed would be the perfect accessory to nursing my child. But, let’s be real. You might as well try to nurse your baby in a steam room, because those nursing covers and scarves make you and your baby so freaking HOT! And, if having sweat stains under your armpits and boobs isn’t bad enough, my kids thrash their bodies under there like they’re single-celled organisms under a microscope. So, the nursing cover went into storage, and I stuck with just doing my thing.
While on a date with my hubby at Starbucks one afternoon, my son had the AUDACITY to want to nurse, so I discretely unhooked my nursing bra and began to feed him. A young girl at the table next to me said to the people she was sitting with, "Is this lady serious? Is she honestly just going to whip out her tit right here?" I thought to myself, My tit? Really? Like, people really say that word? But having gained more confidence in my choice about how I would feed my child, I commented back with something less snarky like, “Wow, that’s really mature of you,” and continued drinking my PSL. Maybe six months had passed between the family gathering I mentioned and this Starbucks date. Although it was still disheartening to deal with criticism, I was proud to see that I had grown in confidence and continued to be firm in my conviction to do what I deemed best for my child. At the end of the day that’s all we are really trying to do as moms, right? There is no hidden agenda; we’re just trying to feed (educate, nurture, provide for, etc.) our children in the ways we have researched and settled on being the most beneficial for our families.
You are responsible for your baby and no one else. Stay focused on what you are doing (feeding your baby) and remember that criticism from others is a reflection of them—their upbringing, worldview, maturity, and education—and has nothing to do with you or your baby. And don’t forget to soak up these precious moments and melt into a puddle of mush as your nursing baby smiles, coos, and bonds with you.
3. Breastfeeding is not sexual, no matter what our culture (wrongly) thinks.
Remember those lovely friends I told you about that, by simply doing their thing, unintentionally laid the framework for my views on breastfeeding? I knew them from church, watched them openly nurse their babies (and toddlers) during services, and grew in my faith from their friendship and counsel. Due to my infertility journey, I was no longer attending that church, or even living in Houston, with those friends by the time my husband and I began having kids, but I assumed my experiences with nursing in church in my St. Louis suburb would be similar. After all, that’s the effect of normalization, right? Unfortunately, I have discovered that the Church is not as immune to societal influences as one might expect. I want to tread this topic carefully and state from the start that I love my church. In sharing the following story of my experience with openly breastfeeding in my church, I am not badmouthing my church family. I simply want to bring awareness to the fundamental truth that breastfeeding is not sexual in nature, but has been oversexualized because of the objectification of breasts.
During a conversation with my husband about an unrelated topic, one of our elders nonchalantly mentioned that, in some round about way that I still do not fully know all the details of, some people in the church were concerned about me openly breastfeeding my infant in the service. We were encouraged to use the cry room or to cover up as other mothers do, in an effort to preserve modesty and keep other people from stumbling. My husband went to bat for me and spent the next hour providing our pastors with data that supports public open breastfeeding, the fact that breasts have been oversexualized in our culture, the lack of postpartum care and support for moms in our country, and the fact that most women do not meet their breastfeeding goals. We had meetings with our pastors, went through months of intense emotions, and even considered leaving our church.
Through those difficult conversations with our elders, we learned that the chief issue was not that I was breastfeeding in church—it’s actually very common in my church, and even all of our pastor’s wives nursed their children for some time—but that I was doing it openly uncovered. The issue of modesty was raised, as well as the concept of conscience. It was never an issue of sin, and we certainly weren’t being disciplined for our choice, but, rather, encouraged to consider putting the needs and comfort of others before those of my child and me. Unfortunately I still don’t have a clear understanding of what was said in those initial comments (Was it casual? Were they angry? Does their teenager struggle with pornography? Etc.) or who made them, so I wasn’t really able to adequately resolve the issue. Knowing more about these details would have allowed me to kindly approach these people and have a conversation about the benefits of breastfeeding, the reasons I choose to do it publically, and the assurance that my heart is merely invested in nourishing my child and not in making a bold political statement.
However, feeling self-conscious, embarrassed, and ashamed, I ultimately decided to remove myself from the service and feed my baby in the Cry Room. I spent many weeks crying in that room while I looked into my daughter’s big blue eyes as she nursed. Here I was giving of myself to meet the physical and emotional needs of my child, and being faithful to God’s mandate to care for her. It wasn’t an inherently immodest act, but a demonstration of love and a poignant illustration of my dependence on the God who provides. I pray that those who have looked down on a mother for openly breastfeeding in church would abandon the immodesty argument and see it as a manifestation of God’s creativity within His provision. I’m not going to pretend I’ve completely recovered from this one; the wounds are still very raw. I don't harbor bitterness, but I do wonder how we are to ever change our culture if the women brave enough to nurse in public are continually asked (or guilted) into hiding. Jessica Martin-Weber said it brilliantly in a blog post on the topic when she said, “Instead of her personhood being valid and feeding her baby acceptable, forcing a woman to cover or hide feeding her baby values her sexual appeal over the personhood of both her child and herself.” (http://theleakyboob.com/2013/07/breastfeeding-and-following-jesus-uninviting-modesty-to-the-breastfeeding-discussion/).
If you are a nursing mama who has experienced criticism and resistance over your choice, I hope these tips provide you with the encouragement and support you need to continue doing what you feel is best for your family and in the manner you deem best. But if, dear reader, you have ever been the one offering criticism to breastfeeding moms in your circles, I hope my experiences have given you a better understanding of how challenging it is to face opposition on a topic that is solely about meeting the physical and emotional needs of a child. If so, I encourage you to do whatever you need to do to make it right. Had I not found the right friends in Houston over a decade ago, many years before I even had children of my own, that could’ve been me, too. Honestly. But as I always say, “know better, do better, be better.”
All photos by Allison Nicole Photography https://www.allisonnicholephotography.com/