It Felt Like a Breastfeeding Cult

shutterstock_106214729I was as prepared as a new mother could be to begin breastfeeding upon the birth of my son. While pregnant, I took the hospital’s “Breastfeeding Basics” course, secured my breast pump from the insurance company and obtained the access code for an online support group. The delivery room was supposed to be the place where my newborn would root on my chest, begin to latch and nourish from the first drops of colostrum.

Unfortunately, upon delivery, I had to quickly recalculate my plans. A team of neonatologists rushed my newborn to the NICU, where he spent the first week of his life sustained by glucose IV and bottles of calorie-enriched formula.

While I was grateful for the critical care my son received, I longed for my baby and myself to benefit from the well-documented health benefits of breastfeeding. The doctors and nurses supported my wish, providing a special hospital-grade pump to kick-start the milk supply and helping me juggle the baby’s cords during skin-to-skin contact. When, after a day of pumping, the first drop of colostrum appeared, I literally ran it to the NICU. Under the caring guidance of the in-house lactation consultant, the baby soon thereafter made his first latch, triggering tears of joy to fall from my eyes and onto his tiny body. The latch was not consistent, but the tingle on the nipple and sweet audible swallowing sound were promise enough to keep me pumping and practicing.

When my baby and I went home, the dreamy image of mother nursing babe soon turned into a nightmare. My baby preferred the bottle, most likely because it required less sucking energy for his still very weak body. Additionally, I could not stop the bottle altogether because his medical issues meant that I had to provide supplemental calories through formula. With the baby not nursing, the milk supply was slow to come in. I compensated by spending hours laying him on my chest, the closeness triggering hormones that made milk involuntarily drop from my nipples. I pumped my breasts every two hours, night and day, to replicate the real-life scenario.

I was determined to breastfeed my baby, despite the difficulties. In the first two weeks, I spent hundreds of dollars on herbal milk-flow supplements, a nursing coach that made home visits, and special breastfeeding paraphernalia. When the doctor diagnosed a burn that developed on my nipples as a yeast infection, I went on a strict sugar-free diet and began rigorous applications of cream. I comforted my baby when he screamed from painful gas caused by the yeast infection passing to his stomach.

My baby and I persevered in trying to breastfeed and followed the advice of the experts. If I let the milk supply dry up, then it would be gone forever, the nursing coach warned. Friends and professionals reassured me breastfeeding would get easier and that it puts many new mothers’ patience to the test. The nursing hotline suggested that I increase my milk supply by mimicking cluster feeding, which meant power pumping every 15 minutes. I shivered with cold at night as I sat diligently in the glider chair, bare breasts suctioned to funnels.

All this to say that I was as committed as one can be to breastfeeding.

But, when postpartum depression set in one month after birth, doctors questioned the necessity of maintaining this commitment. I had obsessive irrational thoughts, insomnia, anxiety attacks and relentless despair. At a regular check-up for my son, the pediatrician said she was more concerned about me than my child. She suggested that I lighten the load on myself by stopping the breastfeeding efforts. The psychiatrist prescribed a medication that would not be suitable for the baby to consume.

I was appalled by the prospect of stopping breastfeeding, having internalized the nursing coach’s mantra, “Maintain the milk supply at all costs.” When I brought up the topic of stopping with other mothers and some nursing professionals, I heard such comments as: “But, don’t forget, breastfeeding decreases your chances of developing certain cancers later in life.”; “You should know that breastfeeding stimulates hormones that counteract depression.”; “Remember, breastfeeding improves the relationship with your baby;” “Oh really, well my baby only receives breast milk.”; and, “It was hard for me to get started breastfeeding, but in the end it turned out to be easy.”

Breastfeeding felt like a cult from which there was no escape. At that point in my entry into motherhood, the merits of breastfeeding were beside the point. It is common knowledge that breastfeeding is the preferred option by the American Academy of Pediatrics. Further, we all know that corporate capitalism has a reprehensible practice of hijacking women’s bodies to sell formula. Additionally, patriarchal culture routinely shames women’s bodies to sequester them from the public sphere.

Women have made great advances in mainstreaming breastfeeding, which to a larger extent advances our overall rights and opportunities as women. While the advances are due in large part to the determination that drives breastfeeding mothers, this determination has turned for some women into reverence. For as supportive as the breastfeeding community is for some women, it is as equally alienating and shame-inducing for others. If the hope for feminism is to make room in society for multiple versions of womanhood, which may or may not include motherhood in the first place, then there needs to be more room for mothers who cannot or do not want to join in breastfeeding. Today’s breastfeeding culture must not fall into the all-too-familiar pattern of others dictating to a woman what is best for her body.

Get Ms. in your inbox! Click here to sign up for the Ms. newsletter.

Photo via Shutterstock


Heidi Morrison is an assistant professor of history at the University of Wisconsin, La Crosse. She is the author of The Global History of Childhood Reader and Childhood and Colonial Modernity in Egypt. Her writing has appeared in Le Monde Diplomatique, CounterPunch, and Mondoweiss.